On Remembrance Sunday at 11am, we shall be celebrating the moment when, 100 years ago, the guns fell silent. We shall also be remembering those who have died as a result of a conflagration which changed and consumed so many lives, both civilian and military, across so many countries.
On Sunday, this remembering and celebrating will be reflected in bells. Early in the morning, more than 3,000 bell towers across England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland will ring, with ‘half-muffled’ bells, in solemn memory of those who lost their lives. Then, the mood changes. Bellringers will remove the muffles and, at 12.30pm, they will ring celebratory peals. The British and German governments are encouraging other countries to ring bells at the same times, in the same way, expressing, through bells, the reconciliation of former enemies. This reconciliation will also be reflected in the ways that British and German politicians will be join together in commemorations. Of special significance is that President Steinmeier of Germany will be laying a wreath at the Cenotaph in London on Remembrance Sunday.
Remembering and reconciliation lie at the heart of my lecture this evening, specifically, remembering through the lens of reconciliation. But what do I mean by ‘remembering through the lens of reconciliation? What is the difference between remembering through the lens of reconciliation and remembering in any other way? In a nutshell, it is possible to remember the past in such a way that we are trapped and kept there, still fighting the battles in our hearts and minds. On the other hand, by remembering through the lens of reconciliation we remember the loss, sorrow and pain, but in a way that opens up new and creative futures where former enemies can be friends for the benefit of all.
But remembering through the lens of reconciliation is important for another reason. The ways we remember and commemorate the past will reflect the way we view and handle disputes that we face today. The converse is also true, namely that the way we view the present affects the way we view the past. TS Eliot puts it succinctly when he writes (in The Sacred Wood published in 1921), ‘..the past should be altered by the present as much as the present is directed by the past.’
But tonight we concentrate on how the past affects the present. How the way we remember WW1 affects the way we view and respond to conflicts today.
This evening, I shall be concentrating on WW1, but I will also be drawing on examples from a number of conflict areas. What I say will be related to national and international conflicts, but principles of reconciliation also speak to other conflicts, for example, disputes between individuals, between communities and also those conflicts which go on within us. I shall set the scene with some introductory comments about the ending of WW1 [1.The war ends.] I will then consider what we are doing when we remember [2.Remembering] I’ll then ask, what do we understand by reconciliation – something we all know so well, but probably understand so differently. [3.What is reconciliation?] I shall look specifically at .remembering through the lens of reconciliation. Then , finally, I will briefly reflect how it shapes the way we handle disputes and conflict today [5….and Today?]
1.The War ends
Statistics vary wildly, but over those 4 years from all the countries involved in the war: 65 m. troops had been mobilized, 4 empires fell (Russian, Austro-Hungarian, German and Ottoman), 20 m. military and civilian deaths and 21 m. were wounded. I do want to emphasise the cost to the civilian populations as well as to the military – it was when the soldiers returned home and their countries forgot them that their wives and families had to care for them. Some were wounded physically – and there were more amputees as a result of WW1 than there had ever been before or have been since. A large number were wounded mentally. The war was not over for the survivors, for the survivors’ families. Nor was it over for the bereaved, who had to start their lives afresh.
When we think of WW1, our minds will naturally and understandably turn to what happened in the trenches, on the western front which is where most of the fighting took place, but there was also military action in Africa, the Middle East, Asia and the Pacific. The fighting was on land, on sea and, for the first time, in the air. It was a truly global conflict.
Yet, as well as being a global conflict which brought down empires, it was also a very local and personal conflict which touched people and communities not known on the international stage. This is very important when we consider how the conflict was and is remembered. It is remembered nationally, with a particular focus on the country’s memorial at the cenotaph. It is also remembered locally, on rolls of honour in churches and war memorials in towns and villages. In Manchester, many streets had roles of honour. In the small Exmoor village of Wootton Courtenay where I live we shall be remembering 5 men who died in the conflict.
National memorials provide the justification for the war. At the Cenotaph in London we think about the ‘glorious dead.’ At the Guards’ Memorial close to Horseguard’s Parade in central London onlookers are reminded that the fallen in WW1 were fighting ‘for the world’s freedom.’
Locally we read more personal tributes. Our heroes died ‘for king and country’ and then we are given their names. At Downham Market in Norfolk the fallen ‘speak’ to onlookers with the words: ‘All that we had we gave, All that was ours to give, freely surrendered all that you in peace might live.’. The focus is on the sacrifice that the soldiers gave and is much more personal.
WW1 not only destroyed, devastated and severely wounded many human bodies and many human minds, it shook to the core ways people understood their countries, their leaders, their cherished traditions, their long-held beliefs and themselves. When the war was ended, the nation struggled to find how best to remember it because so much had broken or had been broken down.
On November 11, 1918, ‘The war to end war’ was over, and the armistice signed. In June, 1919, the peace treaty was signed in Versailles, just outside Paris. But peace treaty was not, by any stretch of the mind, reconciliation. In many ways the ‘peace’ was merely a cease-fire that lasted for 21 years, until WW2. Field Marshall Archibald Wavell, who served in the Boer War, WW1 and WW2, described the peace treaty of Versailles in these words:
“After the ‘war to end war’ they seem to have been pretty successful in Paris at making a ‘Peace to end Peace.”
Few would dispute that the harsh terms of the peace treaty created conditions for the outbreak of WW2. While Britain and its allies wanted to remember the war as a victory for civilisation, Germany remembered the war as a humiliating defeat resulting in deplorable economic and social conditions. It was these conditions which were the breeding ground for the emergence of a far-right nationalism. Historian George Mosse in his book Fallen Soldiers goes further and says the brutalisation of WW1, alongside the peace, was a way-station on the way to the holocaust.
In addition to the Versailles Peace there were other alliances and realignments made as a result of the war and the dismantling of the Ottoman Empire. Some of these alliances laid the foundation for the agonizing disputes with which so many in the Middle East and further afield are contending today. First, there was the Sykes-Picot agreement in 1916 that drew the borders of Iraq and Syria. Secondly, there was the Balfour Declaration in 1917 in which Britain formally declared its support for a ‘national home for the Jewish people in Palestine.’ This came to fruition with the formation of the State of Israel in 1948. Reflecting on these agreements, some say that WW1 continues to be fought today in these regions.
It is against this background that WW1 is remembered nationally and locally through stories handed down over the generations, war memorials, art, poetry, song.
Anybody visiting Dachau, the former concentration camp close to Munich, is confronted with chilling words of philosopher George Santayana: ‘Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it.’
Remembering, Santayana is saying., is an activity that affects the present and can shape the future. Remembering the past could prevent us from repeating the past. If, for one reason or another, we do not remember past conflict and trauma, then like corks we try to hold under water, they will somehow find their way to the surface, haunt us and cause havoc.
Remembering is not a neutral act. We are influenced by whether the event we are remembering was a pleasant or unpleasant experience; by whether the outcome was positive or negative, happy or sad; by whether the people involved were pleasant or unpleasant. It is important that we remember the past. Writing on remembering the holocaust, James Young writes in his book, The Texture of Memory: Holocaust Memorials and Meaning, ‘….memory is never shaped in a vacuum; the motives of memory are never pure.’
It is particularly important that we remember and honour the dead, especially those who have died on our behalf. Every culture I know has a cult for the dead and its collective mental health depends upon remembering the dead, especially dead heroes, in a positive way. Over the last week, the ‘dead’ have been to the fore. While the Church has been celebrating All Saints’ and commemorating All Souls’, ghouls and ghosts have been walking our streets and knocking on our doors during the season of Halloween: all indications of the power that the cult of the dead holds over us.
Canadian politician and philosopher Michael Ignatieff has some challenging reflections on honouring those who have fallen in war. He argues that revenge is a ritual form of a community’s respecting and remembering of their dead. If citizens are killed in conflict, there is a primal urge to honour their memories and sacrifice and justify the cause for which they died. This is revenge. Urges for revenge can lie sleeping beneath the surface for many generations before they eventually flare up, but, unless they are addressed, flare up they will. He is reminding us of the importance of remembering and making memorials for our departed heroes. He also reminds us that it is part of our DNA, maybe a response to guilt, to seek some kind of recompense for their sacrifice.
Remembering the past and honouring the dead are important. But just as important is the way we remember and honour them. The way we remember can enslave us or liberate us. Our present and our future are affected by our past and the way we remember can hold and lock us in the pain, disputes and conflicts of the past or it can enable us to go forward, wounded but confident, into the future, opening up new possibilities. The way we remember even the most difficult of experiences can drain life from us or it can provide fresh hope and deeper insights as we move into the future So, the way we remember can liberate us or enslave us. Let me expand on this.
Robin Eames, Archbishop of Armagh and a major influence in Northern Ireland’s Good Friday Agreement, who helped me in my research on reconciliation, told me of a woman he met in South Armagh who lost her husband in the struggles of Northern Ireland. She kept a picture of her husband on the wall in the corner of a room. When she looks at the picture, dragged down by the pain of his loss, her demeanour becomes sharp and haggard and she refers bitterly to the ‘terrorists’ who killed him. No judgement of this lady’s reaction can be made, but her present is dominated by her past. A past which is unaddressed and unredeemed affects the present, can become a means of excluding others from oneself and also an opportunity of demonising the other.
Compare that to the way that Nelson Mandela viewed the past on his release from prison in South Africa. The many years of incarceration could have resulted in his emerging a twisted and resentful man plunging South Africa into a bitter and bloody conflict, but the way he emerged and remembered the past must be one of the miracles of the twentieth century. We have no control over what happened in the past, but we can control the way we look at it.
The ways that we remember in our commemorations will shape, not only the way we move forward, but our attitude and understanding towards other conflicts or potential conflicts with which we may be involved today. Remembering is active and demands action.
3.What is Reconciliation?
Reconciliation is a word, frequently used today, but not so frequently explained. Politicians, psychotherapists, mediators, ecologists, theologians and economists are among the many groups who, in different but related ways, seek reconciliation, though each understands it differently. For the politician, reconciliation means conflict resolution. For the psychotherapist, it means inner healing and integration. For the mediator, it means enabling different parties to share a common vision. For the ecologist, it means finding a renewed relationship with nature and rediscovering the balance between the forces that consume and those that sustain. For the theologian, it means apprehending and restoring the relationship between God and humanity. For the economist, reconciliation means balancing the books.
What all this points to is that the pursuit of reconciliation, seeking to repair and renew fractured relationships in order to move forward, is a desire deep within humanity. Whether it is a dispute between friends, or a disagreement in the family. Whether it is conflict between nations or turmoil within ourselves which prevents us from flourishing, seeking reconciliation is a natural human desire. I begin my first book on reconciliation with the words, ‘The human soul (note I say the human soul, not the Christian soul) cries out for reconciliation. This God-given cry starts within and reverberates around all of creation.’
I speak from within the Christian tradition and I believe that the Christian tradition has insights into reconciliation to share with the wider world – I also believe that Christianity has much to learn from others about reconciliation. Reconciliation plays a role in many faiths, but it is at the very heart of the Christian faith. The reason that Jesus Christ came to this earth was not primarily to establish a church, but it was to bring about reconciliation, reconciliation between humanity and God and from that followed reconciliation between the whole of human-kind. Jesus Christ is the embodiment and personification of reconciliation; his life reflects it and gives focus and meaning to reconciliation. The Bible is the story of reconciliation.
We often think of reconciliation is as conflict resolution, bringing peace and harmony. All these may be part of it, but reconciliation is far more. Reconciliation comes about, not through techniques and slogans, but through a willingness of all involved parties, including those who believe they are in the right, to move from the positions they hold and to be willing to be changed, transformed and see things differently.
It is also important to remember that reconciliation does not happen overnight. It is a journey. In fact, reconciliation is as much a journey as a destination. Archbishop Robin Eames told me of an occasion when he was speaking about reconciliation in a school. In the question session, a girl asked the Archbishop, ‘How do we know when we have achieved reconciliation?’ Has reconciliation been achieved in Northern Ireland? Has reconciliation been achieved in South Africa after the Truth and Reconciliation Commission? Reconciliation is not the same as peace, and reconciliation is not conflict resolution. There may be moments when we feel that reconciliation has been achieved – and we should be thankful for these – but they are generally fragile and short-lived. Reconciliation with others, within ourselves and with creation is something that we constantly need to seek. Reconciliation is not a one-off. It is an attitude of life and a frame of mind. Reconciliation is the journey of a life-time – even the adventure of a life-time.
So, what aspects of reconciliation are important if we are to remember through the lens of reconciliation? There are many, but I want to highlight three and although our subject tonight is the commemoration of WW1, the three that I am highlighting need to be taken into account in any form of reconciliation. Reconciliation involves:
a) Embracing forgiveness: reconciliation releases the grip of the past.
b) Embracing the other: reconciliation recognises a shared humanity.
c) Embracing the truth: reconciliation remembers fully,
4.Remembering through the lens of Reconciliation
a) Embracing forgiveness – reconciliation releases the grip of the past
On the front of a journal on spirituality and health, there was a picture of three United States ex-servicemen standing in front of the Vietnam War memorial in Washington DC. They were reading the names of former comrades and reminiscing. One asks, ‘Have you forgiven those who held you prisoner of war?’ I will never forgive them,’ replies the other. The third then comments, ‘Then it seems that they still have you in prison, don’t they?’
The third soldier was telling his comrade that being able to forgive is as important, maybe more important, for the person who suffered injury and trauma as it is for those who inflict it. Forgiveness is bound up with moving on from victimhood. Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who chaired the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission, describes forgiveness as “The best form of self interest”, as it releases the grip of past trauma and tormentors.
Forgiveness is an important, and perhaps the most difficult and troubling ingredient of reconciliation. The bottom line is that there can be no reconciliation without a desire to forgive. Notice that I use the phrase, ‘desire to forgive.’ Sometimes the trauma is so deep and difficult that it is impossible to forgive and certainly the most harmful; thing to do is to expect people to forgive when they are not in a position to do so. If we are to forgive, we will need help from outside of ourselves to release us from the grip of guilt, shame and anger so that we can make the move towards forgiveness. That help may come in the form of strength of will, faith in God or trust in a particular person.
After World War 2, a party of West German church leaders visited Moscow to begin a dialogue with members of the Russian Orthodox Church. The German leaders expressed their sorrow over the horrors inflicted upon the Russian people by the Germans during the war. They asked to be forgiven. During the worship, there were many tears as they all remembered the cruelties and slaughter of the time. Then the Russians said ‘God may forgive you’ and they kissed the crosses of the German church leaders and asked for their blessings.
The Russian Christians were saying that the hurt and trauma of the past were still strong and they would like to forgive, but they were not yet ready to do so. But God would forgive them and, in time, they would be given the strength to forgive and overcome their traumatic memories.
We are 100 years on from WW1 and so forgiveness may be easier. Forgiveness – or even the desire to forgive – releases us from the grip of the past. In facing contemporary conflicts, it is salutary, even though sometimes difficult, to remember that, if we are to move forward, one day we may need to forgive those who set out to harm us – at the very least we may want to forgive, even though we don’t feel able to. If we cannot learn to remember the past through the lens of forgiveness, then we are still in the grip of the battles of the past and we will today be seeking out new enemies to continue the fight.
b) Embracing the other: reconciliation recognises a shared humanity
All sides in wars will do what they can to gain advantage. One weapon in their arsenal is to show that they have the moral high ground. On 16th December 1914, there was a German naval attack on Scarborough and, 9 days later, on Christmas Day, there was a British air attack on Cuxhaven in Germany. Listen to an account of these attacks in the Daily Mail:
There are some people who still pretend that, war being essentially inhuman, the more or less of ruthlessness and cruelty injected into its conduct does not matter. The contrast between Cuxhaven and Scarborough is the best answer to their trivial case. It is a contrast which shows that the inevitable miseries of war can, on the one hand, be restrained and limited, without any loss of military advantage, when it is waged by gentlemen and sportsmen, and on the other hand can be indefinitely extended, when it is waged by Germans.
Posters, caricatures and story-telling are the weapons used to demonise the enemy.
One way we justify war, acts of terrorism or repressive laws is by viewing the enemy as less than human. We demonise the other. When we demonise, we dehumanize. When we view somebody as less than human, we treat them as less than human. People we fight then become animals/terrorists. Dehumanizing the other makes it acceptable to kill the other. The ‘other’ becomes the ‘enemy.’ All sides do it.
The commemoration of WW1 enables us to recognise the humanity of the enemy being faced 100 years ago. It is then possible that the ‘other’, even the enemy becomes a friend. This leads to the acceptance of difference, a recognition that, despite our differences, we share the same humanity.
Earlier I referred to Canadian politician and philosopher Michael Ignatieff who wrote that revenge is a ritual form of a community’s respecting and remembering their dead. But he goes on to say that breaking the cycle of revenge and working for reconciliation will only begin when communities once at war with each other can learn to remember together and to mourn their dead together. That is the supreme example of embracing otherness and accepting difference.
Reconciliation calls for an embracing of otherness, accepting of difference. Of course, evil and injustice need to be challenged, called out as wrong, and vigorously opposed. Reconciliation cannot happen in a context of evil or injustice. Embracing the other and recognising our shared humanity as we remember past events will help us recognise the humanity of the enemy today and may have an effect on the climate in which our disputes are handled.
c) Embracing the truth: reconciliation remembers fully,
It is not possible to seek reconciliation in the middle of conflict, while the war continues. As I have already said, reconciliation can only be sought when the battle is over, justice has been done when all parties want reconciliation and when no party regards themselves as a victim. If there is an unjust or vindictive peace settlement, ‘a peace to end all peace’ as Field Marshall Wavell wrote, then we can forget reconciliation. Furthermore, reconciliation can only happen when all parties (victors and vanquished) are willing to be transformed, to move from the position that they have been holding. While there may have been compelling reasons to enter battle in the first place, as human beings all sides would, somewhere along the line, have been complicit in bringing about the dispute in the first place. We are all part of the sin of the world – that is what being human means. In reconciliation it is important to remember this and be very circumspect if we claim the moral high ground. Remembering fully means recognising our role, however distant, in the bringing about of conflict.
Remembering fully also has a very practical aspect to it. It means taking into account all who have suffered through war. Sadly this was not the case after WW1, where the very sight of those who were injured was a sign of failure and, too, often they were regarded as embarrassments. British painting and popular imagery presented the public with heroic images of lightly wounded soldiers while the primary focus of commemorations was on the valiant dead. Disabled veterans did not take part in the Peace Day/Victory Parade but were restricted to special grandstands. Yet, wounded veterans constitute a war memorial in flesh rather than in stone. They are a constant reminder of the terrible and real cost of war.
To remember fully, as well as remembering those who died, it is also important to remember the injured, the families who need to care for those who return from the war and, of course, the families and communities who have lost loved ones.
Remembering WW1, and ,indeed all past conflicts, through the lens of reconciliation will shape the ways we handle present conflicts. So, in summary, here are some specific questions that it raises.
First – and this may be the hardest, though most important things of all – can we try to forgive? If we can’t, the conflict will continue to rage and rage and rage.
Secondly, as hard and difficult as it is, can we see those we regard as enemies as a human-beings with the same needs, appetites, aspirations and shortcomings as us? Today’s enemies may be tomorrow’s friends.
Thirdly, do we, or rather dare we remember that no matter how much we justify conflict, no matter how much we argue that we are in the right and that the enemy is in the wrong, that we are part of the problem as well as part of the solution?
Finally, what about the veterans and others injured, physically and mentally, as a result of the conflict – do we remember them?
What did these young men die for? For what did so many families sacrifice and struggle to care for their loved ones who returned from the battle-fields broken, wounded and mutilated? Let the final words be from the pen of Carol Ann Duffy, the poet laureate, whose poem ‘The Wound of time’ was written for this occasion. The poet is addressing those who gave their lives:
We sense it was love
you gave your world for; the town squares silent,
awaiting their cenotaphs. What happened next?
War. And after that? War. And now? War. War.
History might as well be water, chastising this shore;
for we learn nothing from your endless sacrifice.
Your faces drowning in the pages of the sea.
Lecture delivered at Exeter Cathedral on 4th November 2018 and Wootton Courtenay Parish Church, Somerset on 9th November 2018. The original title of the lecture was, ‘At the going down of the sun and in the morning, we will remember them’ Remembering through the lens of reconciliation.