Sunday, 9 November 2014

Selective remembrance

(With thanks to Neil MacGregor for inspiring this sermon)

"Stay awake." As we remember particularly the war dead of the First World War one hundred years on, there's a certain irony to Jesus' command to us today, since our country used to shoot dead its own soldiers if they fell asleep on their watch. But then, our remembrance tends to be rather selective.
Remembering and memorialising victory is nothing new. Pagan Rome was particularly good at it, and many of her monuments to wars won still stand. The most enduring symbol of national victory is surely the triumphal arch, copied by the Romans from the Etruscans, and ever after in cities where the legions never marched, from Washington to Pyongyang.
Men have always been keen to set in stone their triumphs; even Christian men of Christian nations. Curious that they had to delve into pagan history to find a suitable form for immortalising their victories in war, that nothing from the Christian tradition leapt out as being appropriate: for make no mistake, pagan these things are, generally including or topped by a "quadriga," that is a four-horsed chariot, bearing the goddess Victory, and often flanked by Mars and Minerva, god and goddess of war. Curious that a Christian nation might appropriate these pagan deities to its cause, especially curious when you consider the greatest and best known of all the triumphal arches, the model for all its later imitators: the Arch of the Emperor Titus in Rome.

The Arch of Titus is beautiful, no doubt, but it is spectacularly unchristian for two strong reasons. First is the quadriga, the divine chariot. As if deifying victory were not bad enough, on this arch it is Titus himself who takes pride of place, being crowned by Victory. The man Titus is delaring himself a god.

And what has made him a god? The second reason: namely, that this arch commemorates the sack of Jerusalem in AD 70. On one famous frieze, you can the soldiers with all the booty of the Temple, having killed off the Jews. You can see the menorah candle and the trumpets of ancient Jewish worship. This massacre of God's chosen people and desecration of His temple is the reason Titus proclaims himself a god, the ultimate idolatry. And this is the model European nations have chosen to remember our war dead.

A very selective remembrance, at that. The Arc de Triomphe records the dates of French victories: 1792, 1810, 1814, 1815. On defeats, though, the Arc is silent. 1870, for example, and France's defeat against Prussia, which meant losing Alsace-Lorraine and providing one of the many causes of the First World War - this doesn't get a look-in. It's only the soldiers who died in the wars France won that are worth remembering. The rest are conveniently forgotten. Victory is all.
We Britons have our arch, too: the Wellington Arch in Hyde Park. Completed in 1830, it memorialises our victory in the Napoleonic wars. The quadriga was mounted in 1912, this time with an angel of peace, at least, though she is mounted on a chariot of war. The message is that peace is earned through war, which may be true. But the medium of that message is telling: it was quite deliberately made to be the biggest bronze statue in Europe. It was made to show off; and it was made by a nation whose imperial exploits had not exactly taken peace to every nation they visited. We were not suppressing wars for much of the 19th century, we were starting them. So you might say that the message was a bit rich coming from us. And of course, it is all success, all victory, with never a mention of those who died in our military failures, the wars we lost: Afghanistan, in 1842 and 1880, where we would lose again in 1919, for example; Isandhlwana, now Durban, in 1879; Castlebar in 1798; Saratoga in 1777, the list goes on. And even now, how often do we remember Singapore in 1942 or the Suez in 1955? How often do we remember our victims, the ones whose countries we invaded, the slaves we took - where is the memorial to them? I think our remembrance is selective. I think it is dishonest.

Perhaps honesty comes only with crushing defeat. Neil Macgregor, Director of the British Museum, says that the only country that is truly honest in its remembrance and memorials of war is Germany. There is no other country, for example, that has a monument to its victims, a monument to its shame, like the Holocaust Memorial set right in the centre of its capital; and there is no triumphal arch quite like the Siegestor in Munich.

This arch, like the others, was modelled on Titus', back in the 1840s as a reminder of Bavarian heroism in repelling Napoleon. From the front, it looks much like its fellows: an inscription, 'to the Bavarian Army,' a quadriga on top. But then you go through to the other side. Blasted back by bombs and bullet holes, it has never been restored to its former beauty. The scars are left exposed for everyone to see, and above them, a blank expanse of stone with a new message etched in: "Dem Sieg geweiht, vom Krieg zerstört, zum Frieden mahnend," Dedicated to victory, destroyed by war, urging peace. This is remembrance which does not hide its ugliness and its shame, and does not just look back through rosy lenses but looks forward and pleads with its people not to enter this awful madness of war again. Born in hubris it is shamed and scourged and now emerges as something new, offering a hope of peace. It is remembrance as resurrection.

We are a people who gather every Sunday to celebrate a memorial: the memorial of our redemption. In the sacraments of bread and wine we are drawn into the life of one who was scourged and shamed, we are drawn into the shame of our fellow people who bloodied and killed him, and we are drawn into the promise, despite all this, of new and eternal life in peace. Ours is not a triumphal creed, it is bound up in sinfulness and failure, the story of a crucified God. It is the stark opposite of gods and goddesses of war and victory, and emperors becoming gods through military might. It is about a man who we know was God because He submitted to violence rather than employing it. There is no Christ the King without Christ the crucified; there is no Church redeemed without the Church that nailed God to the Cross. The worshippers of the true God, friends of a man crucified unjustly, cannot be friends of falsehood and injustice.
We, the Church, must therefore be very careful that we are not complicit in a dishonest national amnesia about the utter wrongness of war and the wrongness of our part in many of the wars our nation has fought. As the Established Church of this land, the onus is all the heavier, because it may be that we are the only ones with the authority to prompt our people's and our leaders' memories of the uncomfortable truths they would rather forget and the dead they would like to dismiss.
I would like to leave you with some questions about how we remember, as a nation, and the memorials we are making, especially on this 100th anniversary of the Great War. Take the poppies that are pouring from the Tower of London at the moment, one for every serviceman who died - for our country, that is. It is poignant. It is beautiful. But is it enough? Does it express any contrition, any responsibility, any shame? What - or who - might be forgotten as we remember?

Let us remember those who have died in the service of their nation, and pray for those who still do; but let us remember also those whom we prefer to forget, and repent of our nation's and our own part in bloodying God's creation with war.


  1. Thoughtful contemplation.

  2. Michael Pye (Marburg/Kyoto)3 January 2015 at 01:53

    This finely tuned meditation on remembrance is a call for reflection and repentance in all countries which have gloried in military might, and a call to all of us all to turn to peace in the future. Thank you for this message.