Preached at Christ the King Chapel, CFB Suffield, AB, 19 September, 2010, on the occasion of the 70th Anniversary of the Battle of Britain.
Micah 4:1-5, Psalm 23,Ephesians 6:10-18, John 15;12-17
Ask anyone whose home has been robbed or invaded and they will tell you what a terrible feeling of violation and threat they feel long afterwards. It’s worse when your home is attacked, and it’s infinitely worse when your homeland is attacked. Just over nine years ago, we were shaken by the terrible events of September 11, 2001, and none were more shaken than our American friends, who saw the violence of an enemy directed from their skies against their country and against their institutions. As we watched the Twin Towers burn that day, we surely felt the same emotions that American journalist Ernie Pyle described during an air attack long ago, over London one night in 1940:
I shall always remember above all the other things in my life is the monstrous loveliness of that one single view of London on a holiday night – London stabbed with great fires, shaken by explosions, its dark regions along the Thames sparkling with the pin points of white-hot bombs, all of it roofed over with a ceiling of pink that held bursting shells, balloons, flares and the grind of vicious engines. And in yourself the excitement and anticipation and wonder in your soul that this could be happening at all.
In September 2001, the sense of wonder that this could even be happening was replaced by a determination never to let this happen again. When the US created the Department of Homeland Security, it was as if the government was trying to assure its people that they could be protected and that a 9/11 would never happen again. We pray that it may be so, but our history, and our faith, warn us that security is a difficult, and perhaps impossible, thing to guarantee.
The Battle of Britain was a struggle for the security of one homeland, that of Great Britain, but also a struggle for the security of nations yet to be enslaved by Nazi Germany, and for the hope of deliverance of those nations already enslaved. Though some, like Winston Churchill, had predicted the coming of war for years, when it came Britain was barely prepared and badly outnumbered. The commander of Britain’s fighter defences, Sir Hugh Dowding, knew the odds and the cost when he said that “our young men will have to shoot down their young men at a rate of four to one if we are to keep pace at all”. Likewise, when Churchill promised his people nothing but “blood, toil, sweat and tears”, be knew that security did not come from the names of government departments or from sweeping guarantees, but only from struggle and sacrifice.
The Battle of Britain can seem to be a story of gallant and glamorous young fighter pilots, who protected Britain from invasion and thus changed the course of the war. That is true, and their courage and their sacrifice, including that of the one hundred Canadian pilots killed, should never be forgotten. If you look at the photos of the pilots, you can sometimes see the enormous strain and the physical exhaustion that they flew with.
They knew the odds, and they knew that no matter how well they flew and fought, German planes would get through, bombs would fall, and innocents would die. The homeland security of England was never guaranteed. The government tried to evacuate children from the worst threatened areas, but it could not protect them from homelessness or worse. Even after the Battle of Britain was won and the threat of invasion passed, England would suffer air raids throughout most of the rest of the war. This story, like few others in history, reminds us that the freedom and security of a people must sometimes be paid by great effort and great cost, and should be valued accordingly.
What lessons can we as people of faith draw from this story? In our Gospel lesson today we heard Our Lord say that “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends” (Jn 15:13). We might thus be tempted to say that the sacrifice of the pilots and people of Great Britain and it its allies was in the same spirit as Christ’s sacrifice of himself on the cross to save others, but there is a danger in this line of thinking. What about self sacrifice in a bad cause? When the fortunes of World War Two changed, German pilots sacrificed themselves to defend their homeland just as bravely, even though they were attempting to save Hitler’s evil regime.
Does their self sacrifice count? Did the German people deserve to suffer and die under Allied bombs? My theology professors taught me always to be wary of simple questions and simple answers, so I think we always need to resist saying that God, then or now, willingly enlists himself in war efforts. After another deliverance, when a great storm destroyed the Spanish invasion fleet, the government of Elizabeth the 1st had a coin made saying, “God breathed, and they were scattered”. In that war it was Protestant Christians killing Catholic Christians, and yet, as I write this, Pope Benedict is completing his tour of the United Kingdom. I doubt God wants Protestants and Catholics to kill one another now any more than he did then, and I daresay the same is true for Muslims and Christians.
Our first lesson, from the prophet Micah, reminds us that God’s vision for the world is what the Hebrews call “shalom” or peace. Micah’s vision was that one day, in God’s time, nations would realize that they are all part of God’s creation, and so they would come together that God “may teach us his ways and that we may walk in his paths” (Micah 4:2). If you think that Micah’s vision is theological pie in the sky, consider that today, British and German militaries work as allies, and aircraft flying between British and German cities deliver passengers, not bombs. The Battle of Britain may have been a moment in human history when God’s shalom took root, but it is a fragile plant, and it’s growth needs careful encouragement. As long as hatred and extremism exist, we will need the professionalism and the courage of a few, like the pilots we remember today, who stand ready to protect others. But we also need to recall Christ’s words to his followers, that “You are my friends if you do what I command you to” (Jn 15:14). It is noble to want to fight for our homelands and to keep them secure, but our homelands are part of God’s creation, and they will only be truly secure when we are as determined to make the friendship of others as God in His Son is willing to make us his friends.