This is an updated version of a post I wrote last year.
My great uncle was captured at Dunkirk. He never talked about it much, but it’s possible to put the story together from the history books; taken to the Stalag XX-A camp in Poland then, when the Red Army approached, forced to take part in the Long March to Germany, enduring subzero conditions. Hundreds didn’t make survive the journey. No wonder Albert never wanted to talk about it, although some of his comrades credit him with their survival.
Remembrance Day brings into focus our ambiguous relationship with war. “Never forget” is all very well, but it needs to mean something; we remember the fallen, but what about the survivors? We remember the poppy fields of WWI but what about the squaddie who lost his legs to an IED last year? We say “Never again”, but we just love the arms industry’s £7 billion contribution to the country’s economy every year. We argue about red poppies, white poppies, no poppies, but still the bombs fall. Sometimes they don’t hit the enemy.
Our churches hold Remembrance Sunday services every year and it’s important we do so, just as it’s important that we pause for two minutes at 11am on the 11th November, to carve out a sacred space in the world to remember what it means for our nations to be involved in war after war. There’s a problem, however, when this becomes a public act of piety with no depth, an act of remembrance that lasts just long enough to lay a wreath.
So maybe we need to turn those parades into pilgrimages, be they a two-minute emotional journey or a march to a cenotaph, pilgrimages to places that represent brokenness and loss, pilgrimages to spaces for lament. Because as we stand in these spaces, we can see the future reflected in the past, visions of what’s to come in the ruins of what was. And once we walk away we need to think about sitting with all that for a while; as we walk away we embark on a different journey.
Today is about more than history; remembrance, if it’s to mean anything, has to be a living and active thing – it has to be about the present as well. We have to remember those fighting in distant lands, and those back home but struggling to readjust to civilian life; those killed in action and those fleeing their homes with nowhere to go; the past, the present and yes, we remember the future. Remembrance should help us do something about the future, give us the long term perspective we need to deal with the breaking waves of history. “What should we do about IS?” is a huge question, but at least part of the answer lies forty years ago; remembrance should be prompting us to think about how to end the wars that could haunt our children’s generation, to consider how we treat our neighbour and the sort of politics we publicly rubber-stamp.
The church holds services of remembrance and houses war memorials and accompanies the marches of dwindling survivors. In a world where war has scarred our social psyche, both through global combat and the sudden, vicious targeting of civilians that seems to mark modern conflicts, we have to decide where we stand, what remembrance actually means for us. What would Jesus do to pick up the pieces of world wars and all the present and future wars we face?
Two minutes isn’t long enough to come up with an answer, two minutes isn’t long enough to process the ambiguity of following the Prince of Peace in a world full of drones and nuclear missiles. But we have to come up with an answer – compassion and grace demand it. And they’re the difference between pseudo-sacred rituals and true, heartfelt remembrance.