This is the text of an article published in the Yorkshire Post today:

A couple of years ago a book was published that offers readings, prayers, poems and reflections for Remembrance. It is called ‘Hear My Cry’ – a repeated and heart-felt wrenching of the spirit taken from the Psalms.

But, it is the subtitle that grabs the attention: ‘Words for when there are no words’.

It sounds like a ridiculous paradox, yet anyone who has ever found themselves in despair will know exactly what it means. There are times in life – and always in the face of death – when we find ourselves empty and silent. As human beings we seem made to make shape out of chaos; but, bereavement can leave us simultaneously speechless and desperate for order. And we find we cannot control the grief or make it better.

In such circumstances we sometimes need the words of others when we have no words for ourselves. Someone else needs to provide the vocabulary for grief, the words for when we have no words and silence is too painful.

If this is true of most bereavements, it is particularly true when death is violent and distant. To lose a son or father or daughter or wife or husband in the course of military conflict brings a particular silence, a particular grief. The distance and the unknowing of the context makes the death more grievous – even if death is always death.

I have never lost anyone close to me in war, but my parents lived through the bombing of Liverpool during World War Two. I also took part in the intelligence support for British forces in the South Atlantic, and saw the consequences for those who were involved and had to live with the deaths of friends and colleagues.

If Remembrance Day did not exist, I think we would need to invent it. For two reasons:

First, we need to create a public event of remembering the people and events that have shaped the society to which we belong and in which we invest. Those whose loved-ones have died in conflict on our behalf need that public recognition of their loss. For their loss is our loss. Canadian singer-songwriter Bruce Cockburn watched the coffins of slain Canadian troops being carried off a military aircraft in Afghanistan several years ago, and wrote a song about it. Having described in the most moving language the tragedy and dignity of what he had witnessed, he writes: “Each one lost is everyone’s loss, you see; each one lost is a vital part of you and me”. That’s why need to remember publicly.

The second reason is that we simply cannot know who we are if we don’t remember where we have come from. It sounds obvious, but it isn’t easy to do. Our memories are selective and some memories do need to be left where they belong: in the past.

The story of Israel in the early chapters of the Bible is one in which public acts of remembering are integral. Prior to entering the Land of Promise the people are warned that they will too easily forget that once they had been migrants and slaves in a foreign land. Once they got their own land and built new lives they would prosper … and forget their own origins. Basically, they would then begin to treat other people as their slaves. So, the year was broken down into festivals that would compel the people to re-tell and re-enact their story, passing it on to their children and future generations. It would cost them the first and best ten percent of their harvest. And the edges of their fields would be left for homeless, hungry and sojourning people to find sustenance. That sounds like a twenty percent tax for starters.

Most religious communities shape the year similarly, celebrating festivals that shape our memory and remind us of what matters – especially that we are mortal, that we shall one day die, that a good society might be worth dying for. The loss of such festivals in secular society might be more costly than we realise.

The point is that we as a society need at least one day a year when we re-member – literally, put back together the parts (members) of our own story. We need to recall the cost that people have paid and continue to pay for preserving the freedoms we have. We need to recall with honesty and integrity those things which we should celebrate and those of which we should be ashamed – from which we might learn for the future.

That is where Remembrance Day fits in. Whether directly connected to the dead or bereaved, we come together in local communities to create space for remembering our common story. It stops the routine of life and creates silence in which we drop words for when words need to stop and silence reigns. We do it together, conscious of how fragile our lives are and how fragile our civilisation is.

It is said that we should know for what we would die. I think we should ask ourselves for what we, in the light of our mortality, will live for.

 

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.

That's enough.

 

PoppyNovember 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.

IMG_9504I 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.

IMG_9521Remembrance 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.

Dresden 1945If 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’.