We Will Remember Them…

Church newsletter article, 13.11.11

These are words that will have been or will be spoken many times either on Friday or today as the country remembers those killed or wounded in military service for Britain over the years. It is good and right that we don’t forget – a central pattern in the Old Testament is remembering what has gone before, celebrating that which is good and learning from that which was wrong. Of course, the stories of the Bible make it clear that despite the fact that they sought to remember and learn from past mistakes, they so often failed to do so, wandering time and time again from God and his ways. We, of course, are no different. After the ‘Great’ War, the ‘War to end all Wars’, came the ‘Second World War’, and even after the horrors of that we find ourselves still today involved in numerous conflicts around the world. The tragedy of fallen humanity is that we are quick to forget and slow to learn.

The tradition of poppy wearing as a sign of respect and remembrance has been in the news this week with the clash between the governing body of world football, FIFA, and the English governing body, the FA. The FA wanted the English squad to wear a strip this weekend with a poppy embroidered on it. FIFA declared that this was not permitted due to their general ruling against emblems outside the standard strip ones being permitted. This disagreement rapidly escalated with the English Defence League, the Prime Minister and the Duke of Cambridge weighing in to join the sense of public indignation that poppy wearing could be denied like this. In the end a compromise was reached, and poppies were permitted on the teams black armbands.

I have often remarked in the past about how I struggle with Remembrance Day as a Christian, and I think the events of this week demonstrate why. As I have already said, I have no problem with remembering; in fact I would encourage it, and I am pleased that the England Squad wore blank armbands as a sign of mourning, mourning for the violence and death faced by so many in conflict. I have no problem with them wanting to wear poppies either, although I actually appreciate FIFA’s stance, if perhaps a little inflexible to start with. It’s the way that remembrance has almost become a religion, a celebration, that disturbs me, with talk of heroes and what sometimes feels like a glorification of war as seen in some of the language and emotion reflected in the response to the ban. Although there are acts of heroism and bravery, examples of self-sacrifice for the sake of comrades in arms, for the most part it’s violence, anger, pain and sorrow. The ritual of poppy wearing is not the heart of the matter. The real heart of the matter is the question of what we’re doing to promote peace. How do we seek to reflect the attitude of Jesus who refused to take up arms and conquered not as the Lion of Judah, but as the Lamb that was slain? (Rev. 5:5-6)

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Lest We Forget

This morning I joined a class of Primary School children on a wild, wet and windy walk to the War Memorial in Broxbourne to mark Armistice Day. Poppies were worn, Laurence Binyon’s ‘For The Fallen’ was read, followed by a prayer and two minutes silence before our damp and thoughtful chain returned.
Remembering has always been central to God’s People. The fear is that without continually bring God’s deeds to mind, we will forget his centrality in our lives and wander after other gods (be that idols, pop-idols or the shrine of Tesco’s!) Throughout the Bible we are told of monuments erected, festivals celebrated and rituals inaugurated to help us remember what God had done for us and amongst us. From the setting up of stones to remember crossing the Red Sea, to the institution of the Lord’s Supper, the drama of our story has been re-enacted through the generations, kept alive by a continual re-telling and re-telling.
There is always the danger with remembering that overtime the story changes; remembering becomes reminiscing or nostalgia. Heroes get larger than life, antics become funnier than they were and failings are forgotten. At the risk of being misunderstood or seen as unpatriotic, I sometimes worry about the emphasis placed on Remembrance Day. Over the last few years it seems to have become more and more important. I have no problem with people being encouraged to remember, my problem is more with what we are called to remember, how we do it and the language we use. Our memorials tell of ‘our glorious dead’, we talk of support for our ‘heroes’ and Remembrance Day is ‘celebrated’. The thing is it is not a glorious thing to die in war. War is a brutal affair that has no regard for courage or standing when picking its victims. Every death in war is an unnecessary death. It is certainly nothing to be celebrated, as pointed out by a group of veterans who fought in Northern Ireland and the Falklands in the Guardian recently. And this is why I think it was important to remember how it really was and sadly still is. In honest remembering we express our sorrow at the loss of so many in such appalling circumstances, in honest remembering we moved to support the victims of war past and present, and in honest remembering we are also moved to celebrate and work for peace.
There is another danger for us as we remember in church today. It is too easy for us to use the same language to describe the loss of life in war as we do of Christ. Talk of ‘sacrifice’ and ‘greater love has no man but to lay down their life for their friends…’ runs the risk of equating the death of our men in war (why don’t we remember those on the other side?) with the Cross, but there is no comparison.
Possibly the definitive act of remembering for us is the Bible, a remembrance of generation after generation and their experiences of God. Here there is no exaggeration of the greatness of its characters, nor hiding of their faults. It is brutally honest in its account, but in this act of remembrance, there is a glorious truth. Despite all the suffering and violence we have inflicted upon the world we have been given, God still reaches out to us with compassion and healing and hope.
Church Newsletter article for Sunday 14th November 2010