The readings in Chapel this week connect the sacred feast of All Saints with the secular observance of Remembrance Day upcoming next week. John’s vision of the redeemed community of our humanity in its essential unity expressed through diversity is further explicated precisely in the inner qualities of character that belong to an ethical understanding of the Summun Bonum, the highest good, found in the Beatitudes. The great ethical teaching of Christ grounds our happiness in God. We have seen how that ethical teaching about living for a principle that is greater than oneself is part of a long tradition that embraces the religious and philosophical traditions of ancient China, India, Greece and Rome as well as the traditions of moral philosophy that belong to Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. We do well to remember such a community of spirit.
That vision and teaching encompasses the Solemnity of All Souls within the eight-day Octave of All Saints and catapults us into the stark and sombre remembering of those who gave their lives in the defining and devastating wars of the twentieth century. In the history of the School, that remembrance looks back even further to the conflicts of the nineteenth century with all of the ambiguities and complexities that are part of the idea of empire and colonialism. It is neither a pretty picture nor a single story.
The lessons read on Thursday and Friday prepare us for Remembrance Day, a secular event enfolded within a sacred or religious understanding. To deny this is to deny the obvious at the same time as to make religion the scapegoat for all our discontents. But such thinking will not withstand much in the way of careful scrutiny. The lesson from Hebrews read in the Octave of All Saints says that “these all died in faith,” reminding us that we are part of “a great cloud of witnesses”, witnesses to what is greater than ourselves. At the very least, the idea of something more and greater than ourselves informs political life but cannot be reduced to it. The idea of desiring a better country provides a way to understand the enormous sacrifices that thousands upon thousands from distant lands made in the morass of the battlefields of Europe in the First World War and then more globally in the Second World War. The School’s cenotaph bears eloquent witness to the supreme sacrifice that students from King’s made to those defining events of the twentieth century. To remember their sacrifice is not to engage in some sort of anglo-philia or empire worship.
The desire for a better country requires serious reflection upon the ethical, upon the Summum Bonum. It is the great question for our disordered world. For whatever it means to desire a better country it cannot mean what benefits the cultural and corporate elites at the expense of everybody else. At issue is the commitment to the civic or mediating institutions such as family, school and church that temper and humanise the destructive, levelling, and totalising tendencies of the global world.
A thousand cenotaphs across the many communities of our nations bear the words “greater love hath no man than this that a man lay down his life for his friends”. It is impossible to be dismissive and indifferent about such a profound statement which points to sacrifice and to the ways in which we participate in it despite our sins and failings. The motto of the order of Canada is taken from this text of Hebrews. At the very least, those who gave their lives did so in the pursuit of something greater than themselves, something worth dying for because it was worth living for, however little they themselves might have been able to articulate that goal. Such is the conflict of the nations in their confusion and disarray which continues to discomfit us. And well it should. For such readings speak to the question of how do we live in a shattered world?
Something of the deeper ethical teaching which the readings of this week present to us is found in the Matthaean Apocalypse. “What you do to the least of these my brethren you do unto me,” Jesus says. This underscores the critical ethical standpoint. Our actions towards one another reveal our relation to the very principle of our own being and knowing. In other words, self-knowledge is inescapably bound up in the knowledge of God.
Far from being a justification or worse a glorification of war, Remembrance Day provides a way to think about the nature of our humanity in the face of sin and evil including our own sin and evil. It provides a way of reclaiming the orientation of our souls towards the ultimate or highest good, the goodness of God.
Our School is not about values and lifestyles, to use the rather trite and empty terms of a world beyond good and evil, a world in which there is really nothing worth living for. Such terms are but the poor shadows of a far deeper understanding about the ethical principles that define and shape human life, principles that have been ignored and even denied in our current confusions. To be recalled to the Beatitudes and to the vision of our humanity in the truth of its spiritual unity is to discover a way to face the realities of our shattered world. In a way, these readings speak to the questions of character, to who we are as agents in contrast to a world bent on reducing us to passive beings, to mere things. In every way, we are called to account about what we do with the least of those whom Christ calls his brethren and therefore ours, too. Such is the greater good of an education that seeks the good of one another and as such “a better country.”
(Rev’d) David Curry
Chaplain, English & ToK teacher
Chair of the Department of Religion and Philosophy