The Atoning Sacrifice

A sermon preached on Remembrance Sunday by Revd Dr Sam Wells.

When we think together about war, as we do on this Sunday every year, we ponder three things. We reflect, perhaps most of all, on the haemorrhaging of life, mostly young life, the ghastly nature of those deaths, the grief for those bereaved, the depth and variety of wounds that changed the life of so many, the lives that were never the same again. We consider, second, the society that changed so much from 1914 to 18 and again from 1939 to 45; the broader geopolitical realities of what those wars achieved and failed to achieve, and the things that changed for good and ill as a result of these huge maelstroms of dislocation, trauma, and death. And more subtly we contemplate, third, the nature of remembering, the desire to airbrush the uncomfortable details, the urge to make it all a good story, in which we were in the right and good ultimately prevailed.

Death, change, and memory – these are the great themes of Remembrance: and they each have their associated ironies. The irony of death is that, for the most part, wars are fought to preserve life – freedom, rights, dignity, independence; most famously, the First World War was declared to be the war to end all wars. But a war for life turns out to be an oxymoron. The irony of change is that war is a magnifying glass that highlights what’s wrong not just in the country fought against, but in the country fought for. So much of the fighting in Vietnam was done by African Americans who were denied civil rights in the country for which they were giving their lives. Meanwhile war is the locomotive of history; while wars are invariably fought to preserve things, nothing changes society quicker than war, won or lost. The irony of memory is notoriously that the winners write the history. Like a meeting where anything can happen but what counts is what ends up in the minutes, what matters in war is most often not what happens on the battlefield but how the story is later told. Hence Dunkirk is a catastrophe remembered as an astonishing and brave retreat, while victory over Japan has been robbed of glory by the horror of the two atom bombs.

Ian McEwan’s 2001 novel, Atonement, also a 2007 film, fits neatly onto this threefold category of war. I want to reflect on what it shows us about each of these three ironies – death, change, and memory.

The most searing passages of the book are set in Flanders, where Robbie, Cambridge-graduate son of a loyal country-house servant, is among the members of the British Expeditionary Force retreating to Dunkirk, having been utterly outgunned in northern France and Belgium. The scene is one of almost complete hell, the retreating soldiers harried from above by the guns and bombs of descending aircraft, and facing hunger, misery, and pain from wounds, exhaustion and despair. Time after time moments of friendship, hope and energy are blasted away by relentless destruction, murderous intent and mounting odds, until finally Robbie makes his way to Dunkirk. There he finds hundreds of thousands of men who’ve made the same journey, thinking the hard part was done, only to find the prospects of evacuation from the colossal beach beyond imagination. All through the journey Robbie has been consoled by his last meeting with his beloved Cecilia. His utter loyalty to her and the dream of their reunion balances the companionable decency of his relationship with his fellow soldiers, and together these glimpses of the sheer goodness of love make us long for his safe return to England and to his beloved’s arms. Yet as the curtain closes on this part of the book, we fear that unless he can hold his eyes open and keep sleep at bay, he could succumb to sickness or enemy fire without ever stepping on the boat home.

The theme of change is what actually begins the novel. We find the main characters five years earlier at a mansion in Surrey, where Robbie has returned after finishing at Cambridge, and where he meets the highly presentable Cecilia, daughter of the household, greatly his social superior. We immediately recognise how mired in class divisions is 1930s England. But worse than that, lies and deception are everywhere. Cecilia’s father is elsewhere with his mistress, her mother has retreated upstairs with a perpetual undiagnosed case of withdrawal, while numerous cousins have landed on the household while their parents are given space to divorce as acrimoniously as possible. Robbie and Cecilia’s love for each other surfaces at the very same time as Cecilia’s sister Briony discovers, misunderstands, and distorts it. Before the evening is over, a terrible crime has taken place, and Briony’s overcharged imagination and overhasty judgement wrongly pin the blame on Robbie. Robbie’s led away in a police van, a sacrificial lamb doomed to pay the price for the sins of a whole household – figuratively, for a whole society.

We are vividly and unambiguously shown that the Britain on the verge of war may be a place of beauty, and love, and creativity – but it’s just as much a land of prejudice, deception, violence, and the miscarriage of justice.

Cecilia, heartbroken, and not permitted to visit Robbie in prison, throws herself into nursing the wounded of the Blitz and the returning wounded from the war. Briony, realising as she grows up how wrong she was, and how profoundly she’s ruined Robbie and Cecilia’s lives, makes atonement by renouncing her place at Cambridge to enter nursing herself. We realise that Robbie was sent to join the British Expeditionary Force as an alternative to prison; he’s not a volunteer, he’s a conscript prisoner. He’s making atonement for a sin he never committed. We see war from many angles. We see the fragility of life, in Robbie’s perilous journey to Dunkirk, in the ghastly wounds of the hospitalised soldiers, in the tenuous love Cecilia and Robbie manage to maintain. We see profound faithfulness, of the two lovers, and of the various friendships that arise amid the crisis of war. And we see a kind of redemption, as each of the three main characters find a level of dignity beyond the tawdriness of their pre-war story. Most of all we see the rapid transformation of class and hidebound tradition, as nurses in London and soldiers in France adapt to desperate situations, and the moribund class structures of the 1930s are rapidly turned upside down.

But as death and change give way to our third theme of memory, the novel turns bitter and cruel. We’re shown Briony making her penitential way to the house Cecilia and Robbie share in London, and doing her best to confess and repent of her false testimony that condemned Robbie to jail and the lovers to their long separation. Later we see a glorious reunion, Robbie home from the war, Cecilia at a blustery seaside cottage enveloping him in her loving arms. But then we’re fast-forwarded to the 1990s, and see Briony as a successful novelist, and realise the whole account we’ve been given is her memory of events. And we’re confronted with the dreadful realisation that Briony’s penitent visit to the reunited couple’s house, and their blissful reunion at the seaside cottage, are her fanciful attempt to save the reader from the truth. The truth is that Robbie died of septicaemia a mile from the beach at Dunkirk in 1940, while Cecilia died moths later in the Blitz when the tube station in which she was sheltering from the bombing was flooded with water. There was no reunion. Briony has carried this terrible knowledge in her heart for the five decades since the war, and writing a beautiful story is her tragic way to make some atonement not just for her sins, but for all the terrible wrongs that led to the deaths of Robbie and Cecilia and so many millions of others.

Thus death doesn’t end in 1940, or 1945: it stays in the heart of survivors for decades to come. And change does come, but in a way no one could predict or expect, certainly not those, like Briony, who try as they might to engineer the outcome of events. Meanwhile memory is everything and nothing; a form of immortality or an abiding lie, depending on your point of view.

We gather, Sunday by Sunday, to ponder these same three things: death, change, and memory. We gather to remember a death: the most terrible death in history, the saddest, most grievous, most pointless and wilful, whose lies and injustices expose the society of its time and any time. We gather to recognise that that death was at the epicentre of a whole process of change, which on a personal level we call conversion, but on a grander level we call the salvation of the world, and for which in either case we use the word atonement. And we gather to perform an act of memory, embodied in the Eucharist, because Jesus told his disciples that how they remembered him was the key to how they would remain faithful to that death and that change.

That’s how we reflect on death, and change, and memory every week. But today on Remembrance Sunday it behoves us not to be too quick to offer meanings, interpret answers, or rest in easy conclusions. Today we simply do these three things. We reflect on the death of so many soldiers like Robbie and civilians like Cecilia, and recognise in humility and gratitude that, however complex the back story, they gave their tomorrow so that we may live our today. We recognise that, leaving the carnage and murder aside, the wars of the twentieth century contributed to a huge wave of social change which is by no means over, but in which through prayer and struggle, and in spite of tremendous setbacks, we strive for a more just, equal and merciful world, today renewing our commitment to that quest. And we rediscover that we are a community of memory, and that if we are to honour the deaths of so many and the griefs and burdens of those left behind, we must have the courage to see the truth about our past, the glory and the shame, and place both on the altar of God, where alone can atonement be found.