Just back from the Remembrance Day observations in Bradford. A couple of thousand people turned out and observed two minutes silence at 11am. We also sang and prayed. Why? And what for?
Last night, for the first time in many years, I watched the whole Festival of Remembrance from the Royal Albert Hall. Why? Well, because we have two Swiss friends staying with us and this is a uniquely British phenomenon – along with the Last Night of the Proms and the Changing of the Guard. And, if I am honest (and can bear to bang my familiar drum again), when you watch something like this in the presence of foreigners, you watch it through different eyes – explaining it and asking yourself why such a ceremony has the particular form and content it does.
Last night was a real tear-jerker, especially when the young girl who had sung ran to her father as he entered the hall to surprise her; he still has three months of Navy duty to do on the other side of the world. The family testimonies of people whose loved ones have been killed in recent conflicts were as powerful as ever. But, why sing hymns and say prayers? Why bring God into this? Isn't the 'God on our side' mentality the cause of conflict anyway?
Well, again, last night was powerful partly because it combines proud pageantry (and epic television production) with raw collective emotion. And in the midst of a busy world it compels us to step back, shut up and reflect on both human mortality and the hubris of power. At no point was war glorified or blind patriotism enjoined. At no point was conflict romanticised or propagandised. At every point we saw both the complex morality of war and the devastating cost of violence – along with examples of sheer courage exercised in the field of conflict.
I was interested to see both Ed Miliband and Nick Clegg singing the hymns although both are declared atheists. This is NOT a criticism of them. But, I think that when you bring God in to any reflection of human mortality we go beyond human conventions (about the meaning of life and death) and find ourselves held before a far more serious bar. Of course, this bar is not subject to passing fancy or political fashion – it holds human life as infinitely valuable (a clear theological anthropology that does not leave human life subject to 'convenient re-valuing') and eternally significant (ethics matter and not just to particular human beings or societies). I wonder what political leaders think when they are not the top dog and when the language and ceremony relativises their power?
I hope it leads to humility as an antidote to any temptation to hubris.
This was all a mystery to the Swiss, who have no similar public commemoration of their history. I am not sure if any other country does such commemoration as we do today. But, I remain convinced that if we didn't have Remembrance Day, we would have to invent it. We need at least one day a year when we stop and shut up, when we ritually re-member our collective past (and recognise that we don't live in a historical or incontingent vacuum), when we confront hubris with humility, and when we recognise stories of courage and loss. There is nothing romantic or heroic about seeing a mother grieve the son who fell in a war he didn't choose.