As the world celebrates 100 years since World War I ended at 11 am on this day, Anthony Egan SJ reminds us of South Africans, black and white, who served during the war. He invites us to remember those who lost their lives in noble service during the war, those who have since died and those who are still alive today — lest we should ever forget.
[quote pull=”center” author=”Ecclesiastes 3.1-8“]
For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven:
a time to be born, and a time to die;
a time to plant, and a time to pluck up what is planted;
a time to kill, and a time to heal;
a time to break down, and a time to build up;
a time to weep, and a time to laugh;
a time to mourn, and a time to dance;
a time to throw away stones,
and a time to gather stones together;
a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing;
a time to seek, and a time to lose;
a time to keep, and a time to throw away;
a time to tear, and a time to sew;
a time to keep silence, and a time to speak;
a time to love, and a time to hate;
a time for war, and a time for peace.
There is a time for everything under heaven, says the preacher Qoheleth in the Book of Ecclesiastes. There is “a time for war, and a time for peace” (Eccles. 3.8).
At 11am one hundred years ago, World War I — also known as the Great War, or “the war to end all wars”— ended. A few months short of twenty one years later the World War II broke out. And even in this uneasy interregnum there had been wars and rumours of wars — the Spanish Civil War, the Italian invasion of the empire of Abyssinia (Ethiopia), the Japanese invasion of China as well as numerous civil wars, coups and insurrections. Since 1945 too there have been a succession of wars, insurrections, coups and liberation struggles.
As Ecclesiastes remarks elsewhere, it seems there is indeed “nothing new under the sun” (1.19).
So is Qoheleth ultimately a pessimist, a gloomy observer of a world where nothing changes, where history repeats itself, lurching between tragedy and farce as one modern secular prophet Karl Marx once observed?
I don’t think so. I read Ecclesiastes somewhat differently. Qoheleth is a realist about the world, an astute observer of the complex back and forth, light and shadow that is human history. His ultimate proposal is that amid this confused and confusing process of historical change — sometimes violent, sometimes peaceful — we are called to love God (he uses the word ‘fear’, but this should be read more as awe-filled contemplation of Mystery than terror). Do good where we can and celebrate the life we have.
Today we celebrate the lives of those who have died in the last century, in the many— too many — wars that have been fought. By honouring their sacrifice we remember them. And we celebrate their lives, lives cut short.
We do not celebrate war. There is no such thing as a good war though many secular and religious traditions, including large sections of the Abrahamic faiths of Judaism, Christianity and Islam, acknowledge the possibility of a justified war under certain circumstances. Certain conditions are required to go to war: a just cause, right intention (ultimately a just peace), legitimate authority to declare war, and hope of success among others. Wars are required to be fought justly too: use of force only enough to achieve goals and immunity for non-combatants. And more recently there are also moral requirements after war: post-war reconstruction aid and attempts to reconcile former enemies.
Not all wars, probably none of the wars, fought in the last century have met all these conditions.
But this is not our focus today. We remember the dead, all the dead — ‘theirs’ and ‘ours’, for the dead have no ideology. And we honour the living, the veterans, those who — in surviving — have brought back to us the memory — and the legacy — of their fallen comrades.
They may have fought for many reasons. Some believed the cause was just and that war was the lesser evil than seeing tyranny dominate the earth. Indeed many who served and survived World War II, who had fought fascism and racism, came home to South Africa uncomfortably aware that what they’d fought elsewhere — and many comrades had died for — seemed all too ‘alive and well’ right here.
Some fought out of loyalty to ‘king and country’, to a nation they believed needed protection.
Some fought — notably black South Africans in the two World Wars — in the hope (then unrealised) that their sacrifice would prove to those who ruled them that they were truly fellow citizens of the land of their birth. Proving that they were loyal subjects of the British Empire, deserving an equal place in public and private life. When African servicemen sang ‘Rule Britannia’ the lines ‘ Britons never, never, never shall be slaves’ was both a promise and an accusation.
On this day we remember our dead in many places and many ways.
We remember them in great public ceremonies, full of pomp and circumstance (in some cases I fear, echoing Qoheleth, with ‘vanities’ and ideological posturing). We remember them in religious ceremonies of every kind. We remember them in schools and veterans association meetings. And the families of those who died remember them in particular in thoughts and prayers.
Whatever its literary merits (and they are considerable), the genius of this text from Ecclesiastes lies in its use of contradictory parallels. Thus for mourning there is dancing, for weeping there is laughter, for killing there is healing. And for war there is peace.
In our times, where there is war and rumour of war, racism, sexism, homophobia and xenophobia that seeks to deny the humanity of people because they are ‘other’ than us, and the many forms of violence of poverty, inequality, despair and greed, we must all become aware of the alternatives. We may call it with Buddhists compassion for all sentient beings, mercy in the Abrahamic traditions, solidarity and justice in secular terms. These values must become for us Satyagraha, the force of truth, so that the conditions that make for war may be eliminated from our world, our country and our selves.
As we celebrate the memory of all our fallen, let us find ways to wean ourselves off this human addiction to war. In doing that we shall truly honour them “at the going down of the sun and in the morning”.