November has increasingly come to be seen as the ‘Season of Remembrance’. In part this is because All Souls – the day we remember all those who’ve died – falls in this month. Equally, Armistice Day and Remembrance Sunday fall in November.
This year is particularly poignant. 2014 marks one hundred years since the outbreak of the First World War. As many of you will know, both my grandfathers fought in that conflict. I think it’s fair to say that both of them were scarred by their experiences and those ‘wounds’ had a huge impact on my family. Grandpa Bert, for example, carried an inoperable piece of shrapnel around in his leg for over sixty years and it blighted his (and his wife Edith’s) life in all sorts of ways. But there were other less obvious wounds. My mum tells the story of how each Remembrance Sunday Bert would insist on watching the parade on TV alone. As a nipper I couldn’t understand why. It was only after his death that I found out that it was because he couldn’t bear to have anyone watch him cry.
Today, we know so much more about the effects of war on men and women. We’ve moved from talking about ‘shell shock’ to ‘post-traumatic stress disorder’. Some people – usually those who’ve never been under fire – will claim that these problems are not real. Yet there is no doubt that violence is traumatizing and damaging. The impact of being under fire and living in a kill-or-be-killed world is not to be confused with a gung-ho video game.
Despite knowing how damaging war is, it seems that the human race will not learn. Again and again we’ve plunged headlong into hell. The extent to which the rejection of great wickedness and injustice is predicated on standing up to monsters like Hitler is moot. What is clear is that, even if just war is possible, too often our brave boys and girls have been sent into impossible situations. ‘A land fit for heroes’ has so often failed to emerge and has been betrayed by the craven adventuring of politicians desperate to maintain Britain’s place in the international order.
Jesus is often called The Prince of Peace. This is not because he’s some sort of ‘lily-livered’ coward. He stood up to the authorities and powers of his day and was courageous enough to die for what he believes. Rather, he’s the Prince of Peace because he models and embodies the deep truth at the heart of God – that we are called to seek reconciliation and forgiveness in our communities and within ourselves. Violence and war typically generate more violence and war. Human history shows this. However, Jesus subverts this pattern. Jesus is, himself, the victim of violence – he is put to death – and yet in resurrection he comes not seeking revenge, but welcome, reconciliation and love. He invites us to live in a different way to that which the world typically lives by.
This season of remembrance is meaningless if it entails simply looking backwards and saying, ‘How sad that so many died’ or even allowing it to be an excuse to let our chests swell with pride. I am proud of people like my Grandpa Bert, but if the memory of men like him is to be honoured, that’s not good enough. We have to commit ourselves to living in a different and more creative way than simply repeating war over and over. Anything less is a betrayal of men like Bert.
When I think of Bert – an often silent and distant man – I am haunted by the thought that, such was his war-trauma and such were the cultural expectations on him as a man, he felt he had to keep his tears away from view. His lived as if his pain was his and no one else’s. He must have been so alone then. That is not how God wants us to live – to let the horror of our memories cut us off from others. It’s one reason why war is such an appalling sin.