Past troubles and future dreams

Text: Revelation 21:1-6 (new heavens and a new earth)

Anniversaries are often times of fun and fond memories as at birthday parties or during our celebration this year of the 40th anniversary of Mill Woods United Church.

Anniversaries can also be times of sadness as when we mark the death of a loved one or a military defeat.

Last week saw several significant anniversaries. Yesterday was the 400th anniversary of the death of William Shakespeare, the English poet and playwright. Friday was Earth Day, an annual event to promote environmental protection and peace. Thursday was the 90th birthday of Elizabeth II, the Queen of Canada, England and the British Empire.

Today is another anniversary: the centennial of a defining moment in Irish history. One hundred years ago today, a group of Irish nationalists began a six-day armed rebellion in Dublin in a failed attempt to win Ireland’s independence from Britain. It was called the Easter Rising because it began on Easter Monday and was drowned in blood by Easter Saturday.

The southern part of Ireland that eventually did gain independence in 1921 after a two-year-long war with Britain commemorates the Rising every year on Easter Sunday. As we know, Easter moves about on the calendar. This year Easter fell on March 27. But in 1916 Easter Sunday was on April 23, and so the first day of the Rising, April 24, was Easter Monday.

This year’s celebration of the centennial of the Rising culminated in a huge military parade in Dublin on March 27. The leaders of the Rising, all of whom were executed by the British as traitors to King George V, are heroes in Ireland. Although the Rising failed, it is hailed as a key moment in the events that led to Ireland’s partial independence in 1921.

Today, I have chosen to talk about the centennial of the Rising in Ireland for a couple of reasons. First, most of my ancestry is Irish and Scottish. For instance, my maternal grandfather went off to France in 1914, where he was seriously wounded in 1915, wearing a Scottish kilt. And so I have a familial interest in the struggles of Irish and Scottish people with England, its United Kingdom, and its Empire.

Second, today’s Irish Centennial brings to my mind another Easter Monday anniversary that will dominate the hearts and minds of Canadians next April — the centennial of the Battle of Vimy Ridge. This Battle — which historians says marked the birth of Canadian nationhood in a way similar to how the Easter Rising marked the birth of Irish nationhood — began on Easter Monday in 1917, which on that year fell on April 9.

Next year’s commemoration of the centennial of this battle — from April 9th to 12th 2017 — will be a centrepiece of a year-long celebration of the 150th anniversary of Canadian Confederation in 1867.

The Battle of Vimy Ridge was the first time that all four Canadian divisions, 170,000 young men in all, fought as one against the Germans. The Battle ended when the Canadians took the Ridge from the Germans, although at a terrible cost in both Canadian and German casualties.

I see some parallels between the Easter Rising in Dublin in 1916 and the Battle of Vimy Ridge in 1917. Both occurred during World War I. Both involved British colonies who were hoping to gain a greater measure of independence from the Empire. Both involved loss of life – 340 Irish citizens and 140 British soldiers in Ireland and as many as 10,000 Canadian and German soldiers in Vimy Ridge.

There are also contrasts. The Easter Rising was an act of treason against King George V and his Empire while the Battle of Vimy Ridge was fought for that same King and Empire. Why, then, are they both celebrated as glorious sacrifices?

Those who love the British Empire might bristle at the glory heaped today on the executed leaders of the Irish Easter Rising. 1916 was a dire moment for the British Empire in its fight-to-the finish against the German, Austro-Hungarian, and Turkish empires. The last thing Britain and its French and Russian allies needed in 1916 was an Irish rebellion that might inspire other British colonies in India, Africa, or the Caribbean to try and break free of Britain’s grip.

Those who value the lives of young people regardless of the country for which they fight might bristle at using a battle in which 10,000 people died as a key marker of national pride, especially if they consider World War One to be one fought largely to maintain colonies.

In 1916 and 1917, Germany and its Kaiser were the hated enemies of Canadians. But this past week in researching the links between Kaiser Wilhelm and King George, I came across an article from the Daily Telegraph that shocked me. The Kaiser and the King were first cousins, which I had known. But the article also showed how Kaiser Wilhelm would have become the King of Britain if the laws of royal succession were then what they are today.

Beginning in 2015, heirs to the British throne are ranked only according to birth order and not also by sex. Before 2015, the only way a female could become British monarch was if she had no brothers.

The article noted that if the law of succession had been sex-blind when Queen Victoria died in 1901, she would not have been succeeded by her second-born child, Edward, but by her first-born child, Victoria. Her daughter would have reigned as Victoria II for only a few months since she died shortly after her mother did. In turn, Victoria II would have been succeeded by her first born child, William who was Queen Victoria’s oldest grandson, and who by 1901 was also the Kaiser of Germany.

If today’s law of succession had been in place in 1901, William/Wilhelm would have been King of England, Kaiser of Germany, and Emperor of both the British and German empires!

In this scenario, Queen Elizabeth would never have become a monarch. Her 90th birthday last Thursday would have gone unnoticed since today she would be a minor royal, one who was about 50th in line to the British throne.

If the laws of royal succession had been sex-blind in 1901, Germany and England might even have been allies and not enemies in World War One. Kaiser Wilhelm II would not have been the most hated man in Canada, denounced as he was from every pulpit and editorial page in the land during the Great War. Instead, Wilhelm would have been our beloved monarch, King William V, the Emperor for whom Canadian young men were urged to kill and be killed in that war.

Some may find this thought experiment silly or tasteless. To me, it highlights the arbitrary nature of the horror of World War One.

I am sad that 60,000 Canadian young men died fighting for King George in the First War and against the man who could have been their King, Kaiser Wilhelm.

I am sad that 500 people died in Ireland in a failed attempt to gain independence from Britain in 1916. I am angry that their leaders were executed in 1916 as traitors to King George and as supposed collaborators with his first cousin, Kaiser Wilhelm, who could easily have been their king instead.

I am disappointed that so much Canadian pride is invested in World War One and in the Battle of Vimy Ridge. For this reason alone, I am not looking forward to the celebrations of 150 years of Confederation next year in 2017.

But perhaps I could try to chill and not focus so much on historical matters. Perhaps channeling my 10-year old self  would help. I was 10 years old in 1967, Canada’s Centennial Year. I remember it well and I loved it all. I liked the new Maple Leaf flag. I liked singing Bobby Gimby’s song “CAN-A-DA.” Do you remember it? “North south east west / There’ll be happy times / Church Bells will ring, ring, ring!”

I was happy that my family lived about an hour’s drive west of Montreal and that we went there to Expo ’67 many times. I loved reports of the Summer of Love in San Francisco and the sense of optimism that seemed to permeate 1967. It was a time when all things seemed possible.

Perhaps the 150th anniversary of Confederation in 2017 will feel like this too . . . even if a few sour notes are heard about genocide from the report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission; even if some people in Quebec use the occasion to bring up the wounds of the conquest of New France in the 1760s and the realities faced by French-speakers since then, just as President Charles De Gaulle of France did in Quebec in 1967 with his notorious “Vive le Quebec libre!” speech; even if a few curmudgeons like me question why we glorify the Battle of Vimy Ridge with its 10,000 dead in a useless war.

Perhaps if people like me lighten up, we will all have a good time next year.

Except, today at age 59, I look at national pride differently than when I was 10. In 1967, I was ignorant of the conquest and genocide that is part of Canadian, British, and French history. I didn’t suspect that the leaders of the British Empire might be as culpable as the leaders of the German Empire in the disaster of World War One. When I was 10, I didn’t know much of anything, to be frank.

I don’t regret the loss of this innocence, which for me started almost as soon as Centennial Year was over. In early 1968, the Tet Offensive showed that the U.S. was probably going to lose the War in Vietnam. The assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Bobby Kennedy upended U.S. politics and led to the election of Richard Nixon as President, a leader who was dead-set against change.

The Prague Spring of 1968 was crushed by Soviet tanks in August. A general strike in France almost toppled the government of Charles De Gaulle. A civil war in Nigeria led to famine in Biafra. After the optimism of the Summer of Love and Canada’s Centennial Year, 1968 felt like the start of an era of turmoil, darkness, and fear.

But many of us also felt great joy and hope in 1968. In the movements against the Vietnam War, for civil rights for Blacks, and for equality of women; in youth rebellions all around the world; and in the many struggles to end European colonialism once and for all, 1968 showed us paths to the new earth we want.

Looking back, 1967 seemed like a dream built on sand. In contrast, 1968 began my quest to find hope in reality despite its grittiness and to pursue dreams that were built on all the joy and pain of a life lived in the light of truth.

I imagine that I will survive the celebration of Canada’s 150th anniversary next year. From time to time I may speak out against the dominant narratives. From time to time I may even feel a few stirrings of national pride.

But if I have learned anything so far in the ups and downs of life — including 60 Good Fridays and 60 Easters — it is this: the surest route to Love is found in reality regardless of all that we may not like about it.

We don’t yet live on the new earth we want. Nevertheless, this old earth gives us the only place where we can speak truth to power; the only place where we can reach out to one another in love; and the only place we can pursue our visions of a new world in joyous struggles against official lies, hollow nationalism, and endless war.

And for this Easter truth, I say again, Thanks be to God.


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