“No child or future generation will ever know what this was like. They will never understand. When it is over we will go quietly among the living and we will not tell them. We will talk and sleep and go about our business like human beings. We will seal what we have seen in the silence of our hearts and no words will reach us” – Faulks, Birdsong, London 2004 p422
Those who remember the First World War are no longer amongst us. Indeed even when they were it was sometimes difficult to truly hear their remembrances of one of the great events that shaped our society in the twentieth century. For example Harry Patch, the last surviving veteran of the trenches who died in 2009 at the age of 111, only began to speak of his experiences after he was 100 and then only reluctantly.
Yet it is the Armistice of 11/11/1918 that we commemorate in our Remembrance Sunday, though obviously overlaid by the remembrance of all too many conflicts that have arisen since. We owe it to those who served and especially those who died to hear their stories and to learn from them. So much of the rhetoric of both world wars and later conflicts, including those being waged today, is that of the arm-chair protagonists. Those who take part in war are rarely tempted to glorify it; they know too much about the reality to do so.
It is not easy for us to love our enemies even though we are exhorted to in scripture (Matt 5:44); let us be honest most of us find it hard enough to love our friends. Yet this challenge is central within the living out of our Christian faith. Forgiveness and reconciliation is part of our calling. To ignore the events of war, to pretend they do not exist, is not an option. The effects of war are there amongst us. In the exhibition In Flanders Field in Ypres there is a cross section of a tree dating from approximately 1760 and cut down some 250 years later. Towards the edge but still some way in there is a black smudge. That is the effect of the Great War when the tree, shelled and machine gunned, remained alive and still standing but stained and wounded as so many of the combatants were too.
In our remembering we must actively listen for the lessons we need to be learning. It must never degenerate so that it simply becomes the “continuation of conflict by other means” (Ricoeur, Memory, History, Forgetting, Chicago 2004) but instead be part of the contemporary challenge to our faith with which we are called to grapple.