And so Remembrance Sunday comes to us once more, with it’s familiar and uncomfortable questions.
It’s such a mixed bag, Remembrance Sunday. Hard to know just how to feel about what we do here. And easy, too easy, to avoid the issues that come to the surface this day. Do we honour, do we decry, do we empathise, do we learn? I have a good friend who is German, and always feels excluded from Remembrance. Is there a way we can honour our dead whilst honouring others?
Some of us choose to avoid the difficult questions by sweeping ourselves up in a cloak of false nobility and patriotism. We can sing about noble sacrifice, and honour, almost as though we were back in Empire days, when Britain Was Great, and the sun never set on the Empire. Revisionist history will tell a different story about those times, but it is easy to look back to the fuzzy patriotism which the past affords us. Thus we avoid the difficult questions raised by the sharp focus of the first world war, and the needless slaughter of both sides.
Or perhaps we avoid the questions by clothing ourselves in righteous anger, and demand peace. That was my stance for many years – wearing the white poppy, and calling for pacifism with a violence any warmonger would be proud of; decrying the first world war as senseless, heartless, and running roughshod over the memories of those who were forced to fight and lost friends. I did that until an old veteran asked me not to try and take the bloodstains out of the poppy. “We had to kill people” he said. “You think the poppy ever meant anything other than wanting peace?”
But both of those extreme responses, are I feel a reaction to Remembrance Sunday, a way of avoiding it, rather than honestly speaking about the difficult questions it raises.
Because it is, has to be a day of mixed emotions. What are we doing when we remember? What are we remembering it for?
Is it so that such horrors can never happen again?
Because they happen every day. Rheinhold Niebuhr, an American theologian said, “history always repeats itself, albeit in new ways”. And so they have. It’s all very well at Remembrance Sunday saying “never again” – but rather empty when our troops are fighting on inIraq,AfghanistanandLibya… there will always be people who try and assert themselves by force of arms. It will always be necessary to stop them. There will always be political leaders who see an army as a mechanism for spreading democracy, or whatever political idea they want to spread.
So why then do we remember? Is it to remember the noble sacrifice?
Well, that’s mixed as well. There are true stories of heroism, and we should remember and celebrate those. But my Great Uncle died stepping on a mine in a field that should have been cleared. It doesn’t feel heroic. It’s tragic. History has a cruel habit of making some people’s lives futile by their ending. I feel about that sort of remembrance a little like I feel about people thanking God that people are miraculously healed. What about those who weren’t?
My Grandfather was the only one of five brothers who survived the first world war. And one of only a handful who survived the street regiment that they all signed up for. I often thought, when he remembered his brothers and neighbours, was it hard for him, that history tells us they died in fact, for so very little?
So if we do remember their noble sacrifice, it’s with a very mixed feeling of remembrance.
So why then do we seek, need, to remember? Because we do need to. Remembrance is getting bigger, not smaller.
Those two “default options” I mentioned earlier, that of playing the patriot or the pacifist, there are truths attached to those positions. It is right to honour the dead, and to be proud of their heroism. It is also right to value life to the extent of decrying the ease with which those in authority sent men to their death. They are not mutually exclusive opinions, unless we seek only to see things in black and white. But they are not, I think the only reasons why we feel the need to remember.
Funnily enough, remembrance, or anemnesis, as our church terminology has it, is part of what we do every Sunday. The Upper room, where Christ broke bread, and said with an urgent despair, “See to it that you love one another. You must love one another”. “Do this in remembrance of me”.
Those two remembrances, of the cross and of the wars, are linked for me. They have been ever since I saw the rood cross in St Mary’s Cathedral, when I first entered it as a member of the choir some twenty years ago now. Hanging in that great empty space, there is Christ on the cross. Normally a Rood is a Christus Vincit, Christ Triumphant, the cross a victory throne. But here is the wounded Christ, the cross a bed of poppies. It was donated by a mother in memory of her son. And this Jesus hangs there in silence, day and night, arms forever stretched out, embracing the world from his throne of wood, a world which performed such cruelty to him, and which could not defeat his love. And in that silence, just as in our two minutes, the hope and the despair are deafening.
In the silence, when we remember Flanders Field, and trenches and horror, there is an echo of the Crucifixion. A seemingly hopeless, despairing death. A wasted life, in the eyes of those who sought to end it. But what sent Christ to the cross, was the same thing that sent my Grandad and his pals to the Sommes. It was hope.
Hope is a deeper concept than merely hoping everything will turn out alright. “I hope my exam results are good” “I hope my diagnosis is okay” – that sort of hope is either vain or real, depending on outcomes. But there is a deeper hope that we hold to in our faith. Hope is more than wanting something to be good. It is believing that goodness must win, that love will always win. That love is stronger than death.
The war dead, they died before their time, they died often without need. They were driven to join up by propaganda and loyalty. But let us not sit back with the arrogant satisfaction of superior knowledge, and say they died for nothing. Their deaths may hot have had a material effect on history, but their lives, their consciences were infused with that hope, even if they ended with a feeling of despair. Their letters, their poems, call to us through the ages like Christ’s words on the cross. They tell us that despite the fear, the confusion, the hurt, or perhaps because of those things, we must fasten ourselves onto hope, as Christ fastened himself on the cross. We see in them, in their sacrifice, the echo of the great risk, the great sacrifice. Something of the one who died, forgiving his enemies.
We remember, in part, so that we never again hold life as cheap. We remember them so that the greatness of the human spirit may be honoured. But we remember them too, as we remember Him, because of what we share, and seek to share, with them. Our faith that love will always win. Love always wins. Love is stronger than death, passion fiercer than the grave. We remember that they died for the hope of peace, for the hope of what might be after they had gone.
It’s a difficult day, Remembrance Sunday, a mixed day. There will be holes in any attempt to make sense of the war and the dead. No one narrative, no one explanation, can satisfy. Remembrance is perhaps a day with too many words.
And when we cannot find God in the words. Let us seek him in the silence.