The Bishop of Guildford: Remembrance Sunday, Woking, November 13th 2016
“I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed… that all are created equal.
“I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia, the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.
“I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the colour of their skin but by the content of their character. I have a dream today!”
It was idealistic, of course, that dream; it was simplistic, even naïve. America in the 1960s was a deeply segregated society, and the dream seemed a million miles from reality. But the fact that we still celebrate those words, first spoken more than 50 years ago by the great Dr. Martin Luther King – and the fact that they made a real difference in the real world - tells us something about the human condition: that we need a dream, we need vision. We need something to live for that is bigger than ourselves, even bigger than our nearest and dearest.
The Bible prophet Micah had a dream too, and his vision is still celebrated nearly three thousand years after he first shared it. “They will beat their swords into ploughshares and the spears into pruning hooks. Nation will not take up sword against nation, nor will they train for war anymore….” Again it was idealistic, simplistic, naïve. There were two great superpowers when the prophet Micah was around, Assyria and Babylon, and it certainly wasn’t a time for turning swords into ploughshares - if anything the other way round. But again we’ve not forgotten those words: again they’ve made a difference in the real world over nearly 3000 years. Because we need a dream, we need vision. We need something to live for that is bigger than ourselves, even bigger than our nearest and dearest.
So did those men and women have a dream, those who gave up their lives on our behalf on the Fields of Flanders, or in the skies above London? What vision was it that bound together the nation, as Christian and Muslim, and those of all faiths and none, served as comrades on the battlefield? Some of them, I guess, were just doing their duty, getting on with the job, their mindset a strange combination of excitement, panic, hope, fear. But there was a dream there too, a vision best articulated by Winston Churchill in the darkest days of the 2nd World War:
"The Battle of France is over ... the Battle of Britain is about to begin… The whole fury and might of the enemy must very soon be turned on us… If we can stand up to him, all Europe may be freed and the life of the world may move forward into broad, sunlit uplands."
Idealistic? Certainly. Simplistic? Probably. Naïve? Possibly. But what an extraordinary impact it made. Because we need a dream, we need vision. We need something to live for that is bigger than ourselves, even bigger than our nearest and dearest.
Of course there are good dreams and there are bad dreams. While Martin Luther King was having one dream, the Ku Klux Klan was having quite another. While Winston Churchill was speaking of broad, sunlit uplands, the Nazi machine was constructing rows of gas chambers. Even today, violent terrorists are indiscriminately killing innocent people, living out false ideologies that promote hatred over love, violence over peace, despair over hope. I’m something of a fan of the musical Joseph and his Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, except when we come to the very last number in the show, its climax in fact, where we’re solemnly told that ‘any dream will do’. Any dream will do? I really don’t think so.
But when it comes to the dreams of a prophet Micah, a Churchill, a Martin Luther King – dreams of a better society, a world in which we truly love God and love our neighbour as ourselves, a civic life characterised by those mighty virtues of faith, hope and love – then their impact can only be beneficial, challenging us not just to settle for self-interest and second best, but to dream big about the kind of world we really want to live in; and then to pray and work for that dream to become a reality.
I don’t want to become political at this point, or to share my personal feelings about Brexit or the election of Donald Trump as President of the most powerful nation on earth. But here’s one thing we’re probably all agreed upon: that here in the UK, and over in the US as well, we need a dream right now, a fresh vision of what our society should look like. ‘Get our country back!’ was the slogan that motivated more than half our nation to vote for Brexit back in June: but what does that really mean? What is our vision for society, what are the so-called ‘British values’ for which so many lived and died on the fields of Flanders and in the skies above London and in a million other places too?
Here’s one vision: the British as a hard-working people, an ambitious people, gifted, compassionate, godly, diverse. The British who stand up again injustice and intolerance, who model fairness and the rule of law. The British who welcome in those who are fleeing from unimaginable miseries, and seek to build together a strong, just, multi-cultural society, The British committed to making the world a better place.
Here’s another vision: the British as an arrogant people, isolationist, imperialist, cynical, xenophobic, hooligan. The British who look after themselves and their own interests – especially the interests of the elite in an unequal and class-ridden society. The British who would prefer to pass by on the other side when it comes to the greatest refugee crisis since the Second World War. The British who – in the words of Catherine Tate’s grumpy teenage Lauren - ‘can’t be bovvered’.
And Brexit may prove to be wise or deeply foolish. And the same is true, I guess, of the election of Mr. Trump. But one thing is absolutely clear right now: that any dream won’t do. We need a dream worthy of those who fought against tyranny so that we might live in freedom. We need a dream that speaks to the very best of who we are as a nation and doesn’t pander to the very worst. As we look to a God of compassion and justice, and seek His guidance and help in this most unusual of times, we need to pray as Jesus taught us to pray, ‘Your Kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven’, then to put all our efforts into making that prayer a reality.
For what’s your dream, and what’s mine – a dream that is bigger than ourselves, even bigger than our nearest and dearest? What might Britain, what might Woking look like, if God’s Kingdom of compassion and justice were to break out in this place? Perhaps we might leave the last word to the prophet Micah again:
“They will beat their swords into ploughshares and the spears into pruning hooks. Nation will not take up sword against nation, nor will they train for war anymore. Everyone will sit under their own vine and under their own fig tree, and no-one will make them afraid."