November is a sombre month – despite me having yet another birthday in it. The remembering of deceased family and friends at All Saints gives way to a weird celebration of the (failed) Gunpowder Plot (and its religious undertones) which in turn rolls us on to Remembrance Day.
Even as a child I wondered why we had Remembrance Day on the day that the Armistice was signed: the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month of 1918. After all, it was the disaster of this – and the Treaty of Versailles – that led to the festering grievance of Germany in the 1920s and ’30s, feeding Hitler’s thirst for revenge on a Europe that had ‘stabbed Germany in the back’ by unjustly demanding of it an unconditional surrender and full admission of guilt. In other words, we celebrate the desire to end war on a day when the seeds of the Second World War were sown by an injustice the potential consequences of which were not imagined.
The point of making this observation, however, is that human beings very easily forget their history and only remember those bits that reinforce the prejudices we hold in our understanding of the contemporary world. The corruption of the Weimar Republic, coupled with weak government, provided the fertile breeding ground for a National Socialism that offered solutions to today’s ‘problems’ while allowing people to ignore the big pool in which Nazi ideology itself swam.
In other words, sort out the economy now (reduce unemployment, end inflation, restore order and build houses, roads and factories, etc) and we will ignore the unpleasant fact that the ‘ordering’ party has a world view that idealises and then privileges a particular race over against other races. Ignore the fact that this racial understanding of German identity was historical and scientific nonsense/romanticism: power was given away to the guys who would put cash in our pockets and food in our bellies.
Show me a fascist who has ever won an argument. Show me a fascist who didn’t grab power with violence, exploiting a weak democratic system by ‘restoring order’ to its people. History is always in danger of repeating itself wherever there is economic need, political weakness and people prepared to give power away in order to solve a different problem now.
I thought about this while at St Mary, Addington, this morning, knowing that the BNP would be wanting to lay a wreath at the War Memorial afterwards. I read a poem I wrote in Normandy in 1996 (and put on this blog) and told how I had been snubbed last year in Germany.
I had preached in Meissen Cathedral and after the service stood at the door and spoke with most of the 200 or so people there. Towards the end an elderly man came out and stood with his hands by his side and told me he could not bring himself to shake hands with an English bishop who had (wrongly) been invited to preach in this German Cathedral. I asked him why not. He replied that he came from Dresden and could not forgive what the Allies had done to that city during 13-15 February 1945 – he called it a ‘war crime’. I responded that I also think it was a war crime (for reasons too long to go into here), but that my grandparents had been bombed out (and their children evacuated) in Liverpool – a city devastated by German bombers and one that is still recovering even 60 years after the War ended. There are no winners in war, but there are many casualties. After a silence he extended his hand and wished me well before he walked off to his car.
Remembrance Day always reminds me that we don’t emerge from a historical vacuum. Tomorrow will see the 20th anniversary of the fall of part of Hitler’s legacy: the Berlin Wall as a symbol of a divided Germany and a divided world. Generations suffered the consequences of decisions made by powermongers who were having to sort out the problems of the moment as well as trying to prevent these solutions creating further (and often unanticipated) problems later.
Which is why I have asked elsewhere what a ‘won’ war would look like. It is never straightforward and time never stands still for us to declare that a ‘clean’ point has been reached.
Two passages from the Bible stand out for me today. In Deuteronomy 26 ‘God’s people’ are commanded to grow their crops (leaving the edges of their crop fields for the ‘aliens, strangers, asylum seekers, immigrant, powerless, poor, dispossessed, etc.’), bring the first ten per cent of their harvest to the priest and recite a creed. This creed is probably the oldest form of credal statement we find in the Hebrew Scriptures and it begins with the acknowledgement that “my father was a wandering Aramaean…”. In other words, when you bring the fruit of your hard work to the priest you must first acknowledge in word and action that we are all ‘pilgrims’ on a journey, that what we have is ‘gift’ and that we have obligations under God for the poor, the aliens/foreigners and the dispossessed. The lesson is powerful: ‘never ever forget your story – that once you too were aliens and dispossessed.’
The seocnd passage is from Mark 1 in which Jesus tells his people that God has good news for them. It is not (as they think it is) that the Romans are going and their problems are about to end, but, rather, that they are going to have to radically change the way they look, see and think about God, the world and us … and then live differently in the world in which we find ourselves. ‘Repent’ means ‘change your mind-set’ – which doesn’t sound like ‘comfortable news’ even if it ultimately is ‘good news’ for other people.
If we didn’t have Remembrance Day, we’d have to invent it. We need it to put the present in perspective and to remind us that solving today’s problems is not the only priority – that selective remembering or short-term thinking only leads to longer-term problems that might be worse. Of course, it also encourages us to cease romanticising the cost of conflict and recognise the pain of those who are bereaved … and those who bear the scars of their experience of conflict and find it hard to return ‘home’ to ‘safety’.