My church meets in a beautiful, modern building, nestled into a housing estate on the northside of Scotland’s greyest city. It is an ordinary suburban congregation, which will not give rise to a missionary movement, or a hit worship music cd or a preaching philosophy anytime soon. We gather, with quite a few empty seats, every Sunday; a strange multi-cultural, ageing group of people struggling to be human. We sing about the presence of an invisible God and we read ancient texts written by desert nomads in a language that is no longer spoken and we eat bread and drink juice and say that is the centre-point of all of creation, even though none of us know what that means.
In other words, I am part of great little church.
On Sunday however, Wife-unit and I are going to get up and make some coffee and eat toast down by the sea and then we’re going to make Christmas cake. We’re not going to church because Sunday is “Remembrance Sunday” in the UK. There is a special notification in the seasonal church magazine that says that the scouts will be joining us in worship, so too will a brass band, and various civic figures too, I expect. Everyone will wear a poppy. At 11am there will be silence around the country. Soldiers killed in battle fighting for Queen and Country will be remembered.
What, especially on the centenary year of World War I, could be wrong with that?
Let me try, once again, to explain why we should be sceptical of remembrance campaigns, whether organised around poppies in Britian, lillies in Ireland, or… I don’t know, fireworks and little American flags in the US.
Remembering is a very difficult thing for human beings to do. Even defining what memory is is something that we struggle with. To put it recursively, we have forgotten how our ancestors remembered. We are alarmed by neuro-scientific experiments that indicate that our memories are full of holes, but we have forgotten that earlier ages didn’t imagine remembering with the metaphor of recording devices (as one example).
In Act I of Macbeth, after he is told by the witches that he will one day become king, he begins to muse about having to commit regicide. He hopes that he might avoid this act: “If Chance will have me King, why, Chance may crown me / Without my stir.” Yet he is aware that his victory will probably come with his spilling blood. Calling his imaginings to a halt he apologises and says:
Give me your favour: my dull brain was wrought
With things forgotten. Kind gentlemen, your pains
Are register’d where every day I turn
The leaf to read them.
Shakespeare didn’t need neuro-science to know that memory is deceptive. Macbeth’s brain is wrought with things forgotten and at the same time he promises to daily recall the virtues of the very men he intends to kill.
Memory is a difficult thing. That is why the story of Exodus must be told at Passover. That is why Jesus says that we are to break bread in memory of him. For Plato, the whole of human life is a wrestling match with anamnesis, the mystical task of remembering rightly.
Einstein said that “Memory is deceptive because it is coloured by today’s events.” But on Sunday our memories are deceptive because they are not coloured by today’s events. Since Britain’s declaration of war against Germany in August 1914, not a year has passed without its forces being involved in conflict. Since the foundation of the British army in 1707, a year has not passed without Britain sending men with guns to kill and to die for something called “the nation” (earlier, the even scarier “Empire”).
Britain does not just need to remember past wars. It is currently involved in two live wars, that have each dragged on for over ten years. They presumably have soldiers on active duty in operations that we are not allowed know about. The legacy of Britain as a nation is one of constant war. That reality persists today. Britian has invaded 90% of the nations on planet Earth:
I am not trying to be anti-British here. If I lived in America, I would have written something like this back at Memorial Day. When Ireland begins its centenary recollections in 2016, I will be trying to publish things like this in newspapers and academic journals. The task of remembering rightly is the task of the Christian church and we are tempted into unfaithfulness when we let our allegiance to the nation state, even relatively “peaceful” nation states like Ireland, recall human murder and call it fate.
In the centre of Aberdeen there is a statue of a lion that reminds us to remember “Our Glorious Dead”. If Remembrance was Christian, we wouldn’t call the men who died on the fields of Flanders “glorious”. Human life has rarely been less glorious. If Remembrance was Christian, we wouldn’t dare use the word “our”, because “their” dead matter as much to God.
In the theological journal Theology this month, Paul Oestreicher writes about Remembrance Sunday last year:
On Remembrance Sunday last year I took a German Lutheran pastor to the Cenotaph in Whitehall to see the parade of old veterans. I was moved. He was shocked. No such military ceremony is acceptable in Germany after two lost world wars, lost in disgrace.
The German Christian was shocked. You agree with that. Germans shouldn’t have a Gedenktag because they were the baddies! (As it turns out, Germany does have a number of remembrance events in their calendar including: January 27: Holocaust Memorial Day and 8 May: Liberation Day – but they are utterly different in tone, intention, and liturgy). Yet if we agree that soldiers are not responsible for the fights begun by their politicians and their generals and their captains of industry (no one can disagree with that!), then why are German soldiers not remembered like the British recall theirs?
Is it a lack of gratitude for the “ultimate sacrifice”?
Is it a disturbing lack of patriotic fervour?
Or is it a chastened and disciplined collective intention to talk about war and the past in a way that minimises the chance of war in the future?
On Sunday, Wife-unit and I will read from the Gospels and pray for peace. We will look for the day that the Prophet Micah told us to anticipate: “They will beat their swords into plough shares, and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation will not take up sword against nation, nor will they train for war any more.”
May that day come. Till then, let no Christian kill.
Your Correspondent, His major malfunction is that he cares too much