At this hour the solemn funeral service for Sir Winston Churchill is taking place in St Paul’s Cathedral and we, like other Jewish congregations all over the free world, have felt bound to echo the words of memorial in the course of our own regular Sabbath services.
What a great life Sir Winston Churchill had – and how magnificently he lived it to the full! God endowed him with natural gifts of so many kinds – gifts of character and of heart, gifts of mind and of the power of expression, and the supreme gift of long life in which to become a legend in his own days.
There was much about him that recalled the Biblical Prophets with their steadfastness in the face of opposition and scorn, their unswerving pursuit of justice and righteousness, their ringing denunciation of evil and their stirring words of faith and inspiration. And there is much in the recorded words of the Prophets that can act as a parable of Sir Winston Churchill.
There is a great passage in the Prophet Amos. Certain things, says Amos, are self-evident.
“Will two walk together,
Unless they have agreed?
Will a lion roar in the forest,
When he hath no prey?
Will a bird fall in a snare upon the earth,
When there is no lure for it?
Shall the horn be blown in the city,
And the people not tremble?
The lion hath roared –
Who will not fear?
The Lord God hath spoken –
Who can but prophesy?”
What makes a lion roar in the forest – is it not that he has cause to do so, because he wants to tell the world that he has found prey? To Amos this was self-evident, and yet his contemporaries did not see, and maybe would not see, that facts inevitably lead to consequences.
Churchill was no boy who cried “Wolf!” Churchill was a historian who made history, studied history, wrote history, and came from a family whose history was the history of Britain, and Churchill knew that history teaches its lessons. Especially in the 30’s, but also in 1945 at the end of the war, he clearly saw the indications of alarming consequences and year after year stood up to warn the world. The world ignored him, isolated him or at best mocked him. These things could never happen! These things are inconceivable in the civilised twentieth century! But the inconceivable was conceived and burst upon the world with thunder claps of wickedness and bestiality.
“If” is a cruel word and it does not do to ask “If certain events had not been allowed to happen…?” Yet today we can say “If” because governments and religious leaders are beginning to realise that if Churchill’s voice had not had to cry in the wilderness and if world opinion had taken a strong, uncompromising line, millions of our own people would have been saved and millions of human beings everywhere would have been spared much torment, misery and suffering.
“Shall the horn be blown in the city, and the people not tremble?” Does it not redound the eternal merit of Churchill that when at last he was given the opportunity to lead, it was he who when the horn was blown in the city – or rather when the sirens of enemy attack were heard – saw that the people did not tremble. For after the nightly bombing of London, there was he on the spot next morning to maintain the spirits of the people of London and the Allied lands, to bid them away with fear and despair.
“The lion hath roared, who will not fear?” When members of both Houses of Parliament gathered to pay tribute to him on his eightieth birthday, he replied that what kept Britain determined in those years was the will of the people: they were the ones who showed the strength of a lion. His task, he said, was merely to emit the roars. But what a roar he emitted! Rarely in the field of human history have so many nations owed so much to one man who kept the morals of all of them high. Hitler boasted that he had founded a “thousand-year Reich”. I am sure it was more than co-incidence that Churchill said: “Let us brace ourselves to our duties, and so bear ourselves that if the British Empire and its Commonwealth last for a thousand years men will say ‘this was their finest hour’.”
With the determination that showed in the set of the Prime Minister’s jaw and the arrogance of his showmanship and even his cigar and V-sign that became symbols in themselves, who would doubt the ultimate outcome? The British lion had roared – and there was a power in that roar which an unrighteous enemy at last learned to fear. His roar was memorable for the matchless gift of words in which it found expression. We thrill today to recall so much of the Churchillian phraseology which has entered the vocabulary of English usage. And can not we Jews find a special personal link with the words with which he greeted the centenary of the “Jewish Chronicle” in 1941? “Once again it will be shown that, though the mills of God grind slowly, yet they grind exceedingly small.”
“The Lord God hath spoken, who can but prophesy?” There was an inspiration of God about the man who symbolised the fight for freedom, justice and right in our days. And there was something of the prophet about him – and not the prophet in the popular sense of the man who foretells the future, but the man who forth-tells and brings a message of courage and assurance.
In a world that would reject a talented man because he is too young, Churchill achieved more in his first thirty years than many do in a lifetime. In a world that retires a man the day he is 65 and calls him a “has-been”, Churchill became Prime Minister at 66 and his greatest achievements were in his old age. And we Jews can add that in a world where all are equal but some more equal than others, Churchill consistently stood for the dignity and rights of the Jew and upheld the historic aim and aspiration of Zionism.
People are talking about erecting a memorial to Churchill. Somehow one feels that it would have amused him and best expressed all that he summed up by providing John Bull, the national mascot, with the cigar and V-sign as a permanent tribute to the humour and humanity of a great character and a great man.
We do not lament today. That is not fitting for the peaceful spirit of the Sabbath. But in the mood of prayer and praise we thank God for giving him to Britain and to humanity and pledge ourselves to turning into a fact the self-evident statement of Amos who asked, “Shall two walk together, unless they have agreed?”
After the war was won, Churchill turned his attention to winning the peace. There was writing on the wall and still is. We have not yet learned to achieve unity, agreement and world government, and until we do so the danger is not only that we cannot walk together but that we may not even survive to walk at all. It is to Churchill’s unfinished struggle for unity that we have to dedicate ourselves
if we want his memory to be a blessing.
May God rest his soul among the souls of all the righteous who dwell before Him in Heaven, and grant His consolation to the mourning family and the bereaved nation. Amen.