Rev. Stephen Milton
November 5, 2023
Lawrence Park Community Church
Sermon: “Lest We Forget”
Rudyard Kipling’s “Recessional”
This week, as we approach Remembrance Day on the 11th, we will often hear the phrase “let we forget.” That term comes from a poem by the British poet Rudyard Kipling. It was written for Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee in 1897. The British empire was at the peak of its influence, with colonies all over the world. Today Kipling is known for celebrating the British empire, with its long history of oppression of peoples by white Britons, what he famously called in one of his books, the White man’s burden. So, it is not surprising that he was encouraged to write a poem to celebrate the Queen and her empire. Yet, in this poem, he sounds a note of caution, even of regret. The title, “Recessional”, implies the hymn a choir sings as it leaves a church or celebration. It was Kipling’s way of suggesting that he had reservations about celebrating Britain’s empire, even hinting it was on its way out. His poem reminds readers that all empires fall. He cites the Biblical examples of the fallen pagan empires of Nineveh and Tyre. He reminds us that our power as humans comes from God, not ourselves. When we forget that, we get into trouble. In almost every stanza, he calls on us to remember God and God’s ways – lest we forget and become lost, drunk on power and our own pride.
Perhaps the reason that Kipling’s phrase “lest we forget” has been associated with honouring our soldiers is that wars often induce a state of forgetfulness. It is said that one of the first casualties of war is the truth. To wage war, nations indulge in an orgy of over-simplification. Complicated issues are reduced to slogans. Soldiers are called on to hunt down the beasts on the other side. The enemy’s humanity is dismissed and forgotten, so they can be destroyed without moral qualms.
That impulse to forget and oversimplify has been active with the war in Israel/Palestine. This conflict has raised tensions here in Canada, as people related to those in the conflict take sides. Others, too, have staked out positions. As soon as the attack on Israel began, student groups in universities quickly wrote statements in support of Hamas and the Palestinians. The attack by Hamas on Israeli civilians was portrayed as justified retribution for years of oppression by the Israeli government. Student bodies all over North America wrote statements like these, including at Harvard, and universities here in Toronto. University administrations quickly condemned these statements. At York University, the administration shut down the student unions, including the one across the street from here at Glendon College. Media outlets like the CBC have told their journalists not to use the word “terrorist” when describing Hamas. It is getting harder to talk about these issues.
Among Jews here and in Israel, there has been a feeling of abandonment. The West’s call for a peaceful resolution of the situation and immediate ceasefire appear to be a de facto siding with Hamas and the Palestinians. It is as though the pain and horror of the initial slaughter of civilians was somehow neutralized in the world’s eyes as soon as Israel started shelling Gaza. As though the 1400 Jews who were killed was balanced out by the first civilian deaths on the Palestinian side. Now all killing is simply overkill and should stop.
On this day, when we say, “lest we forget,” we should also recall the Jewish version of that phrase: “never again.” That phrase is meant to remind us that the Jewish people should never again be subject to genocide. The Nazi attempt to extinguish the Jewish people should never be allowed to happen again, and all steps in that direction must be stopped. For centuries, the Jewish people had been seen by the West as second class citizens. Christians had marked them as the people who rejected Christ, and who even contributed to his death. This was a lie, He was killed by the Roman Empire, at the prompting of a few Temple officials, certainly not the Jewish people. But this lie lives on even today in some circles. Jews throughout European history had been subject to attacks for simply existing, often with entire communities wiped out in pogroms. This culminated in the Nazi concentration camps, an explicit attempt to destroy all Jews. The shock and horror of this genocidal attempt led to the creation of the state of Israel as a refuge for the Jewish people.
The attack by Hamas, which killed 1400 civilians and soldiers, was the worst single attack since the days of the Nazi concentration camps. Hamas’ mandate, stated in their own manifestos, is to destroy the state of Israel. Their animosity against all Jews is cited directly in their founding documents. To Jews, the attack by Hamas is the latest in a long line of efforts to eliminate the Jewish people. If “never again” is to have any meaning, then Israel and many Jewish people feel the state has every right to strike back against this genocidal attack.
But how much is enough? On a Sunday morning, the answer is simple: no innocent lives should be lost to achieve a military objective. No Jewish or Palestinian children or non-soldiers should be killed. We should recall that Hamas hides behind civilians, using them as human shields. Their stated disregard for Jewish life extends to their own people, too. This is often the way: those who treat human life with disregard among the enemy often do the same to their own.
On this day of remembering, we need to recall what we knew in the days before the attacks. That this situation is complex. That Israel’s government was led by a coalition of far-right parties who wanted to take back the occupied territories. It had rejected previous peace accords and proposals for a two-state solution. We need to remember that Israel’s Prime Minister was charged with multiple counts of corruption. This same government was actively trying to reduce the power of the supreme court and was widely regarded by many Israelis as corrupt and an enemy of democracy. Huge protests were waged against the government in the weeks before the attack.
On this day of remembering, we should also recall that Hamas won power in a civil war in 2007 and has never allowed elections since. They are the dictators of the Gaza strip and have no interest in democracy or peaceful solutions.
Neither government had any interest in fostering peace or democracy. This was plain the day before the war began, and we should not forget it now. When governments lose interest in peace and the interests of their people, we should not be surprised that tragedy follows.
In today’s psalm, the writer cries out against the ungodly who surround them. They yearn to be in God’s presence again at the holy temple, where there is joy and safety. The psalmist calls for God’s light and God’s truth. The God who this person worships is not a God who delights in war, but one who calls for God’s people to always take care of the stranger in their midst. To treat the foreigner and non-Jewish people with consideration. They are to be protected and treated as equals. In Deuteronomy God states:
17 For the Lord your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great God, mighty and awesome, who is not partial and takes no bribe, 18 who executes justice for the orphan and the widow, and who loves the strangers, providing them with food and clothing. 19 You shall also love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt. (Deuteronomy 10:17-8)
In this time of forgetting and over-simplification, let us remember that the state of Israel is not just home to Jews. Within Israel, not counting the occupied territories, almost one quarter of the population are Arabs, with citizenship.* Among the 7 million Jews in Israel, a little over half are secular and are not religiously observant. When Hamas attacks Israel as a Jewish state, it ignores the large proportion of Israeli citizens who are secular and Muslim. Indeed, when Hamas launched its attack, it attacked not only Jews, but also Arab Bedoin, who are Muslims*. Hamas wants to destroy the country of Israel and wants the world to forget that Israel is a pluralistic society. Hamas doesn’t want Jews and Muslims and secular people living together peacefully. Hamas wants a Muslim-only state.
As Christians, we live in Israel every Sunday. We know it as a place where Christianity was born. It is a place that was where Jesus moved among Jews and pagans, offering healing to them both. Jesus frequently quotes from the Hebrew Scriptures, especially the prophecy of Isaiah. In that scripture, God offers love not just to the Jewish people, but to people of all nations. * God offers us the dream of swords being turned into ploughshares, of implements of death becoming tools to foster life and feed people. God’s vision for us humans is for peaceful co-existence. It is this divine power, hungry to see peace on Earth which Kipling’s poem begs us to remember. Lest we forget that we are not self made, but God’s people, a people called to peace.
The current war is being waged by two governments who have shown little interest in negotiating a way to live in peaceful coexistence. Those governments have been enemies of democracy, and do not adequately represent their people. This is a war between governments, not a war between peoples or religions. Our God, the God of Christians, Jews, and Muslims, calls for peace among all peoples. Our God will be more impressed by a Jerusalem shared by multiple faiths than one surrounded by barbed wire with just one faith in charge. To do that requires a change of heart, away from pride. In Kipling’s words:
Still stands Thine ancient sacrifice,
An humble and a contrite heart.
Lord God of Hosts, be with us yet,
Lest we forget—lest we forget!