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.

 

This is the text of an article I published in the Yorkshire Post yesterday.

Every English teenager should be required to go with me to Berlin and take a 100 metre walk from the Brandenburg Gate up Unter den Linden. Within that short stretch we would walk the human history of great culture and dreadful tragedy, the heights of wisdom and the depths of corruption, the terror of captivity and the euphoria of liberation.

Of course, no one has offered to take me up on this proposal, but Berlin offers something unique in the world. And there could be no better – more poignant or instructive – day to do my walk than 9 November – a date that haunts Germans for different reasons. This year Remembrance Day falls on this day.

Berlin 1To remember means, literally, to re-member – that is, to put the memories back together in some order. So, make of this what you will: 9 November 1918 saw the abdication of Kaiser Wilhelm II; 9 November 1938 was Kristallnacht; 9 November 1989 saw the fall of the Berlin Wall. Within 70 years this date marked the end of the First World War which sowed the seeds of the Second which destroyed and then divided Europe and which then brought down the Soviet Empire.

It is hard to overstate the trauma suffered by Germans and made visible in the wall that tore apart a city and a world for 27 years. The German Democratic Republic proclaimed freedom from Nazi fascism, but then created a society riddled with secrecy, fantasy and suspicion – an estimated 25% of its population somehow corrupted or compromised by the secret police (the Stasi).

But, the Berlin Wall became a symbol of much more than political or social division. It became a metaphor for all sorts of ruptures between people and societies. It even became a metaphor for the spiritual imprisonments to which we allow ourselves to be subject: including to the consumerism that dominated on the western side of the Wall, but which did not ultimately satisfy the yearnings for freedom that those ‘liberated’ on 9 November 1989 imagined it would.

The fall of the Wall was, however, remarkable. I was working as a Russian linguist and Soviet specialist during the first half of the 1980s. Although the Soviet system was ultimately unsustainable – for lots of reasons – there was no sign that it would fall within a few short years. The idea that the Empire would collapse so quickly would have been thought ridiculous. History teaches us to be open to surprise.

When US President Ronald Reagan stood before the Brandenburg Gate and challenged the Soviet President to “tear down this wall”, it seemed a prophetic and bold act. Yet, now we learn (through German news sources) that Mikhail Gorbachev was already talking in 1987 about pulling it down as a fruit of glasnost. The popular ‘revolution’ in East Germany was already beginning in and through the churches. In Leipzig particularly it was the churches that provided the space for free debate and open expression of dissent.

Berlin 2Berlin is now a different place – my favourite city in Europe. The wastelands and minefields have been replaced by vast and expensive building sites. The city bursts with confidence and life. Yet, everywhere you look there is the haunting memory of sadness. Look left from the Brandenburg Gate and you see the Reichstag, the building that sat at the heart of violence, political corruption and nationalistic hubris; look to the right and you see the enormous and moving Holocaust Memorial. Look a little further and you will find the new Topography of Terror museum, sitting close to the site of the Gestapo HQ where so much dehumanising horror was generated. The Wall ran through this landscape, dividing east from west, capitalism from socialism, but never protecting from the realities of past decades.

So, in fact, the fall of the Wall in 1989 exposed past glories and horrors to renewed scrutiny. The euphoria of 9 November 1989 can never escape from the shadow of 9 November 1938. Re-membering, if it is to be remotely true, cannot wipe out what is inconvenient or uncomfortable. The eventual reunification of Germany simply meant that Germany had to shape yet another new role for itself in the world. How could it heal the lingering wounds of the past while vast material and economic inequalities existed between east and west? And how would German society handle the disillusionment of those from the east who would soon discover that capitalism does not mean a Mercedes or a mansion for everyone?

The fall of the Wall brought freedom and hope. But, it also brought into focus the harder question: what are we to be set free for?

Whenever I preach in the Berliner Dom (cathedral) I am struck by the inscription below the great dome: “Be reconciled to God”. It is as if this building, that has witnessed empire, fascism, communism and now capitalism, whispers into each generation the hint that reconciliation between people requires a bigger vision than the offer of mere consumerism.

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.

 

Yesterday was Remembrance Day (der Volkstrauertag) in Germany.

I left Erfurt on Sunday afternoon, having taken part in the morning service in the Predigerkirche. This is where Meister Eckhart was the prior, and you can still touch the wood that he touched when leading his Dominican monks in worship here in the late thirteenth and early fourteenth century.

The service was packed – loads of young families with loads of children, elderly people, and everything in-between. The Lektorin who preached was excellent. I just brought a Grußwort at the beginning of the service, then enjoyed the rest of it without responsibility.

It's always instructive to share in someone else's memory. The poignant-yet-triumphant patriotism that sometimes characterises Remembrance Day events in England was entirely absent. Not only is Volkstrauertag for remembering the dead and the fallen in war, but it is also for rehearsing what caused war in the first place.

No romanticism, then, in the place where Hitler did his worst – and even the Roman Catholic Cathedral still has a wooden carving in the chancel of a Christian crusader knight on his horse fighting (and defeating) a Jew riding a pig. No sanitising of history here in order to shape a different – or more convenient – narrative. No hiding behind fantasy from the shocking consequences of conventional inhumanity or fearful silence.

I was reminded of a line from RS Thomas's poem The Evacuee: “… she leaped from a scorched story of the charred past”.

The other place that brings this home is outside the Stadtkirche in Wittenberg. This is the town where in 1517 Martin Luther allegedly nailed his 95 Theses to the door of the Schlosskirche, thus igniting what became the Reformation. This is where the grace of God was found and proclaimed… and where the Stadtkirche still has built into its exterior (just below the eaves of the south-east end) a relief of Jews being baited in a pig sty. It could have been removed as an offence – and this was considered at the time it was rediscovered after German reunification when buildings neglected by the soulless DDR were being renovated in the 1990s. But, it was kept as a reminder that history cannot simply be removed in order to temper our contemporary sensibilities… and beneath it was placed a permanent memorial to the Jews of Wittenberg who experienced a more contemporary form of the old brutality.

Sitting there in Meister Eckhart's church yesterday morning another German memory revived in my mind. In 1999 I stayed for five weeks with German friends in Jakarta, Indonesia. While there I was taken on a trip through Bandung and other places. Up in the hills one day we drove for miles, visiting a tea plantation and then heading up into the terraced hills. Way off the beaten track we came to a small settlement in the middle of nowhere and I had no idea why we were there.

A short walk led us to a small cemetery containing (if I remember accurately) just half a dozen European-style graves. The story goes that during the Second World War a group of German soldiers was posted here. When the war ended, so ashamed were they of what had been done both by them and in their name, that they decided not to return immediately to Germany, but to stay and serve that small community of Indonesians. They all died of diseases fairly quickly and they are all buried here. The German Government pays for the upkeep of this small piece of earth that is pregnant with both the sadness and generosity of humanity.

Everywhere there is a story to be told and a story to be heard. And often the heard story will challenge the prejudices, preoccupations and absolutisms we nurture when confined to the familiar and the assumed.

The final bit of memory on Sunday actually arose the previous day. I was shown round the Roman Catholic Cathedral and the Severikirche by the Dompropst. The Severikirche contains the tomb and relics of St Severus who was elected Bishop of Ravenna in 342AD. Two things struck me whilst standing before the tomb: (a) there is a clear relief showing the Holy Spirit sitting on the head of Severus, identifying him as the one chosen by God to be bishop; and (b) atop the tomb the reclining figures of Severus, his wife and his daughter.

Think about it. (I asked the Dompropst what the Pope thinks about the great saint-bishop having been a married father and still chosen by God and the church to be a bishop. This led to an interesting conversation – for which I am very grateful – about the nature of priestly ministry, celibacy and other matters close to the church both here and there.)

(And then I got my highest ever score for my fantasy league football team…)

 

There is something about English culture that is self-destructive. We are expert at missing the point and getting proportion wrong. The BBC is one of the most respected news organisation in the world, but we just love pulling it down. And some of those gleefully doing the demolition are precisely those who couldn’t command respect if it was nailed to them.

So, George Entwistle falls on his sword after only 54 days in the top job. Maybe, for pragmatic reasons, he was wise to go. But, it must be obvious that anyone coming into what he had dumped on him was going to struggle to keep the show going – especially as a major part of his brief was to oversee substantial change in the way the BBC is run. Almost every voice today combines horror at Newsnight‘s disastrous editorial choices (something to do with removing the top editor recently?) with total respect for a good, competent and honourable man.

So, what good has been done by his resignation? And do we really think that the rolling of further heads will do anything to resolve the problems and strengthen BBC editorial processes – rather than simply create further lacunae in both structure and confidence?

Of course, all this is put into context by today’s acts of remembrance. The narrative against which we measure our honourability as a society is a mixed one of conflict and peace, success and failure. No one can look back honestly at British history without recognising both glory and dishonour – violence runs through it like ‘Blackpool’ through a stick of rock. If we didn’t have Remembrance Day, we would have to invent it – because we need to step back at least one day each year and remember our story, how we came to be where we are, and the cost (in every respect) of getting here.

In Bradford this morning we stood around the Cenotaph under cloudless blue skies and watched in silence as the families of those who have died in Iraq and Afghanistan came forward and placed wreaths and crosses against photographs of their young men. The poignancy of that kiss transferred from a mother’s lips to the face of a son who will never grow old or weary. It was almost too much. These aren’t just names etched into stone or bronze; these are too immediate, too present in their absence.

Getting these events right is not easy. How do we remember the fallen and those who sacrificed so much so long ago… whilst avoiding any romanticism, blind patriotism, escapist fantasy or fictionalising of history? We did it through prayers of sorrow and recognition, pledges of commitment to peace and human flourishing, statements of reconciliation and mutuality. Easily spoken, hard to do.

The point for me in all this (which is why I am recording it here for the sake of my own memory) is that reconciliation can only come from a courageously honest recognition of the messed-up-ness of human life and history. I served on the intelligence side of the Falklands War in 1982 and still have memories of the moral ambiguities involved in that. But, the narrative I (as a Christian) am held to is one that calls us to give up our life in order that the world might see who and how God is – lived out in the flesh and blood of those who bear his name (and, therefore, his character). It is shaped like a cross.

The BBC will survive because there are enough sensible people around who take a long-term view and see the detail of the current aberration only in the context of the enormous canvas of good the BBC does and is. And Remembrance Day will also drag our consciousness away from romanticism and escapism into the brutally real facing up to what human beings do to each other in the complicated name of ‘power’.

Some years ago, when we were camping in Normandy, I took my then young (and younger) son to visit a huge World War One cemetery. We both sat in silence before the enormity of death laid out over silent acres. It isn’t good poetry, but this is what I wrote on a scrap of paper while sitting on the wall:

A field of white stones

and simple crosses

with wishful words

and solemn epitaphs.

Known unto God means

we hadn’t a clue who he was.

Just another mangled inconnu

in a field of bloody might-have-beens.

Rest in peace sounds like an apology

for the hostility and brutality

of his untimely death.

I did not know him,

nor do I know those who miss him,

who still, half a world away,

miss the sound of his voice

and hear the agony of his eternal silence.

But I, also an inconnu, a nobody,

whisper an apology at his space,

and pray silently

for never again

and not for mine.

Actually, that’s the title of a song by Clive Gregson. I’d heard of him before, but not heard him. Last night he was the support act for Jools Holland at the brilliant St George’s Hall in Bradford. I know two gigs in three days sounds excessive (Imelda May supported by Big Boy Bloater in York last Friday), but I had a couple of days break – the only break between August and post-Christmas – and it was my birthday!

Clive Gregson was fantastic. Like Bruce Cockburn, you can’t hide when you are playing acoustic guitar in front of a live audience. Great songs, great musicianship, great chat to the audience – Clive set up a great evening. (Sorry for the superlatives, but it just was great.)

I have seen Jools Holland every year for the last decade or more – usually at the Royal Albert Hall or in Croydon. Last night he had the usual suspects with him: Ruby Turner, Louise Marshall and, standing in for the cancelled Shane MacGowan (ex-Pogues), the inimitable and always understated Chris Difford (Up the Junction, Cool for Cats, etc.). Other tour dates have Sandy Shaw and the epic German rocker Herbert Grönemeyer (who I once saw live in a stadium in Linz, Austria – long story…) with Jools, but I was happy with Squeeze‘s Chris Difford who has supported him many times.

This gig is worth every penny. It is sheer energetic joy from beginning to end – an evening devoted to brilliant musicianship from people who clearly love what they are doing and draw the audience (however reluctantly) into a serious bit of bopping. From the moment Jools walks onto stage the music doesn’t stop – boogie woogie, blues, ska, etc. See here for previous posts on these gigs. Sheer unadulterated joy. Even an embarrassment like me can’t help but try to dance.

I realise this is a bit of a tenuous link, but it was in my mind while writing. Yesterday began with the Remembrance parade at the Cenotaph in Bradford – always a moving event, but especially when a photograph of someone’s son killed in Afghanistan or Iraq is placed among the wreaths. Remembrance isn’t simply about history or the past. It brings the past into the present and reinforces the responsibility to deal justly in the present in order to vindicate the sacrifices of the past in order better to shape a common future. But, memory is not restricted to wars and the military; it drives us back to the whole of life’s experiences.

Much of the music played yesterday had its ultimate roots in the experiences of the slaves. Black music didn’t just give expression to the misery of loss and humiliation, but it also confounded that subjection with musical exuberance and joy that promised a future. The language of Exodus fired the hope of a people who knew that empires come and go, that ‘now’ isn’t the final word, that ‘justice will out’. It defiantly dances in the face of the miserable oppressor who above all fears losing his status or possessions.

Or, as Clive Gregson puts it on his album Bittersweet:

The door is open, somewhere, somehow,

There has to be a better life than the one we’re living now,

I won’t believe it’s for a chosen few,

The door is open, let’s go on through…

 

If Remembrance Day did not exist, we’d have to invent it.

Human beings need ritual points at which they stop and recall where they have come from. An honest appraisal of our ‘story’ should help prevent arrogant amnesia and recall us to a certain collective humility. We didn’t get to where we are today from some sort of historical or cultural vacuum. Which is why, whatever the worldview of people in the UK, we all need to understand and collectively acknowledge the Christian history and development of (at least) Britain.

This isn’t about evangelism or special pleading. Rather, it is about understanding how we have got to where we are… in order that we can understand why we are where we are… in order better to think about where we want to go to.

For Christians this is a regular practice.

The people of Israel were ordered to build into their annual diary particular rituals designed to remind them of their roots. Warned that growing affluence would make them forget, they had to do physical things to ‘live’ the memory. (See Deuteronomy 26, for example.) The basic story of the Hebrew Bible is this: God calls his people to show the world who and ‘how’ he is – a vocation that brings responsibility, not privilege or status. This gets contorted – they forget that once they were slaves who had nothing and they begin (as they were warned would happen) to think that their growing wealth was the product of their own hands alone. Their refusal to remember their story – and then live graciously towards others – led them into exile and the loss of all their identity landmarks.

If we forget that we needed grace, forgiveness, generosity, we will enslave others. If we forget that we were once hungry, we will consume while others starve. That’s the logic.

The Christian community re-members constantly. The Eucharist (Holy Communion) involves a re-telling of the Christian story – a putting back together the ‘members’ or the memories. That is why it is called a ‘eucharist’ – a thanksgiving, because we should not be able to leave this corporate celebration of grace without being reminded of our vocation to give grace.

More could (inevitably and obviously) be said. ‘Never forget’… and build in phyiscal rituals that bring us back to reality – that’s the message that goes beyond military casualties and penetrates our whole common life. But, now I have to go out…