The default politics of Remembrance

Jonathan Bartley
By Jonathan Bartley
7 Nov 2008

This Sunday, churches up and down the country will make a political statement which will be widely covered across print and broadcast media. But it is likely to pass without so much as a murmur of criticism.

On Remembrance Sunday, thousands of services will take place, commemorating - as the Church, state and the British Legion put it with one accord - “those who have given their lives for the peace and freedom we enjoy today”. But the political, and for that matter theological implications of such a perspective, will be quietly ignored. This should be, they say with equal agreement, an impartial event, devoid of political considerations.

But it isn’t. Because this is in reality Remember-In-A-Certain-Way Sunday – and one that sits uncomfortably with some of the church’s own teachings and beliefs, not to mention the positions it has taken on recent conflicts.

There is a clear and present sentiment behind the poppies and the prayers – and one that, if the people in the pews really stopped to think about, would not be shared by all who attend this Sunday’s services. Many bishops and clergy certainly can’t sign up wholeheartedly to the idea that those who died in the Falklands, Iraq, and even World War 1, gave their lives for ‘peace and freedom’. Some feel that the military campaigns worked against it. And then there is the matter of the people who were on the receiving end of their bombs and bullets. The Christian tradition insists that all are equal in the sight of God. True remembrance requires that the dead on all sides are brought to mind.

It is easier though for the Church not to think too hard. The last time it did - when Archbishop of Canterbury Robert Runcie, himself a Military Cross holder prayed for the Argentinian dead at the Falklands war memorial service at Westminster Abbey - a momentous political row ensued with the Government of the day. Remembrance Sunday remains one of the few days in the calendar when the church reassures itself that it still has a role of national importance. So why rock the warship?

But if the truth be told, the Christian mission has never been very good at navigating the choppy waters of military action. The problems began when Jesus Christ urged love of enemies, unconditional forgiveness and turning the other cheek. As Christianity grew in influence, soldiers who were converting had problems reconciling their new faith with their vocation. A strange dualism began to emerge. Upon baptism (in those days undertaken by complete immersion) some soldiers left their sword arms above the waterline so they could continue killing with a clear conscience. Others prayed for the dead they had just killed on the battlefield. Later, it was considered acceptable for the laity to kill, but clergy had to keep their hands clean.

It was the Emperor Constantine’s conversion though that fully institutionalised the problem. Christianity was now aligned with an empire built on conquest. It was no longer a question of whether Christians could take part in wars. It was now simply a matter of when and how they were going to do it. Some nifty theological footwork was undertaken and a theory of the ‘Just War’ was the resulting map, albeit an evolving one, to guide most Christians through the next 1700 years.

But Remembrance Sunday shows only too clearly that the double standards are still alive and well even today. According to ideas of just war – which most in the church would still subscribe to – war is always an evil, albeit sometimes a necessary one. But such is the Remembrance Day mantra, few can get away with articulating such beliefs without causing upset, outrage and disgust.

Two years ago Channel 4 newscaster Jon Snow talked about the ‘poppy fascism’ in the broadcasting industry, which required their display by public figures every November. There is a similar unspoken oppression in the way that the church deals with Remembrance. Only the very brave would suggest from the pulpit that the dead might not all be ‘glorious’, that some might have died in vain, or that our recollections should encompass those that our country’s soldiers killed – even though that it what the Church is supposed to believe.

A few weeks ago I found myself doing a radio interview with a war veteran who wanted a campaign medal to be given to Bomber Command. Bomber Command, and those involved with it had never received one. The reason, he said, was that the carpet bombing that they had been ordered to undertake in World War Two had been considered by many shameful and embarrassing. They had been quietly forgotten and pushed to one side.

The 50,000 aircrews and personnel who died, need a proper memorial. They should be remembered. And perhaps it is the church’s role to make sure that people like those, whose story has been marginalised, continues to be told.

But it is also important that their actions and the consequences should be remembered, - openly and honestly. We should recall that in a few nights of bombing, a similar number - 50,000 but this time civilians - were burned alive in the firestorm at Dresden.

This is not to judge the soldiers and aircrews, or indeed fail to recognise and acknowledge the huge price that they paid. Rather it is to be truthful about what took place, and make sure that all the dead are remembered.

The church is uniquely placed to bring such a perspective. Its new position in post-Christendom may call it to have less focus on the nation state, and call society to a broader view to remember both friends and enemies.

If we accept the Remembrance Day rhetoric, that soldiers laid down their lives to give us the liberties we enjoy today, then surely that must include the freedom to choose how we remember the dead, and say what we believe? Indeed, it does a disservice to their memory not to allow such choice and conscience to be expressed.

Remembrance Sunday needs to experience the liberation to which is pays lip service. The church should be the freedom fighter to bring it. But in the absence of a few more Runcies, the tyranny of partial remembrance looks set to continue its reign for a while yet.

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(c) Jonathan Bartley is co-director of Ekklesia and author of Faith and Politics After Christendom (Paternoster, 2006).

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See also: 'War remembrance and Christian hope', a theological perspective from Ekklesia co-director Simon Barrow - http://ekklesia.co.uk/node/7942

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