A Remembering Community

This is an address I gave to the faculty, staff, and students of Trent University (Peterborough, Ontario, Canada) on November 11, 2016. In it, I tried to communicate the inner tension of being a Christian dedicated to peace at all costs while being a Canadian citizen whose rights and freedoms have been afforded through the brutality of war and violence.

I’d like to acknowledge what a privilege it is to speak here today. I will admit that it is also a struggle for me as a Christian who is committed to a faith in the God revealed in Jesus Christ; a faith for which (I pray) I would rather die than kill. Yet, as a Canadian, I am forever conscious of and irrevocably indebted to those who have sacrificed so much in armed conflict to contribute to peace and justice. I am aware of the privileges that have been accorded to me through war and violence. I believe many of us today feel some dissonance that comes to us through this radical act we call remembrance.

What does it mean to be a community that gathers in remembrance? We recall and recognize the sacrifices that millions of people throughout history have made to build security. We bring to mind the combatants who laid down their freedom, their youth, their health, and their lives to create what they saw to be a more equitable, just world. We remember the diverse, reprehensible conditions that led to armed conflicts, and those who answered a call to serve others in a way for which they could have never been prepared.

We bring to mind the generations that were lost to bullets and bombs, such as my uncle, FL/O Hugh Conlin, whose body was never recovered from the North Atlantic. The families that lost loved ones to war. The veterans who returned missing limbs or with scarred psyches. The service personnel who have never been able to fully grasp or cope with the destruction that war inflicted on their lives and which they were led to inflict on others. The combatants who, as Stanley Hauerwas puts it, were led to sacrifice their normal unwillingness to kill another human.

And so we remember the lives given and taken in our name.

While commemorating those who have willingly sacrificed so much in war, we also honour and lament those who were never given the choice of peace. We soberly consider the victims of conflict – past, present, and future – and the blaze of pain and suffering that war brings to all of us. Still, organized violence has the innate ability to cruelly and disproportionately affect those who already live precariously on the margins of their societies: people of colour, religious minorities, children, those of differing sexual and gender identities; the poor and the helpless. Violence has likely marked humanity more than any other anthropological factor.

And so we remember the victims of war.

What does it mean to be a community that gathers in remembrance? Look at our gathered assembly here today. We gather as individuals marked by innumerable differences: faith, gender, income, nationality, political affiliation, culture, education. We represent the very diversity that war, hate, and division seek to maximize and to exploit. In many ways, war has already scarred us all, yet peculiarly benefited many of us. I say again, many of us today feel a dissonance that comes to us through this radical act we call remembrance.

Be that as it may, we remember the brutality of war not to glorify it, but to proclaim with the Prophet Isaiah that we, “many peoples; shall beat our swords into plowshares, and our spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall we learn war anymore.”

Trent University is a community dedicated to free intellectual exchange and to higher education: a privilege afforded to us through the brutality of conflict and the sacrifices of many – a fact that should leave us feeling uncomfortable. What has come to shape our world in such a way that bullets and drones are believed needed in order to protect books and debate?

In our gathering here today, we are given a glimpse of what it means to be a peace-making community. We observe individuals of diverse and deep differences gathering together to partake in this sacred, subversive act of remembering.

For the perpetuation of conflict is contingent upon our forgetting its cost. To remember the sacrifices of millions; to remember the legacy of armed conflict; to name the inhumanity of which we are capable and willing to inflict upon one another is to already subvert the war-making cycle.

Vitally, we gather in peace. Peace is not merely the absence of violence, but the presence of justice and love. “Love” is what we people of faith call unconditional generosity and radical care for the Other as Other. This vision of peace is our common commitment: this peace is our creed. This is the torch we are to hold high – we owe it to those who have died for it.

One can dismiss this call to peace as idealistic blather. Yet, we must never overlook this simple, painful fact: that the cost of peace is just as heavy as the cost of war. (See: Stanley Hauerwas) As a university community, we must view our communal vocation to be a remembering community – that is to say, a community that forever bears in mind the desolation and destruction of war on combatants, victims, nations, the environment, and upon our shared humanity. Thus, as a remembering community, it is our obligation to take up this calling to make and choose peace.

In our struggle, we are sustained by hope. I need to distinguish between hope and optimism. Optimism is confidence that something will be successful because most of our empirical evidence points to this fact. It’s the reasonable belief that things will go in our way. We cannot be optimistic about the earthly reigning of peace. We need only look to Syria, to Darfur, to willful violence both domestic and international. Veterans that return from the hell of war, only to return home to face a new hell – unsupported. Victims of war live and die with little chance of alleviation. Privileged, powerful countries expand their military budgets. Our world is not marked by the absence of violence, nor by the global presence of justice and love. In this sense, we have relatively little for which to be optimistic in regards to peace.

But we, as a remembering, peace-making community, live in hope. Hope is anticipation, longing for a Dominion of Peace and Justice when all we know is violence, hatred, and darkness. It is our duty to the victims of warfare – in all its forms – that we, with our repurposed swords as plowshares, cultivate ways of peace and mutuality so that we never again perpetuate conflict. It is our responsibility to work for reconciliation and justice so that the conditions that engender war are eradicated. It is our duty to care for those living on the margins so that we become too busy with the costly work of peacebuilding that we become unavailable for the costly work of war.

As a community that remembers the sacrifices made on our behalf, that remembers the calamity that war reigns down upon this world, we commit ourselves to that costly work of peace – and we live in hope for the glorious day when we live in justice and love, and when we learn war no more.