Friday, June 27, 2014

On WW I Centennary

Tomorrow will mark the 100th anniversary of Archduke Ferdinand’s assassination by a Serbian nationalist, 19 year-old Gavrilo Princip. History classes since then have declared this event to be the trigger that set World War I in motion—the straw that broke the camel’s back if not the actual reason for the bloody debacle that snuffed out over 17 million lives.  
                I’d like to recommend most highly an article by Esther Epp-Thiessen of MCC on the subject “Calling for a passionate pursuit of nonviolent peacemaking,” a response to the anniversary of this grotesque war.
                As many of you know, I’ve been struggling to get a Mennonite Interpretive Centre off the ground here in Rosthern. The foundation for an assumption that such a place is needed is the conviction that Anabaptist/Mennonite people are among the best placed of all the protestant denominations to interpret to the world a gospel of peace. At our most recent planning meeting, a member of the group reported that one response to our project was, “How many people will get saved through such a place?” It’s not a bad question, depending on what you mean by “saved?” A flippant answer might be, “If it helps to prevent another conflagration like WW I, possibly 17,000,000.”
                It does suggest some substantial questions, though, not the least of which is, “What is the gospel message with which we’ve been entrusted, and does it need to be passed on?” We do feed the hungry (somewhat and sometimes), visit the sick and imprisoned (not as much as we should), lament the plight of the poor (but don’t really know where to grab hold of their problems helpfully), but by and large, we do these things to and for known individuals. But what are we doing to help reconstruct the world so that so very many afflicted individuals and groups could be made safer?
                I applaud the efforts of my fellow Anabaptists who have risked much to bring shelter, sustenance, and a future to the neediest among us and around the world: MCC, MEDA, MDS, etc. But I am invigorated by Esther Epp-Thiessen’s appeal to us all to pursue with passion a discipline of non-violent peacemaking.
                Here’s an ancient legend I just made up: A certain family complains to a neighbour that his family is constantly struggling with water dripping down from the ceiling, falling on them in bed, contaminating their food, making irritating plop-plops day and night. The kind neighbour collects all the ice cream pails, buckets and cans he can find and delivers them to the afflicted neighbour so he can catch the offending drips. He then relays news of this good deed to a third neighbour who doesn’t seem impressed with what is obviously a benevolent gesture.
The third neighbour goes home, gets a ladder and replaces a few broken shingles, thereby rendering all the pails, buckets and cans redundant.
                If the realization of a safe, well-fed, free humanity is an objective of the gospel, then we Anabaptists may have to buy more ladders, risk climbing onto more roofs, broaden our definition of evangelism.
                Some matters to ponder in this time when the temptation for resorting to military solutions to conflict is a daily reality.
                I feel moved at this time to re-present Wilfred Owen’s WW I poem as a reminder to all of us that parades, Remembrance Day tributes, crisp uniforms, the pomp and circumstance of military funerals notwithstanding, war is never what it’s romanticized to be.
(If you are visiting the link above, be sure to open the second You Tube video on offer there. It accompanies the reading of Dulce et Decorum est with WW I footage.)
Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind;
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots 
Of tired, outstripped Five-Nines that dropped behind.
Gas! Gas! Quick, boys! – An ecstasy of fumbling,
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time;
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling,
And flound'ring like a man in fire or lime . . .
Dim, through the misty panes and thick green light,
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.
In all my dreams, before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.
If in some smothering dreams you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil's sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie; Dulce et Decorum

Pro patria mori.1
1.              1.  It is is sweet and right to die for one’s country.
Wilfred Owen
Thought to have been written between 8 October 1917  and March, 1918

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