Jonathan Bartley

Give freedom a chance

By Jonathan Bartley
November 8, 2009

War remembrance, we are told by its custodians, the British Legion, is about recalling those who “died for our freedom.” It is a sentiment repeated by the Prime Minister in a press statement last night, who said of Remembrance Sunday:

“We will hold the men and women of our military in our prayers tomorrow as we think about all those who have been killed in Afghanistan this year - heroes who have lost their lives on Afghan streets so that we might be safer on Britain’s streets.”

Putting aside the clear political meaning which is being given to remembrance (and one which from which many would dissent), it is interesting to note what kind of freedom is being referred to.

Isaiah Berlin, in his famous essay, wrote about “Two Concepts of Liberty”. There is the ‘negative’ “freedom from” something. But there is also the ‘positive’ “freedom to” do something. One may be free from the constraints of tyranny or legal prohibition he suggested, but that does not mean we are free to do the things that we might want to do. We need to be enabled to experience freedom in all its fullness.

Remembrance Sunday is based around the ‘negative’ idea of freedom. It refers the fight against fascism, imperialism or terrorism. It is about the freedom from fear and conquest. But what is missing is the crucial freedom to make sure that wars don't happen again – that is the freedom to be able to build lasting peace.

This may be seen historically in the approach that women - who had lost fathers, brothers and sons in World War One – made to the British Legion. They asked whether the Legion would print a commitment to peace in the middle of their red poppies. It was their belief that the best way to honour those who had died was to take active steps toward peace. The Legion refused, and so the White Poppy movement was born.

The conception of peace in remembrance is essentially the absence of war. But as the women highlighted this is not true peace. Peace must be built. Peace must be nurtured. Peacemaking is an active process not a passive one (and this is why ‘pacifism’ is such a misleading label). And it is something that has been missing from our remembrance for as long as it has existed.

The uncomfortable truth is, that whatever one's views of war, as long as we continue to remember without an active commitment to peacebuilding, those who died did not die for freedom in its fullest sense.

A poll which Ekklesia commissioned this week revealed that 95 per cent of the British public agree that “the main message of Remembrance Sunday should be one of peace”. The time is clearly right to reimagine our remembrance. It is time to embrace freedom in all its fullness.

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