Without Benefit of Clergy. That’s what the local news report said. The combatants were laid to rest without military honours and without the benefit of clergy. This was the burial of my Mom’s brother, blown out of the sky at age twenty over St. Ingebert, Germany. Click here for a local documentation of the crash which somehow found its way to the internet. I have translated it from the original German.
It was 1943, four years into the conflict. It was becoming clear that the war would be a long hard slog for the Germans, who had been emboldened by their initial swift victories through Poland, France and Czechoslovakia. The German population was now getting a taste of the war it had waged on others, raining down on its own head. It changed their thinking somewhat. What was happening, was a challenge to ideolology. The Germans had thought themselves unbeatable - after all, God was with them and their cause. Gott Mit Uns “God With Us” was emblazoned on the soldiers’ belt buckles. The German population believed theirs was a holy mission, an idea common to those who think they are killing the right people.
As Carl Jung has noted, we do not possess ideologies, they possess us. The Germans believed that God was on their side. It would take a lot of sifting through mass graves to make plain where human ideologies take us.
The Canadians taking part in the battle were buried without the benefit of military honours, without the benefit of clergy, because the idea of a paid solder from elsewhere was distasteful to the Germans. They thought that killing for national pride was a loftier idea. Ideology can rise above the value of human life, and nationalism evades the idea that all human life is sacred.
What is the value of one human life? The loss of a loved one is unquantifiable for those left behind. I know that there were gaping holes left in my mom’s family life and in the life of their small Saskatchewan community. A recitation of “In Flander’s Fields” or Laurence Binyon’s poem “For the Fallen” conjures up an image of my mother standing silent, head bowed, looking stricken. I felt her mourning each and every Remembrance Day and wondered about the dead I would never know.
Gott Mit Uns is also quoting from the Bible. It is associated with Christmas and it appears in the first chapter of Matthew when he recounts the miraculous circumstances surrounding Jesus’ birth.
Behold, the virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and they will call Him Emmanuel which means, “God with us”
Emmanuel, God with us… the original hope, given through holy prophecy, that there is something better than human ideology.
There is an incident in Erick Remarque’s All’s Quiet on the Western Front, where Paul, the German soldier begins to see his enemy as a fellow human being. The Kaiser, the German emperor, pays a visit to the trenches, and the men are surprised to see that he is no more than a short man with a weak voice. In battle, Paul hides in a shell hole where he is soon joined by a French soldier. Seeing him as the enemy, Paul instinctively stabs him and must watch up close and personal as the man’s life slips away, Paul is overcome with sorrow. He sees his enemy for the first time as a victim of war just like himself. He looks through the soldier’s personal effects and finds pictures of a wife now left without a husband, and a child without a father. The value of one life left as an open wound in the heart of those bereaved.
Emmanuel, God with us. When the Son of Man comes, he will draw all men unto himself. Emmanuel, God with us is a truth that does not divide, it pulls us together. It was an act of peace waged on humanity from the very heart of God.