War remembrance and Christian hope

Simon Barrow
By Simon Barrow
11 Nov 2008

Today is Remembrance Day. But what is ‘remembering’ in human and Christian terms? How can we probe beneath the emotion and ceremony associated with this poignant public occasion in order to discover (and practice) 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 victimizer – comes with great difficulty, or not at all.

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

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 belief in the resurrection, the conviction that this death can be weaved substantially into a great pattern of life wrought by God, does not remove or excise this memory. Indeed in certain respects it makes it more poignant.

Moreover, 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. The life-beyond-life he 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 some sense or other, remains potently with us. The critical issue is, what gives or shapes that particular sense? Which is the ultimate context, death or life?

In human experience it is death that 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 Christian remembering. And it is of absolutely crucial importance for acting Christianly in the arena of war and peace – where war can be the chief expression that, when all is said and done, we believe most deeply in the sovereignty of death. Likewise, peace can be, wrongly conceived, yet another means of avoiding the confrontation with deathly fear that comes from being simply ‘anti-war’, rather than incorporated into any genuine alternative to the society of that goes on remembering and (therefore) reacting in a warlike way.

So what of the annual Armistice moment when two great wars of the twentieth century are recalled, and when those who fell are remembered with tears of gratitude? What kind of remembering is this? How is it related to the anamnesis of the Gospel, to Jesus’ death at the hands of a dominant political and religious order, to the cries of “Presenté!” at the funeral of El Salvadorean martyr Oscar Romero, and to the question of religiously sanctioned violence which hangs over the churches’ attempt to be faithful to Christ this day and every day? These are tough questions. There can be no one, simple answer, because what Remembrance Day means to particular persons and families is etched on their own memories and stories, and cannot be either trumped or dismissed by others. That is how it should be.

But Remembrance Sunday, in which the churches and (increasingly) other faith communities continue to play a significant ritual role, does have an overall character, ethos and demeanour. This varies from place to place. It is not uncontested, but neither is it beyond examination – particularly in terms of what it may tell us about how the church, as the Body of Christ in anticipation, does or does not bear witness to hope through its involvement.

What often come across, at a surface level, is a religious and spiritual endorsement of the way in which the remembrance of war and its public meaning and symbolism is signified in ceremonies and words that, while they often use Christian imagery, have long reflected the assumptions of a relationship between church and state unified by – among other things – the protection of the sword. We are invited to “remember those who gave their lives for peace and freedom” (as the Royal British Legion puts it), even though in some cases the taking of life may have been in conflicts which may have proved to be palpably inconsistent with those ends.

Remembrance Day in Britain is rightfully an occasion for sombre reflection. It is also, lest we forget, a day when national and military flags are paraded and saluted in churches, and maybe even placed on the holy space marked out by altars. Along with blood red poppies there are regimental colours and monuments to the armed forces and their leaders. There is the rhetoric of victory, valour and deliverance. Frequently presiding at cenotaphs are chaplains and other clergy wearing medals or military insignia. And prayers are said for currently serving soldiers in armed conflicts, including those, such as Afghanistan and Iraq, where people are greatly divided by questions of right and wrong, even if they accept the legitimacy of military intervention as one of a range of responses. Sometimes these prayers are said with great pastoral sensitivity, but on other occasions they sound more like rallying cries, sanctioning what is spoken of and proceeding with the idea that “we” all agree. Either that or we are not really part of an acceptable “us”.

It is worth noting the overall consensus, because it is very powerful indeed. The idea that the remembering going on here is (or could be) ‘neutral’ soon comes under the pressure of hard facts. To raise the difficult questions that my colleague Jonathan Bartley has in his recent article ‘The default politics of Remembrance’ (http://ekklesia.co.uk/node/7938) and on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme is to invite confusion, anger and abuse. Our friend Giles Fraser, who placed military colours on his altar on Sunday, was construed by the BBC as ‘having a go’ at us, though nothing he said had much to do with what he was supposed to be disagreeing with.

The BBC’s website also headlined Jonathan’s article as an “attack on the church”. It is nothing of the sort, of course. But it seems that truthful representation easily takes second place to sensationalism when it comes to getting ‘a good story’. No doubt the justification will be that “people could understand it in that way” – though only, of course, by avoiding the central point, which is that there need be no contradiction between honouring those who have died in war and seeking alternatives to war as a way of addressing human conflict. The red poppy symbolises the former and the white poppy the latter, which is why many of us choose to wear them together. *

Yet even this can cause offence. It is as if peace-building outside the framework provided by military endeavour can have no place in official Remembrance. Meanwhile, those who defend the current pattern, as if it was sacred, then go on to claim, somewhat contradictorily, that the dominant symbolism is “purely neutral”. Likewise, it is seen as ‘political’ to talk about non-violent conflict transformation in situations like Iraq, while it is not regarded as similarly political to “salute the courage of our boys” (note the possessive) in a war which is still widely regarded as illegal under international law, and which, while it has thankfully displaced a tyrant, has produced endless bloodshed and suffering in its wake.

The issue is not, in the first instance, whether you are an advocate of pacifism or ‘just war’ ideology, it is about remembering death in the context of the search for life and te gift of life. This is what Christians are called upon to do, not by “politically correct think-tanks”, but by 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, that 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.

War Remembrance ceremonies mostly accept war as both necessary and heroic – if ultimately unfortunate and undesirable. There is a structure of worldly inevitability about this. “We may like it to be otherwise, but this is how it is”, goes the subtext. And sadly, many Christians agree. By projecting God’s domain of self-sacrificial love into the future, or onto an ideology of Jesus Christ that spiritualises him beyond reach (accept as an ideal to be proclaimed, or a figurehead by which to assert ourselves), the Christianity of Christendom has neutralized the eschatological core of the Gospel. That is, the conviction that no full stops can be arrived at short of God’s future.

There may be no human means of saying, short of kidding ourselves, that “things can be otherwise” when it comes to ultimate life or death choices. But this is no reason for the Christian to concur, unless Christ is not in some substantially meaningful sense risen, in which case our estimate of things should indeed be very different.

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* This perspective was described by the BBC representative as “subtle”, with the implication that there is little room for nuance in these issues – even if it is a matter of life and death.

This article has been excerpted and adapted from Simon Barrow’s forthcoming book, Threatened With Resurrection: The difficult peace of Christ, which will be published in December 2008. A day seminar on its themes will be held on 26 November 2008 at the London Mennonite Centre.

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(c) Simon Barrow is co-director of Ekklesia. He was formerly global mission secretary at Churches Together in Britain and Ireland, the official ecumenical body. He blogs at http://faithinsociety.blogspot.com and his website is at http://www.simonbarrow.net. The latest book he has edited, Fear or Freedom? Why a warring church must change is published by Shoving Leopard.

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