A Hundred Years, a Single Day

We found out yesterday that my Great-Grandfather fought at Ypres.

A yellowed newspaper interview with my grandmother tells of when her dad, who served with the Canadian Highlanders, returned home, all bunting and It’s a Long Way To Tipperary. Apparently it didn’t seem so bad in the midst of the celebrations. I wonder how much of that was relief. He was one of those who survived, and although he suffered the affects of mustard gas and frostbite for the rest of his life, he was one of those who came home, who made it to November 12th, 1918.

A hundred years ago, the guns fell silent over the War To End All Wars. But just twenty-two years later, my great-uncle was being evacuated from Dunkirk. A hundred years since Armistice and war is still a reality, still a source of pride and identity and power. We walk through fields of poppies while singing marching songs.

The tragedy is that there’s a vampiric part of our collective psyche that’s built on blood; the blood of our enemies and the blood of our people. That multi-million pound arms industry will never be funded by never agains, after all; memories of the past aren’t always enough to bring piece, especially when every problem looks like a battle and every solution looks like a bullet.

Embodying visions of peace that build on remembrance but take seriously the present and set about creating a future… That’s the hard part. It means taking responsibility for the Never Agains, each one of us. If we’re to beat swords into ploughshares, we’re going to need more blacksmiths, more inventors, more people willing to see their weapons and their perspectives transformed.

This morning I took my son to the local Remembrance Day parade. A group of veterans marched in front of rows of children, and we stood in silence before the war memorial. We prayed that we’d remember as the names of the fallen were floated on the wind as we made our way home. A hundred years have passed worldwide but not a single day of peace. May our hearts and hands awaken to the ways of peace, for in the fields of blood the poppies still grow.

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All Souls Day

They say the dead are closer at this time of year. Maybe that’s easier to believe as the nights draw in, as the earth draws into a kind of hibernation. Here in Britain it’s a season of memories, all poppies and fireworks. Remember, remember, what we do to our enemies. Remember, remember the fallen. And while All Souls Day isn’t part of my tradition, there’s something about this time in history that’s bringing the dead closer. For me that isn’t personal mourning but corporate. It’s getting darker earlier now, and in the quiet and in the shadows it almost feels like memories are haunting us like ghosts. It’s been less than a week since a gunman murdered 11 people in a Pittsburgh synagogue and that can’t help but evoke the countless other times the spirit of antisemitism walked abroad. We say “Never again”, but we’re oh so good at forgetting, and forgetting turns remembrance into repetition.

Traditionally this is a time to commemorate loved ones who have passed on, but ‘All Souls’ is an encompassing name. It’s non-specific, inclusive, draws in the forgotten, the ignored, the disappeared, and when we lean into that, memories can act as an inoculation. Often consciences are haunted – new evidence keeps emerging around the lynching of Emmett Till, and only last week Matthew Shepard was laid to rest after 20 years – but too often it’s not enough. As a society we still worship death too much, and even pastors are enamoured with arms deals. Maybe restless spirits are the price we pay for that.

And yet we need those ghosts, because behind them is life, and though we remember Martin Luther King was assassinated, we can remember his life, his dream. We can be shocked by the image of Alan Kurdi lying dead in the sand, but we can also remember the photograph of a smiling little boy on a slide, and let it transform our image of migrants and caravans. We can remember the innocent and the unarmed who have fallen and honour their names through our calls for justice.

In Mexico they celebrate Dia de Muertos, the Day of the Dead with festivities and dancing. I like that; I’ve been maudlin here, but there’s a power in remember those we loved, they way they made us laugh, the sound of their voice, the things they taught us, the way they loved us back. Memories have power, they can drive us forward, we can dance into the future because others once danced with us, and others will dance in the future and maybe remember us. We’re part of a lineage, and our stories can give strength to the generations to come.

At the heart of Christian ritual is an act of remembrance, the body and the blood and the empty tomb. And so we’re not saved by the dead, nor need we be haunted, but memory can join us together, can remind us of who we are, who we should be. May our memories be sanctified, and may the ghosts that hold us back move into the light.

All Saints Day

Think of those scenes of the saints in Revelation, those Renaissance imaginings of Heaven. Hold the pictures in your mind, and try to augment them with a mental soundtrack. What does it sound like? Odd question, maybe, but I’m always asking odd questions. It’s my spiritual gift.

My soundtrack? Sorry, my internal playlist fails me too often; I imagine these images accompanied by a deafening Hallelujah chorus or joyous gospel, which is fine as far as it goes, but where’s the rock, where’s the hip-hop, where’s Johnny Cash? Some may sing with the voice of an angel, but we never imagine that to sound like a busker on the Underground, no matter the purity of their worship.

That paucity of musical imagination shouldn’t limit my notions of the Church; after all, the communion of saints is bigger and messier and more diverse than we often imagine. Purple-clad archbishops, wild-eyed prophets riding the subway, coffee morning matriarchs, homeless prayers in doorways, refugee pilgrims, faces lit by candles or neon, criminalised worship in the dark. It’s All Saints Day in a divided world, and we need that vision of a Church that’s bigger than our own congregations, need that vision if we’re to offer any counter to the temptations of demagogues, if we’re to see the Kingdom of God as anything other than an homogenous empire huddled in fear behind walls and rage.

The bonds of faith cross borders and barriers, no matter how much we try to break them; sometimes we try so hard to break them that we get blood on our hands, and those are times to mourn and repent.  We rightly think of the places in which brothers and sisters are experiencing violence and torture, but we also need to reckon with the trauma inflicted by those who walk corridors of power with their Bibles covered in blood. Having empathy with the former rather than faith in the latter may stop some of us identifying with the crucifiers rather than the crucified. Yesterday I subtitled a Halloween post ‘Heroes and Monsters’. Let’s not pretend that I couldn’t have done the same today.

And so today is a day to think of those saints – both official and ordinary – who’ve gone before, but also those who are present with us today, those still to come. Those speaking from the podium and those pushed to the margins because of their sexuality, their disability, their gender, their race. The Table around which we gather is always bigger than we think, and that simple fact deserves nothing but hallelujahs.

The image at the top of the post from John Nava’s series of tapestries in LA’s Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels. It stands out to me because the saints wear tonsures and headscarves and cornrows. Something as simple as hairstyles can help us to see ourselves as one, not as encouragement to force everyone to be the same, but to catch the beauty and worship and the Imago Dei in variety, in fusion, in remix, the light of God’s Image refracted through His Church, an image that can transform fading photos on dusty mission noticeboards into people who we can learn from, stand by, become our family, and stand next to as we sing.

Halloween: Monsters and Heroes

Winter is coming, so they say; the clocks have gone back, the nights draw closer, we enter into Allhallowtide, a liminal season where past and present and future and worlds both visible and hidden start to coalesce.

 

It’s at this time of year, the ancient whispers go, that the veil between worlds thins. This isn’t a curtain I tend to poke behind, but the winter seems so dark this year; the spectre of old wars and the clatter of lying keyboards haunt the landscape as powerful men rape and pillage their way through their self-declared empires, everyday encounters turning into metaphorical slasher movies. Never mind Halloween, the veil has been thinning apocalyptically for a while now. I can’t say I like it.

But maybe that’s something to think about this Halloween. Maybe we need to catch a glimpse of another world – not a world of wraiths and abandoned graveyards, a world lit only by flickering pumpkin-light, but a better world, somewhere more peaceful, somewhere more just, somewhere more dynamic and real than the trolls under the bridge, than the strawman scarecrows, than spiders spinning lies. Now is not the time to disguise ourselves as monsters so the monsters cannot break us, now is the time to stare through the tear in the curtain and catch a glimpse of hope instead.

Because as the world slips into the dark, hope’s the only thing that will keep us going, the only trustworthy will o’ the wisp willing to light our way. Stick to that path, lest we put too much trust in ghosts. Stick to that path, and don’t invest your savings with the huckster demon hunters selling burning torches made in sweat shops. People are not demons, no matter what the sales pitch says.

I would say that now is a time for heroes, but maybe that’s not quite right. ‘Hero’ carries a tome-full of implications, images of capes and Campbellian journeys, vampire slayers and giant killers. That’s a lot to live up to, no matter how much a geek like me loves the mythology.

I’m adopting the picture at the top of this post as my Halloween icon for the year. There’s Mary, a teenage Middle Easterner trying to rip the Devil’s head (or mask?) off. I love the image, but its truth is in the imagination and metaphor of the piece. How did Mary fight the darkness? She raised a child and she sang a protest song. Enough of us can do that, can do the human things that ward off monsters. That’s not a Halloween thing – the real spectres live with us and have their own Twitter accounts. Don’t listen to anyone promising an easy exorcism; sometimes good people fall.

But often they rise.

This is the season of all the saints and all our souls, and while we decorate our homes and schools and supermarkets with the dead and the undead, really this is a season that reminds us of a resurrection to come; at least that’s how I’m looking at it. Things may be in retreat at the moment, the hopes and fears of all the years gathering on the streets. That’s what winter’s all about, after all.

Yet spring will emerge one day, just as it always does. And while now we see through a veil, thinly, then we will see in full. That’s what keeps us going; that’s what brings us through the dark.

Now More Than Ever, We Need To Stand With Refugees

It starts with the language; words like ‘infest’ and ‘hordes’ and ‘armies’, words that weave images of war and plague. The language seeps into our hearts and minds, like some toxic incantation that transforms human beings fleeing for their lives, men, women and children, into an invasion force come to rape and pillage. “They’re here to take our women, they’re here to take our jobs” yell the tabloids; after all, it gets votes and ad-clicks, no matter how distorted or untrue the screaming gets. This is the era of Fake News after all, and people profit from it. Never bet against the darker angels of our nature; the race starts with the language and ends with kids in cages, or worse.

And yet I’ve met asylum seekers and refugees. I don’t work on a border or in a camp; I make no claims to nobility. That’s the point – I’ve met asylum seekers at work, people who just want to get an education, to learn English or Business or Engineering. They have families and aspirations, they have hopes and a sense of humour. They’re ordinary, albeit forged in extraordinary circumstances that I wouldn’t want to face. And that’s why we need to stand with refugees, because we’re all human and we need to look after each other. Cut through the rhetoric and the rage, shout down the prejudice and profiteering, because we’re one and it’s a sin to sacrifice our brothers and sisters to the idolatry of lines on a map.

We live in dangerous times, shadows that once crept around corners now coalescing into a cold eclipse. Injustice and hatred have their sway, and despite the cries of “This isn’t who we are!”, the dirty secret of history is that that atrocities are committed by those who would have once thought themselves incapable of it. And so we need to stand together, stand together and be caring, be compassionate, be kind. Bad times start with language, but so do good, so speak words of hope, of humour, of peace and mercy and grace and welcome. Use words to cast visions, not curses; speak kindly of your neighbour, speak well of those fleeing the armies that arrived or the rains that didn’t. All the Never Agains started with people like us, for good or ill, and so we face the eternal choice. Be good. Be humane. Be kind.