Remembering is a fundamental part of what it is to be human. That is why dementia is such a distressing condition; it robs us of our ability to remember, and as such seems to rob us of our very selves. I am constantly fascinated that the programme which allows people to reconstruct their family history is not called ‘Who do you think you were?’ but ‘Who do you think you are?’ The remembering of the past constitutes a key part of the present when it comes to our identity. David Runcorn expresses this with customary insight:
To remember is not to recall a memory (though that is part of it of course). To re-member is to re-connect with what has, for whatever reason, been dis-membered.
To re-member is not to look back into the past but to bring into the present all that has brought us to this point, and shaped who we are, for good or ill. We are to live in remembrance. Those who do not re-member are not present either. There can be no healing until we are present to the wounds, to the fractures of our story and history. Bids for new futures, attempts at renewal that do not flow from careful remembrance may look pious and visionary, but they are actually escape bids.
If remembrance is central to human being, it is also central to Christian belief. The two central events of both Jewish and Christian practice centre on remembering—the Jewish on remembering the deliverance from Egypt in the Passover, and the Christian in the remembering of Jesus’ own remembering of this, overlaid with his own death and resurrection as a new expression of it. In both acts of remembrance, the events are told in the present tense, and not the past. In Passover, the youngest child has to ask ‘Why is this night special?’ not ‘Why was this night special?’ And when we share the bread and wine we remembering by recounting Jesus’ words ‘This is my body…my blood.’ In both cases, our remembering brings the past into the present and shapes the reality that we inhabit.
In a wonderfully poetic and evocative reflection, Adrian Hilton expresses what this means on Remembrance Sunday:
As millions of us make the pilgrimage to file past 888,246 ceramic poppies, a part of us is still dying on Passchendaele ridge, and if not there, in Flanders fields or the Somme, where the lives of our bravest and best were snuffed out by snipers and trampled into the mud. Thousands of them still sleep there, encased in unmarked tombs of distant affection.
Wives became weeping widows, inconsolable in the void of grief. We are their children, or their children’s children and their children’s children’s children. They live forever in our DNA.
But what sort of effect should this kind of remembrance have in us—how should it shape the reality we inhabit? Should it make us protest at the rush to war that has marked Western decision-making for many years? Should it make us long for justice when it is now fourteen years since the Iraq war was declared illegal by the UN Secretary General? And the person who led us down this route is now making millions advising other regimes on how to work in a similar way?
Or perhaps we should be concerned at our country’s continued status as a world leader in arms manufacture? Very recently we were the fifth largest global exporter, after Russia, the US, China and France, and we are home to the third-largest arms manufacturer in BAE Systems. Oscar Arias Sanchez, former President of Costa Rica, who was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1987, commented:
When a country decides to invest in arms, rather than in education, housing, the environment, and health services for its people, it is depriving a whole generation of its right to prosperity and happiness. We have produced one firearm for every ten inhabitants of this planet, and yet we have not bothered to end hunger when such a feat is well within our reach. Our international regulations allow almost three-quarters of all global arms sales to pour into the developing world with no binding international guidelines whatsoever. Our regulations do not hold countries accountable for what is done with the weapons they sell, even when the probable use of such weapons is obvious
Alan Storkey offers the challenge from the perspective of Christian theology:
We’ll rightly be remembering the war dead and injured this weekend. Now is the time for Christians to address why wars happen and how they can end. The arms companies need wars and get them by persuading enough people that arming the world keeps us safe, and so war follows war. It is the biggest failed experiment in modern world history. In ten or twenty years time, going on as we are, a third world war is likely through mistrust and competitive arming. But it could be stopped now. Then it will be riven with tension and may be too late. But, no weapons, no wars. Thus far all disarmament negotiations have been in the hands of the military and defence people and they sabotaged it in the thirties, fifties, sixties, seventies and eighties and even at the end of the Cold War. A measured international Christian will among two billion people for multilateral world disarmament can do it. Swords into ploughshares is military and economic sense saving trillions, sparing death, destruction and poverty, and cutting total world CO2 by some 5%. It is the blessing to the nations we can help bring to pass. It puts the Lamb on the throne.
Unless remembrance forges in us a commitment to work for peace and against the continued influence of the arms industry, the sea of red we saw around the Tower of London four years ago, remember the start of the ‘Great War’ 100 year earlier as we remember its end, will not have done its work.
(First published on November 11th 2014)
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