Remembrance: time to draw a line in the sand
It’s Remembrance-tide once more; but I wish that it wasn’t. Here's why, writes Andrew Kleissner
It’s that time of year when poppies proliferate on lapels, wreaths are laid at war memorials, medals are polished, veterans march past on ageing legs, the Last Post is played, old films are re-run on television, solemn silence is kept, prayers for peace are offered and familiar words are spoken: “Age shall not weary them … Greater love hath no man than this … The fallen … Lest we forget”. Yes, it’s Remembrance-tide once more; but I wish that it wasn’t. Why?
For me there are several reasons. Perhaps it’s the linking of Church and State in civic commemorations; or the use of Christian language which may appear to give warfare some kind of spiritual legitimacy. Perhaps it’s the branding of every dead combatant as a “hero” who “gave” their life; many of them, of course, were amazingly brave, but countless others were reluctant conscripts, sacrificed on the altars of political ambition. Or perhaps it’s the fact that, in our remembering, we easily forget so many: civilians, merchant seamen, soldiers of colour from Europe’s colonies, even British troops who fought in obscure places.
There’s more: the expectation that everyone will join in the communal outpouring of grief, when a more appropriate response might be to question patriotism and the evils that have been committed in its name. And then we have the constant evocation and memorialising of a glorious, but inevitably rose-tinted and selective past, such as the “Blitz spirit” when everyone pulled selflessly together – regularly referenced by politicians and journalists in the current “fight” against Covid-19. One might think we were living in 1940, not 2020.
I am of course deeply respectful of people who say, “People died so that you can be free to share your opinions”. I am also aware that there are folk, both old and – sadly – young, who must still come to terms with their personal wartime tragedies. And I recognise that pious words of goodwill don’t achieve much in the face of naked aggression; indeed, I reluctantly agree that war may sometimes be necessary to prevent an even greater tragedy.
Nevertheless, I feel that the complex links between our faith, our country, our fighting and our suffering need to be broken for once and for all. And I think that this year, when so many of our usual Remembrance commemorations will be restricted or curtailed, is the ideal time to put a spanner in the works or draw a line in the sand, so we can stop the past controlling the present and the future.
I say this because, in my view, Remembrance Sunday can so easily pull us backwards when it ought to guide us into a very different future. In fact I feel that its familiar rituals (which, I grant, are cherished by many) do us a disservice because they help to cement in our minds a view of history which prevents us from learning the lessons we should. This is the view which, for instance, makes us in Britain still regard ourselves as a major world power: why else would we have a nuclear defence system which costs vast sums of money and would make the world uninhabitable if it were ever used? It also, I believe, unconsciously but emotionally informed much of the debate about leaving the EU.
We Christians build our faith on God’s acts over many centuries: history is important to us. But we also see Christ, by his death and resurrection, separating the old from the new, making a clean break between “then” and “now”, erasing our past sin from God’s memory, beginning to liberate the world from war, anger and decay and giving us the hope of a wonderful future. While we cannot ignore history, its sting is now drawn: I believe that God calls us to look ahead, to be more concerned with anticipation than retrospection.
A modern hymn by Brian Wren says:
“This is a day of new beginnings,
time to remember and move on,
time to believe what love is bringing,
laying to rest the pain that’s gone”.
And the prophet Isaiah wrote:
“Do not remember the former things, or consider the things of old. I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth”.
Does Remembrance as we know it imprison in the past and close our eyes from seeing God’s future? I very much fear that it does.
Image | Diana Parkhouse | Unsplash
Andrew Kleissner is the Minister of Christchurch United Church, Llanedeyrn, Cardiff
Do you have a view? Share your thoughts here.