Simon Barrow

Transforming remembrance into hope

By Simon Barrow
November 8, 2009

Another Remembrance Sunday dawns - the first in Britain without any participants from World War One (, and occurring at a time when public disquiet over recent wars (especially the horrific mess of Afghanistan) is growing louder and more insistent.

The annual ceremonies of Remembrance are occasions of sorrow and dignity. But they are usually accompanied by militaristic posturing from some quarters - attempts by sections of the media to use a bogus kind of patriotism to quell a more questioning or honest approach (

However, as the latest Ekklesia / ComRes opinion survey shows (, most people in Britain are not in the least fooled by tabloid tub-thumping.

Quite the opposite, in fact. The 8 November 2009 poll indicates that 95 per cent think the main message of Remembrance Sunday should be one of peace. Ninety-three per cent say they believe that contrary to existing remembrance traditions, civilians who died in war should also be remembered. And 87 per cent of the population say that the 'dead on all sides' should be marked on Remembrance Sunday.

These are remarkable findings and show that a change of approach to Remembrance, one that refuses selective memory, eschews triumphalism and stresses the need to overcome war as an instrument of policy, is not only long overdue - it is also in tune both with the shifting sentiments of people at large, and with a new sense of vision within the churches. (

But what is ‘remembering’ in human and Christian terms? How can we probe beneath the emotion and ceremony associated with these poignant public occasions in order to discover (and practise) something life-affirming as we recall the tragedy of war?

How we remember shapes who we are, how we approach life, what we believe to be truly important, what we anticipate, and what choices we will feel able to make as we continue our journey through the world. If we remember well, we stand a good chance of living happily and fruitfully, but if we remember badly we may find ourselves disabled by fear, guilt and anger.

Not for nothing is “the healing of memories” a critical concern for those who have the task, both pastoral and psychological, of assisting people traumatised by war, conflict, torture, murder and injustice.

The extent to which healing is possible when the mind is overrun by terror or dread is a difficult matter in itself. Some find it impossible to exorcise what lies buried deep in their psyche; others experience relief and restoration. None are able “simply to forget”, and for the majority “forgiveness” – the ability meaningfully to transform the distance between victim and victimiser – comes with great difficulty, or not at all.

Attempts to excise from the memory that which is unpleasant or inconvenient can have disastrous, confusing, funny and unintended consequences, as the film ‘Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind’ powerfully illustrates.

There are powerful theological issues involved, too. At the heart of the Christian community’s faith, constitution and action is the painful paradox of a violent death remembered. When the church gathers around the communion table, whatever other disagreements it may have about this act, it remains the case that the memory of Jesus, his living and dying, is central.

The Christian belief in resurrection, the conviction that this death is woven substantially into a greater pattern of life wrought by God, does not remove or excise this memory of death. Indeed in certain respects it makes it more poignant.

In the New Testament accounts of the encounter between the early Christian disciples and the Jesus who they came to believe had not been contained or defined by death, there is a powerfully transformative image. The Risen Christ retains the marks and scars of crucifixion. He does not ‘lose’ them.

For Christians, the life-beyond-life to which Christ points, embodies and expresses is not an evasion. It does not abolish death and suffering, it transfigures it, placing it into a new context. Every tear may be wiped away in God’s future, but that which causes tears of unutterable grief has happened and, in this sense, remains potently with us. The critical issue is, what gives or shapes that particular sense? Which is the ultimate context, death or life? Believers and non-believers are bound to have a different estimate of this question.

In human experience it is death which has the last word, because we have no capacity to experience anything beyond its boundary. If we are to remain open to the possibility of divine life, of love which is finally accountable neither to our death dealing nor even to our gloriously garish attempts at living, this openness will occur not as a hypothesis but as an action in which what has been broken is gathered and re-offered for the life of the world.

This is what Eucharistic remembrance and thanksgiving is all about. Its essence is not a ritual or a doctrine but a communal invitation to a new way of living in the face of death. It is a meal of hope, of the sharing and multiplication of life. It heals our memories. But it only makes sense if the wounds we remember – in order not to avoid them, but to understand their real depth – belong to the Living One, and to the Body (the community of human suffering and joy) to which we are united in baptism (the granting of a new identity), prayer (the petition of the sovereignty of love) and action for justice and peace (the sacrament, the genuine foretaste, of a new world coming).

All of this is involved in specifically Christian remembering. And it is of absolutely crucial importance for acting Christianly in the arena of war and peace – where justifying and joining in with war can be the chief expression that, when all is said and done, what we believe in most is the sovereignty of death.

Likewise, peace (wrongly conceived) may be yet another means of avoiding the confrontation with deathly fear which comes from being simply ‘anti-war’, rather than being incorporated into any genuine alternative to the society that goes on remembering and (therefore) reacting in a warlike way.

So the issue is not, in the first instance, whether you are an advocate of pacifism or ‘just war’ thinking, it is about remembering death in the context of the search for life and the gift of life. This is what Christians are called upon to do, not out of 'political correctness' (as some are suggesting), but in recognition of the central facts of their faith in Christ crucified and risen.

Not to make space for the agonistic and the conflictual in our public, as well as private, remembrance, is bad for our health. It also falls dangerously short of what is involved in Eucharistic memory. All too often it is emotion, not reason; vested interests, not truthfulness, which are most powerfully at play in the ritual and symbolism of official remembering – a point which Christians should never forget, given how the image of the Cross has been used to buttress conquest and crusading in our own, deeply flawed history.

When this has happened, or when the powerful 'myth of redemptive violence' ( has been perpetuated in the church as well as the world at large, the Christianity of Christendom has been in danger of neutralizing the eschatological heart of the Gospel. That is, the conviction that no full stops can be arrived at short of God’s future - which is one where peace reigns and where the power of love overcomes the love of power.

For this reason, irrespective of the wider debate, the churches need to re-think their own approach to Remembrance. What they have sanctioned in civic ceremonies and within their own walls has often failed to reflect the dynamic of the Gospel towards peace, love of enemies, forgiveness, and the disavowal of violence.

War may produce favourable results in some circumstances, but history shows that it is not a solution, it is a tragedy, and often a sheer waste. The best way to honour those who have died as a result of war (as we must do) - is to recognise its horror not in order to 'run away', but in order to have the true courage to seek alternatives and to engage in costly peacebuilding - to re-member a dis-membered world.

And as Savi Hensman points out (, an extraordinary figure who could provide the inspiration for the churches' reimagination of remembrance, and of issues of war and peace, is Martin of Tours - the warrior who became a peacemaker.


(c) Simon Barrow is co-director of Ekklesia, and author of 'Writing peace out of the script' (

Part of this article appeared as part of 'War remembrance and Christian hope (11 November 2008) and is referenced in Ekklesia's new report, 'Reimagining Remembrance' by Kate Guthrie (

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