martinstag: a day for peace

This post was written with the help of Benjamin Hertwig, partner, co-conspirer, veteran, and PhD student focusing on contemporary war narratives in Canada.

November 11 is Martinstag, or St. Martin’s Day, a liturgical day commemorating the death of Saint Martin. In Germany (where Benjamin’s family is from) Martinstag is celebrated with paper lantern processions, feasting, and bonfires. Today, we’re making pretzels to celebrate the occasion.

Saint Martin was a Roman soldier who left the military after converting to Christianity, founding Ligugé Abbey, one of the oldest Benedictine monasteries in France. He was jailed for cowardice after refusing to continue in Caesar’s conquest, saying “I am the soldier of Christ: it is unlawful for me to fight.” His most well known saintly act was cutting a cloak in two with his sword to give half to a beggar. As such, he is the patron saint of beggars, wool-weavers and tailors, and geese (their migration coincides with his feast), as well as—reflective of the paradoxes of sainthood when tangled in empire and nation—the US Army Quartermaster Corps and of the French Third Republic. What might this feast day, named for a military deserter turned contemplative, teach us?

In Canada, November 11 is also Remembrance Day: a public holiday observed in Commonwealth settler-colonies since WWI in memorial of members of the armed forces, those who, we are often told “fought and died for our freedom.” Many are familiar with the fraught nature of this day: the sanctified pageantry of bagpipe processions, “In Flanders Fields,” and red poppies contrasted with the homelessness rates among veterans and lack of mental health support for returning soldiers, particularly so in America but also in Canada. Dominant narratives valourize “noble” soldier deaths over countless unacknowledged civilian deaths, which is why some choose to wear white poppies instead. Contemporary Remembrance Day celebrations often devolve into drunken forms of patriotic revelry, in Benjamin’s experience—perhaps a symptom of the desire to forget rather than truly remember the horrors of war, what Jesuit priest Daniel Berrigan called “a last ditch moral nightmare… hand in hand with death.”

The problem with Remembrance Day is not only how it mythologizes war, but how it reveals what the state remembers and what it forgets, and who we as citizens choose to mourn. Feminist theorist Judith Butler addresses this form of national amnesia in Frames of War: When is Life Grievable? when she asks her readers to consider “whose lives are considered valuable, whose lives are mourned, and whose lives are considered ungrievable.” State ceremonies for Remembrance Day, in all their pomp and solemnity, function more as propaganda for patriotism than memorial, especially considering the historic violent erasure and criminalization of Indigenous ceremonies for the purposes of colonial consolidation of land and eradication of Indigenous people. These days, as Mi’kmaq lawyer Dr. Pamela Palmater puts it, the strategy has shifted from the overt elimination of scalp bounties and forced sterilization to institutionalization through prisons, policing, social work, and the foster care system. “White supremacy,” she reminds us, “will kill to keep itself alive.” Cree poet Billy-Ray Belcourt writes in his poem “god’s river:”

remind them
that canada is
four hundred
—call it colonialism

to live in
trenches like these
is to be
civilian casualty
and soldier all at once

Lest we forget, God has strong words for the hypocrisy of people who cling to performative ritual without doing the work of justice and care for the poor and marginalized: “I hate, I despise your feasts, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies… Take away from me the noise of your songs; to the melody of your harps I will not listen. But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.” (Amos 5: 21-24)

On Saint Martin’s Day, will we refuse state mythologies of war in the spiritual lineage of the Quakers, Catholic Workers, dissenters, and war resisters, choosing instead the way of the cross—embodied solidarity with the incarcerated, occupied, and oppressed? Will we hear Jesus’s calls in the Garden of Gethsemane to put our swords away? Will we choose to remember those killed not only in war but by the violence of the state, those victim to the ongoing violence enacted by colonial powers at home and imperial military forces abroad: the Missing and Murdered, the Black and Indigenous people terrorized by police brutality, the migrants displaced by Canadian corporations and extractive development in Central America? Let us choose to be peace workers, not for the false peace of the status-quo or empty calls for “unity” without justice, but for the peace of Christ: dismantling all forms of violence in favour of radical, border-crossing, empire-resisting inclusion and love, love in the bell hooksian sense, a political ethic and act of will.

Good Gardener God,
Awaken us to a world beyond war:
beyond its mechanisms of violence,
its systematic desecration of your children,
your poor and racialized, your living creation.
You call us into abundant life for all,
into a future free of colonial and capitalist domination.
You seat us at your banqueting table warmed by
a bonfire of burning flags and melted down weapons,
where the only banner is love.

Grant us courage as we strive for peace,
fortitude as we practice resurrection and resistance.
May we march, garden, feast, work, and play in assurance
and hope that you will, in the fullness of time,
restore all things and, in joy and co-liberation,
lead us into your peaceable kin-dom.


Prayers & liturgies for St. Martin’s Day

Christian Peacemaker Teams: Litany of Resistance | Written by Jim Loney in 1991 during the first Gulf War, this litany serves as both prayer and collective commitment to resisting war and violence as a spiritual imperative.

For an End to Violence at the Hands of the State
by Kenji Kuramitsu, from A Booklet of Uncommon Prayer: Collects for the Black Lives Matter Movement & Beyond

Mother God,
who has longed to gather all her children
under her mighty wings,
you are our good Parent and Caregiver.

Rupture, O Giver of Truth,
the status quo of racialized violence that infects your land,
and teach us through your divine Word
to reject the false promises of state peace
in favour of the presence of the dangerous justice of Christ.


Art for St. Martin’s Day

Songs for St. Martin’s Day

Further Reading & Resources