PhD Candidate Wycliffe College, Toronto School of Theology Sessional Lecturer in Theology at Tyndale Seminary

November 2013

Current Volume 5

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One of the most significant dilemmas that pastors and others responsible for the planning and leading of worship encounter each year is the question, “What are we to do with Remembrance Day?” However, I fear that in many Canadian church contexts the significance of this dilemma is not experienced. On the one hand, this may be due to ignorance concerning how the lives of parishioners have been touched by the grim realities of war or a refusal to recognize the broader cultural forces impacting Christians today. In the pastoral contexts in which I have found myself, the presence of people whom I dearly love and deeply respect within the congregation whose lives have been profoundly impacted by the armed conflicts of the past century has made Remembrance Day an occasion that is impossible to ignore. On the other hand, the failure to experience the tension associated with Remembrance Day may be evidence of a troubling conflation of the Gospel with civil religion.

From a Christian perspective war is never something to be celebrated, but can only, at best, be understood as a tragic necessity. The distinguished 20th–century theologian Karl Barth, who endorsed the Allied participation in the Second World War, did not shrink back from acknowledging the Pandora’s Box that is opened during times of war. Barth places the crucial questions before us:

Does not war demand that almost everything that God has forbidden be done on a broad front? To kill effectively, and in connexion therewith, must not those who wage war steal, rob, commit arson, lie, deceive, slander, and unfortunately to a large extent fornicate, not to speak of the almost inevitable repression of all the finer and weightier forms of obedience? 1

War is clearly then not a matter to be celebrated within the Christian community, even if a particular war has been deemed just. This perspective is reflected in the practice of the church in past centuries which required Christian soldiers returning from a just war to do penance for three years before being restored to the Eucharist. 2The practice of requiring ‘just- warriors’ to undergo a period of penance before being readmitted to the Table an unfortunate interim solution to a problem that awaits its resolution with the coming of the Kingdom in its fullness.

How then should those responsible for planning and leading worship approach Remembrance Day? This question was personally brought to a head for me several years ago when a member of my congregation presented a proposal for a skit that they desired to perform on the closest Sunday on the calendar to Remembrance Day. The skit involved an usher confiscating Bibles from parishioners as they arrived at worship to illustrate the point that we owe our existence as Christians to the men and women who have fought in armed conflicts overseas in order to preserve our freedom, which includes our religious liberties. Although this premise may in fact be widely shared across various religious, cultural, and denominational boundaries within Canada, I would suggest that on several levels it is highly problematic for Christians.

First, as Christians our definition of freedom is much different than that of the surrounding culture. Modern Western culture understands freedom in terms of autonomy. To be free means to be able to do whatever one wants to do. Connected with this is the notion of religious freedom, the idea that people are free to engage in their religious and devotional practices unhindered and without fear of persecution. Religious freedom is a wonderful modern Western value that must not be taken for granted and for which we must give thanks. However, the freedom of religious expression must not be confused with true Christian freedom. The freedom of the Christian is the freedom to love the Lord our God with all our heart, with all our mind, with all our soul, and with all our strength and to love our neighbour as ourselves. 3 The great Protestant Reformer Martin Luther, memorably expressed this reality in his influential treatise The Freedom of a Christian: “A Christian is a perfectly free lord of all, subject to none. A Christian is a perfectly dutiful servant of all, subject to all.” 4 This type of free Christian existence is possible within even the most rigidly oppressive contexts. On the other hand, this freedom can be easily forfeited by the Church within contexts that appear on the surface to be religiously tolerant. The 20th century Lutheran theologian and pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer recognized this reality, observing that “Freedom as an institutional possession is not an essential mark of the church. It can be a gracious gift given to the church by the providence of God; but it can also be the great temptation to which the church succumbs in sacrificing its essential freedom to institutional freedom. Whether the churches of God are really free can only be decided by the actual preaching of the Word of God.” 5

Second, the preservation of our own personal religious freedom can hardly be the grounds for the Christian justification or celebration of war. As followers of the crucified Messiah Jesus, the proper response for Christians when their religious liberty is threatened can never be to take up arms, but rather to turn the other cheek, and in doing so to take up the cross. If we confuse this distinction and celebrate those who have killed to “preserve our religious freedom” then we as Christians are no different from the contemporary jihadists who commit religiously inspired acts of terror. The Gospel of Jesus Christ does not advance by the tip of the sword, but rather by the Word of God which is “sharper than any double-edged sword.” 6

The points mentioned above are important markers for delineating some of the boundaries within which right remembering should occur for Christians. With these in mind, I would like to offer several diagnostic questions which might help situate Remembrance Day within the broader context of Christian worship.

What Time is it?

James K.A. Smith, in his important book Desiring the Kingdom, has helpfully illumined various ‘secular’ liturgies which are competing with the Gospel for the hearts and minds of Christians in North America today. 7 Each of these ‘secular’ liturgies—Smith explores the liturgies of the mall, the nation, and the university—include a way of keeping time that shapes our habits and imaginations according to the predominant values of their guiding stories. Historically, the practice of the Christian year has served such a role in the formation of Christians. Evangelicals have often looked upon the Christian year as mere ritual or empty formalism, but in failing to keep time with the church our time often ends up being dictated by a time other than the new time inaugurated by the irrupting of the Kingdom in Jesus Christ. What is needed is a recovery of the evangelical practice of the Christian year. The Christian year is truly evangelical for when it is celebrated well it directs our attention to Jesus. As we travel through the various seasons of the Christian year, from Advent right through Pentecost, we are drawn into the story of salvation as it unfolded in the birth, life, death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus Christ and in the sending forth of the Holy Spirit. The Christian year is our invitation to keep time with Jesus, the One who has acted for us and for our salvation within time and space.

Under Which Banner Do We Gather?

The theological ethicist Stanley Hauerwas once provocatively addressed a conference of youth pastors by posing the following rhetorical question and response: “How many of you worship in a church with an American flag? I am sorry to tell you your salvation is in doubt.” 8 Lest we congratulate ourselves too quickly for being Canadian and therefore not having American flags in our sanctuaries, Hauerwas’s comments could equally apply to the presence of Canadian flags in places of worship. The theological argument is actually quite simple: although Canada may be a wonderful country in which to live, Canada, or for that matter any country, is not coterminous with the Kingdom of God. The church of Jesus Christ transcends all borders, advancing under the banner of the cross, not under any particular national emblem. One of the great tragedies of the major armed conflicts of the 20th century is that this reality seems to have been forgotten as Christians have been found on all sides killing and being killed by other Christians. According to the Gospel, water is thicker than blood. Through baptism into the body of Christ we are more closely bound to believing brothers and sisters around the globe than to our unbelieving neighbour next door. This should be enough to give us pause with respect to the presence of national flags in places of Christian worship. At the very least we will recognize that if we are going to fly flags in our sanctuaries then we should be flying the flags of every country in which a Christian community is found.

Why is the Table Empty?

The Protestant Reformers laid great emphasis upon the importance of Word and sacrament for the building-up and identification of the true church. 9 As spiritual heirs of the Protestant Reformation, evangelicals have rightly emphasized the importance of the proclamation of the Word, but have often neglected the place of the sacraments in congregational life. Where the Lord’s Table is not regularly celebrated, the Christian community forfeits what is perhaps its preeminent resource for forming and informing its practice of remembrance. The Eucharist is the Christian embodiment of what it means to remember rightly. At the Table of the Lord we break bread in remembrance of the sacrifice to end all sacrifices. As the congregation gathers at the Table, it testifies to the fact that the world was changed forever not on November 11, 1918, nor on May 7, 1945, or even on September 11, 2001, but rather on a spring morning close to 2,000 years ago when the Lord of glory hung on a wooden cross outside of Jerusalem. At the Lord’s Table we continually lift high the cup of salvation until the day we drink it anew with Christ in the Kingdom of God, when every tear will be wiped away and death will be swallowed up forever. 10

In Whose Presence Do We Speak?

In worship we are drawn by the Holy Spirit into the eternal conversation that has been shared between the Father and Son from all eternity. Our ability to call upon God as our Father as we are united with Jesus in the power of the Holy Spirit is not the result of anything we have accomplished, but rather is the result of the gracious initiative of the Triune God. In the presence of the God who has freely demonstrated his great love for us in acting for us and our salvation, we no longer need to keep up false fronts but instead are empowered to speak truthfully about ourselves in repentance and with gratitude receive our lives as gifts. In the context of prayer we are free to speak truthfully about the ambiguities of war, acknowledging these conflicts have frequently been the theatre for tremendous acts of bravery and self-sacrifice, and also for acts of great cowardice and cruel inhumanity, sometimes even embodied in the same person. In the presence of He who is making all things new, we are invited to remember those whose lives have been lost in war and those whose lives were forever altered knowing that no life or death lies beyond the pale of God’s redemption.

When these questions are taken into consideration, the problem of Remembrance Day is seen in a much different light. This is not to say that there is no place for remembering those who have lost their lives in armed conflicts in Christian worship, only that the remembering which takes place on the Lord’s Day by the people of God assembled in the power of the Holy Spirit will look much different than the remembering which takes place on Parliament Hill. The difference is important, for we, as the church, are a people who have been called by the Gospel for the sake of the world to remember rightly until Christ comes again.


  • 2 Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics III:4, The Doctrine of Creation, ed. G. W. Bromiley & T.F. Torrance, trans. G.W. Bromiley (London: T&T Clark International, 2004), 454.

  • 2 Stanley Hauerwas has drawn attention to this ecclesial practice in various places and articles, including: Patrick O’Neill, “Theologian’s Feisty Faith Challenges Status Quo,” National Catholic Reporter 38, no. 32 (June 21, 2002): 3-4.

  • 3 Matthew 22:37-40.

  • 4 Martin Luther, “The Freedom of a Christian” (1520) in Martin Luther’s Basic Theological Writings, ed. Timothy F. Lull (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1989), 596.

  • 5 Dietrich Bonhoeffer, “Protestantism Without Reformation” (1939) in Dietrich Bonhoeffer: Witness to Jesus Christ, ed. John de Gruchy (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1991), 206.

  • 6 Hebrews 4:12.

  • 7 James K. A. Smith, Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview and Cultural Formation (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2009), 89-129.

  • 8 Stanley Hauerwas, “Why Did Jesus Have to Die? An Attempt to Cross the Barrier of Age,” Princeton Seminary Bulletin 28/2 (2007): 182.

  • 9 Consider for example Calvin’s famous assertion, “Wherever we see the Word of God purely preached and heard, and the sacraments administered according to Christ’s institution, there, it is not to be doubted, a church of God exists.” John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, trans. Ford Lewis Battles (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1960), IV.9.1, 1023.

  • 10 Psalm 116:3; Luke 22:18; Isaiah 25:7-8.


  1. avatar

    This is an excellent, thought-provoking, not to say timely, piece; thanks for writing it!

    I must admit that I have a certain sympathy for your congregant who wanted to illustrate the value of Remembrance Day with the confiscation of Bibles. Is that not a reality that *could* have happened had the Allies not garnered victory, in one war-to-end-all-wars or another? In that sense, then, could it not have been effective in helping a congregation remember, and express its gratitude to God for God’s faithfulness and perseverance?

    Of course, the skit could have been performed *before* the Call to Worship…at least, that’s how it would have happened in my congregation. 🙂 And that might also support your point.

    Thanks again.


  2. avatar

    Also think this is an excellent article. I struggle every year with Remembrance Sunday. My particular dilemma – aside from the message, which I always struggle with – is the place of the national anthem, which many in my church expect. I include it – but BEFORE the Call to Worship, just as we gather, on the basis that once worship begins, we worship God and not Canada. But you do an excellent job of pointing out the dilemma and sometimes inconsistency of this day.

  3. Lisa Barber

    Thank-you Robert for investing the time and effort necessary to write this thought-provoking and faith-lifting article. The question of Christians and war is, to my shame, especially as I was raised in a Christian home and have served all my adult years in Christian ministry, something new that I have only recently been wrestling with. You have offered many important points of theology and practice that will help give direction in my struggle. I also appreciate Jeff and Steven’s comments – thank-you both for taking time to reflect. Your statements, however, raise a question, in the form of many questions, for me: Though Robert has focused his article on the dilemma we as Christians face in preparing for, and participating in, corporate worship on Remembrance Day Sunday, does not this dilemma bleed into the rest of our lives? For Christians, is there ever anything “before worship”? Are we not called to enact our faith and devotion to God in all of our thoughts, conversations and deeds? Is not what is true for us in regards to our citizenship, national flag, anthem, and freedom, as we gather as the Body of Christ in corporate worship, true for us we part to go our separate ways to live out our mission as servants and signs of the Kingdom of God in our world? The most challenging point I believe Robert is making, at least for me, is in our understanding of freedom. I had the privilege of living in Romania while Caucescu was still the dictator. I experienced, to a small degree, the life of a church under persecution. I was also there when the revolution took place, and celebrated with the church in their newly acquired “freedom.” Since then, I have continued to interact with my Christian friends in Romania and have observed the growth and struggles of the church within this new “institutional freedom,” and I am not yet convinced that the church in Romania has become more effective in living out its faith in Christ, or in its ability to proclaim the Good News, though it certainly has different opportunities to do so than it had before. The question I will continue to wrestle with is — if the church has a freedom that can never be taken from it, and its mission is to lead, or at least point, others (our world) into the direction of this same freedom, then how can promoting, celebrating, or participating in violence as a solution for obtaining, or maintaining, freedom help us fulfill our mission? Thank-you again Robert for offering important biblical and cultural insights to help us face this dilemma.

  4. Chris Schryer

    I like seeing how this has grown and been shaped. I also like the U2 quote slipped in (knowing that they were only slipping in a Psalms quote to begin with). You’re tops in my books, Rob!

  5. Emma D.

    Thank you for this thought provoking essay. As a newly ordained minister, I have been struggling with this and your article helped clear my thoughts. Peace!

  6. Tim A.

    Thanks for an excellent essay Rob. To extend what I think is an implicit idea above – in our own remembering we need to acknowledge that war, even defence against an unprovoked aggressor, is the ultimate expression of a corrupt world. We must acknowledge the humanity and value of all who have been caught up in war, both our allies and our enemies. We must remember all the fallen and mourn their loss. We must also mourn the literal loss of innocence for all the young people who are sent off to fight. We must mourn the destruction, the loss of shalom, the arrival of hell on earth. Even as we are thankful for the resolve of those who volunteered, or were compelled, to defend others, we acknowledge that we all lose when there is war. As we look back at the horror, our hope is in looking forward to the day when all is made new, and war is only a memory.

  7. Ron Easton

    If I read you correctly you are saying Remembrance Day is a celebration of War – “From a Chris­t­ian per­spec­tive war is never some­thing to be cel­e­brated, but can only, at best, be under­stood as a tragic neces­sity.”

    Remembrance Day is about the sacrifice not celebrating War. And yes our Freedom in Christ is different from the religious freedom we experience but I do not see a blurring of those two by a Remembrance Day Ceremony.

    It’s easy to look back on past wars and criticize those who honour those who served because “there were Christians on both sides”. That doesn’t negate the reality of their experience and understanding of their times. Hitler was evil and was a threat to our religious freedom. I have a relative who served in the German army. The first thing he did was surrender to Western troops because he knew his country’s leadership and cause was evil.

    To remember the sacrifice that kept our freedom is not out of line for the church to celebrate. We would soon be culturally irrelevant if we ignored such important historical events in our nations history.

    I find it interesting that Paul gives instructions to slaves about serving their masters well because they are really serving their Heavenly Father yet he encourages them to become free if possible. That’s Freedom in Christ and cultural freedom.

    Lastly to compare Christians, who served in their country’s army to stop a tyrant from taking over the world, with Jihadists who kill indiscriminately is just plain wrong. You’ve been able to express your opinion because your freedom was maintained at the cost of the lives of many brothers and sisters in Christ.

  8. Ryan Klassen

    Thank you for this reflection Rob. I have been troubled at times with the emphasis on Remembrance Day in church. Often it isn’t the overt statements, but the implicit ones that I find most troubling. Lauding the sacrifices of those who went to war, and then singing “Soldiers of Christ, Arise!” Such a juxtaposition implies that (our) soldiers were fighting on behalf of Christ, which must mean that the soldiers on the other side were fighting against Christ.

    Another struggle is with the language of sacrifice. It seems to me that we are conflating the sacrifice of Christ with the sacrifice of soldiers. Only one is salvific, and my experience is that Remembrance Day is one of those times when salvation is attributed to the death of soldiers rather than to the work of Christ.

    Finally, my own relatives were conscientious objectors who spent the duration of the war in labour camps – doing forestry work or other manual labour – right here in Canada. How did the war protect and guarantee their religious freedom? They were confined to labour camps by the Canadian government because they believed that the gospel of Jesus called them to refuse to kill another human being. It seems like the salvation brought by the soldiers who fought died in war do not maintain this freedom in Christ.

  9. Leah McMillan

    You know what else isn’t Biblical? Democracy. But it’s the best system we currently have. That’s what this worldly life is – doing the best that we can. Please don’t minimize the sacrifices of the many in our country and our churches who gave their lives so that others may live.

    If you want to have beliefs in Pacificism, go right ahead…but writing this piece a few days before Remembrance Day – at a time our veterans look forward to as the ONE time the country remembers them (including the 16% who are now homeless), seems ill-fitting and quite disrespectful.

    I respect your views as a fellow Christian and wish you all the best with your PhD! But I do think you should reconsider publishing something like this so close to Remembrance Day.

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