Back to the Garden: from war to rebellion

Texts: Revelation 22: 1-5 (the Tree of Life) and Matthew 5:43-44 (love your enemies)

There are a thousand things about war that horrify or dismay us; and one of them is how popular it can be. World War One, which is what prompted King George V to call the first Remembrance Day in the British Empire 100 years ago tomorrow, provides an example.

When the different European empires first declared war on each other in 1914 – the Austro-Hungarian Empire on Serbia on July 28, the Russian Empire on the German one on July 29, and finally the British Empire on the German and Austro-Hungarian empires on August 4 – their declarations were met with wild enthusiasm. Labour parties that had spent the previous 15 years threatening to call general strikes at the outbreak of a European war succumbed almost to a person to popular support for war. Young men from farms and cities enlisted in their millions to fight for their respective Czar, Kaiser, or King. Within months, they were facing each other along a Western Front in France and an Eastern Front on the border between Austro-Hungary and Russia.

The division of “Christian” Europe into two warring camps and the division of each country’s population into a tiny sliver who opposed empire and war and the overwhelming majority who favoured them make today’s partisan divides seem mild by comparison. Today, in remembering how the social consensus in support of war of 1914 had by 1919 turned into rebellion against it, I seek hope that the attempt of today’s leaders to divide us along racial, religious and national lines can again be converted into love for so-called enemies and the creation of a world without war.

My maternal grandfather, Mackenzie Rutherford, who is the man in the kilt projected behind me in a photo taken as he prepared to sail to France, was one of the young men who said “yes” to the call to war. My grandfather had grown up on a farm on the shores of Lake Ontario east of Toronto, but had moved to Vancouver in 1910 when he was 20 years old. In 1912 on the occasion of the 45th anniversary of Confederation, he wrote an essay on the promise of Canada. When my mother showed it to me a few years ago, I was impressed with how well it exhibited the optimism and liberalism of the pre-War years. These were ones in which people like my grandfather saw nothing but continued progress towards the creation of God’s Kingdom on earth.

As an enthusiast of the fledgling Canadian Dominion, of the church, and of the British Empire, I am not surprised that he immediately enlisted when Britain joined its ally Czarist Russia in war against Germany. I am also not surprised that when he returned to Vancouver in 1919, he was badly disillusioned in Britain and in the pan-European project of colonies, competition, and war.

My grandfather fought in the trenches in France where he was wounded in 1915. After spending a night alone in the mud, he was evacuated to London where he spent 12 months recovering in hospital. He was released with shrapnel in his leg and a permanent limp, and he spent the rest of the war working as an army clerk.

Grandpa never talked about his war experiences with his wife, his children, or his grandchildren. So, like many other people who have ancestors who were veterans, I know next to nothing about his war experience. We know that he was badly wounded, but I wonder if he ever killed anyone. Being injured and humiliated in a war that you eventually decide was not a worthy one sounds bad enough. But killing enemy combatants in such a war might be even more traumatic.

One thing I do know is that my grandfather, like many millions of others, returned home disillusioned in the empires that had allowed this war to happen. These empires, their governments, and their churches had persuaded more than 50 million young men to fight their supposed enemies and had led ten million of them to their deaths. Out of this disillusionment, he and millions of others became open to new ideas about how to organize society.

When my grandfather died in 1970, my aunt suggested that his grandchildren look through his shelves for books we might like. The only one I remember taking was a pamphlet published in 1919 in Vancouver by the BC Federation of Labour. Titled “Who Are the Bolsheviks?,” it was, to my surprise, a pro-Soviet booklet that he had kept for 50 years.

Grandpa eventually moved back to Ontario, bought a farm near where he had grown up, and led a quiet life raising a family. The last time he visited my family in Cornwall was in 1967 when we took him and my grandmother to Montreal to visit Expo 67; and I was struck by the fact that the only pavilion he wanted to see was that of the Soviet Union. It seems that 50 years after the end of the Great War, the illusions he and many others had placed in the Soviet Union to replace the ones they had lost in the old European empires were still there.

Remembrance Day was called by King George V in 1919. But his relatives in the other empires did not do the same. George’s first cousin, Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany, was in exile in Holland having been deposed by the German Revolution of October 1918, which had led to the signing of the Armistice on November 11, 1918. His distant cousin Charles I of Austria was in exile in Switzerland after having presided over the defeat and dismantling of the sprawling Austro-Hungarian Empire. Czar Nicholas II, who was the husband of another of King George’s first cousins, Alexandria, was dead having been executed by the Bolsheviks in 1918 during the Russian Civil War that followed the Revolution there in 1917.

Britain was the only monarchical empire to survive the disaster of the Great War, and as such, it was the only one that saw fit to commemorate the war with a Day of Remembrance. But while Britain may have “won,” the British Empire, which had once covered one third of the Globe, was badly wounded. Twenty-five years later after the Second World War, independence movements in India, Africa, and the Caribbean began to successfully dismantle it.

Colonial rebellions were just some of the changes that followed the War. Women achieved suffrage in country after country. Several new European nations established themselves in the rubble of its empires. The prestige of religious leaders, who had supported “their” Czar, King, or Kaiser, began to diminish. Workers organized for better wages and working conditions. Art, music, and architecture underwent vast changes.

In Canada, these changes are best exemplified, I think, by a General Strike in 1919. In May and June of that year, 35,000 workers in Winnipeg, which had about 170,000 people at the time, sustained a six-week long general strike.

This past June, Kim and I spent four nights in Winnipeg and were able to participate in several of the celebrations that marked the centennial of this high-water mark in Canadian labour history.

The one we liked the most was the premiere of a play called “Strike! The Musical.” It was held in the 2,000-seat Rainbow Stage in Kilodan Park on the eve of the centennial of the event that ends the play – an attack by the police on June 21, 1919 on a protest march by veterans of the War in support of the arrested members of the Strike Committee who had led the rebellion for five weeks.

We loved the musical, and we hope that a film version of it, which is supposed to open in Edmonton on November 29, is as effective.

The musical is a Romeo and Juliet-like love story involving a Ukrainian and a Jewish immigrant who get swept up in the workers’ rebellion. The play ends with police shooting 12 of the veterans and killing two. But this violence, which led to the end of the strike, does not wipe out the fact that Winnipeg 1919 demonstrates that it wasn’t only in Germany or Russia, or Seattle or Turin, or India or Kenya that the disillusionment occasioned by the Great War led masses of people to fight for a new form of democracy. This was also the case in Canada.

I had known that one of the leaders of the Winnipeg Strike was a former Methodist minister, J.S. Woodsworth, who after the strike became a Member of Parliament from Winnipeg until his death in 1941 and who was the first leader of the CCF Party when it was founded in Calgary in 1932. But in June, I learned that the Winnipeg Strike had a lot more church involvement. Woodsworth became the editor of the strikers’ daily newspaper after its first editor was arrested. But I hadn’t known that this editor was also a Methodist, Rev. William Ivens. He and other ministers had formed a Labour Church, which was a key organizing centre for the Strike.

The involvement of these ministers represents a small redemption for the church. In 1914, almost all clergy in Europe and its settler states supported the war. Orthodox patriarchs supported the repressive and incompetent Czar in Russia. Lutheran pastors supported the German Kaiser despite his militarism. Anglican priests supported the British Empire despite its oppressive rule in India and Africa.

The history of church support for imperialist war from the fourth to the 20th century is a damning one. So, I am always pleased to learn of exceptions, and Winnipeg 1919 provides some shining examples.

The trajectory followed by my grandfather and millions of others around the world during World War One is a path of spiritual growth. At the beginning of the War, they put their faith in emperors and empires that were not worthy of it. Through terrible trials and loss, they became disillusioned in these idols. Having been disillusioned, they then looked for values that might be more worthy of the God who is Love – things like democracy from below, solidarity across lines of race, gender, and nationality, and collective projects that hoped to create a more peaceful, equitable, and sustainable world.

Did my grandfather, or the German and Russian revolutionaries, or the strikers in Winnipeg 100 year ago, find their way Back to the Garden? No. But the paths they walked with pain and joy can remind us of how moments of social crisis can turn into moments of mass conversion from idolatry to something closer to the Source of Love we call God.

Nineteen nineteen was a key moment in which blinders of hate were lifted from the eyes of millions and attempts were made to build a realm of peace and freedom on the rubble of the rotten empires of that day.

Fifty years ago was another moment in which another imperialist war, the one that the USA waged against Vietnam, moved millions of people to question their rulers and to wake up to the fact that their so-called enemies were actually their neighbours who were worthy of their support and love.

Today is yet another moment when millions of us are being told to identify immigrants and Muslims as our enemies. Many of us may succumb to such ideas and so find ourselves worshipping nation or race in a manner similar to how most people at the start of the Great War worshipped their Czar, Kaiser, or King and misidentified the people on the other side of imaginary lines as their enemies.

But in the hard knocks of life or in the horrors of war, millions often turn their backs on illusions peddled by misleaders in church, parliament, or palace. In the space opened up by this disillusionment, they may hear again the call of Jesus to love our enemies. Sometimes this radical message pierces through the fog of hate; and we may find ourselves in the middle of a massive festival of peace and music, or in a general strike that reveals the beauty of our city we had never noticed before, or in rebellions that topple a czar or kaiser, or in struggle that bring independence to a former colony.

Sometimes we may find ourselves marching with millions of others in a quest for a way Back to the Garden where the Tree of Life grows. With Grace, sometimes we remember that “Jesus Christ the Apple Tree” is already living within us; that war is over if we want it; and that peace can reign in our hearts, our cities, and throughout all of God’s good earth for ever and ever.

May it be so. Amen.

Preamble to Worship on November 10

I believe that dreams can help us in our spiritual journeys. In six Sunday gatherings this Fall, we have looked at the Biblical dream of The Tree of Life. We first encountered the Tree on September 1 when we heard the story of the Garden of Eden from the first book of the Bible, Genesis. Today is the seventh of seven services that seeks inspiration from Joni Mitchell’s 1969 song “Woodstock” – the one in which she dreams that we might somehow get ourselves Back to the Garden from which Jehovah expelled Adam and Eve in Genesis. To close this series, today we will hear a passage in which a writer named John imagines that The Tree of Life has been replanted in a new paradise. In the book of Revelation, John brings the Bible to an end with a dream he wrote down about 1,000 years after Genesis. His dream imagines the Tree of Life yielding fruit in a New Jerusalem where, disease, war, and death are no more.

The dream-like images of Genesis and Revelation have been influential for centuries, and have inspired many artists, including Joni Mitchell.

In her 1969 song, Mitchell also dreams that bomber jet planes turn into butterflies above the nation; and to me, this is a fitting epigraph for today’s service focused as it is on war and remembrance. Tomorrow is the centennial of the First Remembrance Day. On November 11 1919, which was the first anniversary of the Armistice that ended WWI, people in the British Empire paused to reflect on the horrors of war and the sacrifices of our ancestors. Today, I reflect on how remembering those sacrifices might help us turn bombers into butterflies and find our way Back to the Garden.

Many dreams have gone into this morning’s service, and we will see how many of them come to reality in the next 60 minutes or more.

Before we hear a passage from Revelation about the Tree of Life in a New Jerusalem, and before children go to the Lower Hall with Nate Burton and Rob McPhee for a time of play, we will have elements that are typical for the first half of our time together. We will also hear a wonderful story about friendship, loss, and remembrance that Rob will read. The choir will sing as usual. And before children leave, we will be invited by the Prayer Shawl Team to bless the shawls you see before me.

My hope is that our time together on this wintry day will help us with the gracious work of remembering. And may it remind us of the light of the Prince of Peace, which can guide us to a world in which war will be no more.