I think it was Laurens van der Post who wrote that “he who has no story to tell has no life to live”. Or something like that, anyway.
I remembered it while preaching at the re-dedication of a World War One memorial window in a church in Keighley yesterday afternoon. Unusually, the window had been put in in 1917 – before the war had ended, rather than in response to its eventual conclusion and once the killing had ceased. Perhaps that is why, instead of having some saintly or heavenly figure at its heart, it has a crucified Jesus next to a dead soldier in the trenches. God is to be found in the place where the pain and suffering are most acute – and not a million miles above contradiction, maintaining his purity from all the muck and bullets of human misery.
Contrary to the prejudice of some cynics, Christianity is rooted in the God who opts into the world and does not exempt himself from it. This has two implications: (a) God is not unaware of the fact that his presence does not exempt either God or the rest of us from the consequences of the decisions we make in the world we shape; and (b) those who bear his name (that is, in a Hebraic sense, who assume his character) can do no other than get stuck into that same world, whatever the cost. Christian commitment can never be an escape into some self-preserving fantasy or private piety, but always compels us to love the world and live in it now. (As the biblical narrative keeps emphasising, 'heaven' comes to us; we do not go to it. Christian discipleship is not simply about 'getting to heaven when I die'.)
However, the reason van der Post's line came to me was that the re-dedication of the restored window was preceded by the reading of the names of the fallen of that parish (All Saints, Keighley). Not only were all seventeen names read out, but a short biography of each one. Well, of all but one. There was something to say about sixteen of them – where they lived, who their parents were, when/where they died – but of one there was nothing to add to the name.
Who was 2nd Lieutenant SA Baker?
Go to any war cemetery – especially in France or Belgium – and the sheer number of crosses and stones beggars belief. Yet, as at Bayeux, there are also thousands of names engraved in arches and on walls – names of those whose remains were never found (or, maybe, identified). We can stand and stare, but all we see is faceless names of people who once lived and breathed and occupied space on this planet.
So, who was 2nd Lieutenant SA Baker?
It matters because the emptiness behind the name – the lack of a story, if you like – confronts us with a question: what value does he have if we know nothing about him? Was his life really nothing? Did he leave no lasting mark on this world? It is the same question we ask when confronted by a photograph of a pile of bodies in a concentration camp – anonymous, heaped, discarded flesh: the baby lying atop the pile had little or no life and will never be known or identified.
Christians say two things about all this. First, that every human being is made in the image of God and is, therefore, infinitely valuable. Each person has value not because someone else loves them or says they matter; when all that is stripped away, they still matter. Secondly, the cross, planted in the rubbish tip outside the place of acceptable society (the city), absorbs the pain and doesn't throw it back at the world which caused it. The cycle of violence is broken here. And, just a couple of days later, the world would be offered the hint that violence, power, destruction and death do not have the final word after all; God, who made us in his image, does… and that word is 'resurrection'.
This afternoon I recalled two places I have visited in the last couple of decades. The first was a set of trenches on the Maginot Line in eastern France. I stood there with a friend (and our families) who happened to be German and an officer in the Luftwaffe. A generation before and we would have been killing each other. The second is a small church that now serves as a memorial to the fallen of a small town. Mounted on the walls are wooden shields in which are engraved the names of hundreds of people who died in the last war. This church, of St Peter, is to be found in the Bavarian town of Lindau on Lake Constance.
Every name belonged to a person who belonged to some family somewhere. Each one had a face and a mother and a father and a place of belonging. Each one suckled at someone's breast with eyes looking at them in love and imagining a future. Each one had a place and a name. Each one had a story, even if we can't now remember it.
The names matter. Especially that of 2nd Lieutenant SA Baker.