One of our joys at St Modwen’s is to be a kind of safe haven for people who wander in and out. Some of them are of no fixed abode. All of them find it difficult to cope with society—and I’m not referring to the members of the regular congregation. Some of the occasional visitors sleep in the churchyard. Some should be getting psychiatric care, but instead have what is laughingly called care in the community. Some of them are ex-servicemen who have been so badly maimed by their experience that they have never recovered. It’s this group I’d like to consider today: members of the Armed Forces who return from their service and find themselves unable to cope in a society that is foreign to them.
I try to imagine what it’s like after service life to adapt to the humdrum, to cope with relationships 24/7, to find a job, to deal with jobsworths and bureaucracy, and all whilst coming to terms, or not coming to terms, with the horrors that they witnessed. I try to imagine what it’s like, after having been trained to be alert, to use one’s instincts, and to exist on high circulating levels of adrenaline and testosterone, to find that none of these things is valued in an almost anaesthetized society in which boys are chided for being boys, and men find it more and more difficult to express their masculinity.
The truth is I can’t imagine what it must be like. It makes me wonder what servicewomen and men see when they return to civil society.
They might see sleaze, corruption and greed being rewarded. They will note the rich getting richer. They might notice a significant proportion of people, who are not getting richer, who are effectively ignored. They might have the perception that resources are allocated on the basis of notions of political correctness dreamt up by people who live behind electric gates in Weybridge or Godalming or the Cotswolds, people who should be made to spend time living and watching and listening in the area where I live. They will, in short, detect a good bit of rage. That will do nothing for their well-being.
In the wake of the Brexit vote, the vicar of Hartlepool articulated this rage. He said “the shipyards have sunk, the coalmines have collapsed, the steel works . . . have rusted and the chemical works have dissolved. The jobs that came were lasses’ jobs. And even they didn’t last.” It’s the kind of rage that contributed, dare I say it, to the results of the US election last week. It’s the kind of rage that speaks of growing injustice. In the face of this, returning servicewomen and men might well wonder what they were fighting for.
I applaud the lengths to which the services go to prepare people for return to civilian society. But it seems to me that we need to do some serious thinking about the nature of that society. In the meantime, we can all play our part in helping those who find it difficult to cope, most especially by working to rid society of injustices that enrage. In truth I’m surprised that we don’t see more casualties wandering in and out of St Modwen’s in their vulnerable confusion. So I thank our church people, and urge us all to be mindful and compassionate. Maybe we could emulate the Japanese who, I understand, say to those who have recently left the forces “thank you for a job well done, thank you for your service. Now we need you to let go of that part of life and to start afresh. We will help you.” That is a public ritual of thanks, of grieving, of letting go, and of starting afresh. But it’s no good without justice.
Let me say how impressed I am with you young people here today. I applaud your willingness to join the cadets and other organizations. You will learn about compassion, sharing, recognition of different gifts, the common good, teamwork. You will learn about service and leadership. In an age when so many groups for young people have closed down because of risk-averse political correctness, it’s good to see you here. We need more like you.
It would be wonderful to think that the need for Remembrance Sunday commemorations would slowly fade. The evidence is otherwise. NATO and Russian forces are gathering on the borders of the Baltic States. Middle East madness escalates. Who knows what North Korea will do? And close to home, don’t imagine that the political situation in Ireland is by any means settled. Thumping people on the head to get them to do what you want has never worked in the past and yet it seems that we imagine it will in the future.
The first reading told us to do justly, love mercy and walk humbly. There is some chance justice might begin to prevail if we do that. But there is no chance that there will ever be peace unless there is justice first.