November 2018

Remembering to live for the future

Early November is always a time for remembering, with All Souls Day, Guy Fawkes Day, and Remembrance Day - the last having particulate resonance this year as it is the centenary of the ending of the First World War. 

Remembering has a powerful role in our Judaeo-Christian history, right back to the deep and distant past. When the people of Israel finally ended their 40-year travels in the wilderness to reach the promised land, they were told ‘Remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt’. And they were told that not so that they should spend their lives haunted by the past nor so that they should live lives of perpetual gratitude for their release, but so that they should remember what servitude is and not to allow themselves to fall into it again. And, sadly, they all too quickly insisted on the servitude of having kings and of having other gods. It is also important to note that the commandment was not given to the people of Israel as a group, but to each individual. They each had the responsibility to remember their past in order to understand their present and so plan for their future: that is what remembrance was all about then, and, if remembrance is to have any point, it is what it should be about now.

I cannot think of any occasion when that has a greater relevance than on Remembrance Day. For over thirty years, I attended the Remembrance Day service in a school chapel whose walls were decorated with the names of the 675 former pupils who died in the First World War. And every year I, and everyone else, was reminded pointedly that these 675 were, for the most part, not many years older than the pupils currently occupying the stalls where they had sat, and that they had all shared the same hopes, ambitions, skills, talents, fears, insecurities and potential as all those current pupils: and all that they had to offer in life was snuffed out by man’s inability to settle differences in a properly civilised manner. And every year we were therefore reminded that our act of remembrance was an empty sham unless we were each prepared to learn from what had happened in the past in order top prepare for life in the future.

I really hope that that is how we will all approach Remembrance Day this year - that we will do so recognising that the seeds of hatred that reach their full harvest in war lie in each and every one of us, just waiting for us to let them grow. And we cannot blind ourselves to the signs of their first shoots: if we harbour any sort of prejudice based on race, creed, gender, sexual orientation or whatever, if we harbour any sort of grievance or ill will against anyone, if we have any ongoing feud or dispute with family or neighbours, if we feel hard done by, all of these are simple - and not necessarily rare - signs that the seeds are beginning to sprout, for all of these are exactly the same sort of shackles which the people of Israel were warned against.

We need, in preparation for this season of remembrance, to descend into what St Bernard startlingly called ‘the sewers of remembrance', not to wallow there, but to be honest about ourselves and to learn what shackles we have developed for ourselves which create barriers between us and others, and to break those barriers down ourselves, not to growl self-righteously about how its is up to others to do that for you.

Remembrance time can all too easily descend into sentimentality or triumphalism. If that is the case, the all those whose lives are remembered manifestly died in vain. We are called upon to remember in order to be honest about where we are now, for if we do not do that, we will remain the same and the horrors that brought about what happened in the past will only repeat themselves.

God’s people were told to ‘remember that you were a slave in Egypt’ so that they could avoid all sorts of slavery in the future: we are called upon the remember those who died in warfare so that warfare and any other sort of hostility - either international, within our nation, within our community, within our family, within ourselves - might cease.