By quirk of calendar, this day, the hundredth anniversary of the end of the First World War comes to have two names: Remembrance Day (which is the name for the Sunday nearest the 11th), and Armistice Day, the day that marks the 11th itself. I’m intrigued by those two names, and the different emphases they bring. The name Remembrance Day, of course, brings to mind the task of remembering combatants. Certain symbols guide our focus: the tomb of the unknown warrior in Westminster; the Cenotaph – a symbolic empty stone tomb inscribed with the words, ‘the glorious dead’; the military bugler playing the Last Post, as for 2 minutes we symbolically hold a night-time vigil beside the body of the fallen warrior, and the Rouse, as we reawaken to start the new day.
And there is on this 100th anniversary plenty to remember.
We might choose to focus on the nearly one million British and Empire soldiers whose lives were lost. We might rightly focus with pathos on what those lives might have come to. We might think of the youthfulness of so many of the dead – many the same age as the young University student officer who stood next to me on Friday at our campus memorial (and, indeed, that some were much younger – we now know that a quarter of a million British soldiers were under the age of 18). The sacrifice of young male lives for a bigger cause, thinking “it would all be over by Christmas”: it’s poignant stuff that tugs at the heart, captured rather well in Danny Boyle’s ephemeral sand sculptures that have been created in 32 locations around the coast this morning and that will be washed away as the tide returns – all those unique lives lost. It feels right to remember such things.
On Friday at the University memorial we announced that we would be adding a new plaque with the names of nine more soldier to the existing First World War memorial: names of staff and students who had been overlooked mainly for administrative reasons. I spoke with one of the volunteer researchers involved who had spent hours in the University archive trying to find a photograph of one young man to send to his grandchildren (none of whom ever knew their grandfather). She reported how deeply moved the family were to receive the time and attention. When I questioned the volunteer herself, asking her why she had spent so much energy on such a small thing, she told me (after explaining in no uncertain times that she was not religious) that she felt there was something profoundly important about acknowledging the fullness of what had happened, about telling the full truth, about bringing to the surface hidden or lost things (all of which struck me as profoundly religious).
The same desire for reality and deep truth underlines the film-maker Peter Jackson’s documentary, They Shall Not Grow Old, which is being shown tonight on BBC2. Using computer-aided reconstruction, colourisation, and with the help of lip readers to work out what the soldiers were saying, Jackson transforms that grainy, speeded up, black-and-white footage of the First World War, that seems so other to us, into something startlingly remarkably real. As he put it: “the faces of these guys became human beings”.
But if we are inclined towards this deeper reality, sooner or later slightly trickier questions emerge about whether there are, or should be, boundaries to remembering. One of the new names to be added to the University memorial is that of Charles Flint, a 15 year old laboratory assistant. Charles was not in the armed forces, but rather the forerunner to the Merchant Navy, and he died of influenza rather than from violence. He’s buried at Cemetery Junction.
Which prompts me to ask: who else, beyond Allied First World War combatants, ought we to remember today? I note with curious interest the gradual expansion of memory over the decades to include the dead of other conflicts: those of the Second World War, Palestine, Korea, Northern Ireland, the Falklands, the Iraq Wars, Afghanistan. This past month there have been several stories in the BBC pushing at the boundaries to focus attention on other overlooked groups: the soldiers of the Caribbean, the half million Indian Muslims. But even this is only a work in progress. In the last few years we have seen a remembering of certain civilians, like the previously unrecognised men and women at Bletchley Park; and more remarkably the rehabilitation of the memory of those shot for desertion.
But then there are much more difficult questions: should we remember the other dead? I think especially of civilians, whose names are inscribed in no books of commemoration; who have no cenotaph; and who throughout the past century have exceeded the numbers of military personnel who die in warfare. Do we remember them today, and if not today, when? And, then, should we remember the young idealistic self-sacrificing soldiers on the other side? In New College chapel in Oxford their memorial plaque includes these words: “In memory of the men of this college who coming from a foreign land entered into the inheritance of this place and returning fought and died for their country”, followed by the names of three Germans. Indeed, should we expand our remembering to include not just the people, but the acts done, too, by all sides? These are deeply uncomfortable questions aren’t they? I dare say some might even consider them to verge on blasphemy – and of course to express the emotion like that puts its finger precisely on the problem: which god is being blasphemed, the god of national self-image?
Our first reading today comes from that humorous and starkly self-critical book of the prophet Jonah. It’s a story about a Jewish man sent by God to preach salvation, to preach safety, to Nineveh, the capital city of his country’s worst enemies: the Assyrians, an empire that wiped 10 of the 12 tribes of Israel off the face of the earth. It’s a vocation so awful that Jonah initially flees to Spain to avoid it. And when he finally and reluctantly fulfils his mission, he sits outside the city deeply upset that God has shown such interest in Israel’s most bitter foe, to which God replies “should I not be concerned about Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand people who do not know their right hand from their left?”. Do we dare to remember the bigger picture?
“Remember”: a word used in two key places in Scripture. In the Ten Commandments: “Remember the Sabbath and keep it holy… you shall not do any work … remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt.” Because those who remember that they were once slaves are more likely to be compassionate on the powerless. And then the famous “Remember” of the Gospels: “do this in remembrance of me,” says Jesus, tie your community meal to the story of one executed by an occupying force, who dared to speak of a different Kingdom because then you will not be tempted to be that force yourself, and you will keep your eyes on God’s kingdom. Memory then, is not just about a feeling warm about the past. To truly and fully remember opens up the present to reconsideration. Remembrance Day ought to challenge what we do now, and to whom.
And that leads into consideration about the other title for today: Armistice Day – a Latin term meaning the “standing-still” of arms, the cessation of fighting, or to put it the other way around: the day of peace. If remembrance should point us with intensity and honesty backwards, to designate a day as a Day of Peace asks us to look forward. It asks us celebrate acts of reconciliation, and to ask where they are still needed. As an example, I think of a remarkable story of an RAF man, Tom Tate, who died in 2016. Tom had bailed out during a bombing raid in 1945 landing in the German village of Huchenfold, north of Pforzeim. The month before Pforzheim had been destroyed in a similar RAF raid killing 18,000 people. Revenge was in the air, and so Tom and his fellow captured crew were dragged to a nearby cemetery to be executed by teenagers in the local Hitler Youth. Tom and one other crew member escaped, but the other five did not. Tom was later recaptured by German soldiers and taken to a POW camp. And even then a miracle was beginning: one of his guards handed him a pair of boots donated by a widow from Huchenfold who had heard about the lynching of his fellow airmen and who wanted to show remorse. After the war Tom was filled with bitterness but 50 years later he stumbled across a magazine article called “The Village that asked Forgiveness” relating how Huchenfold’s pastor had erected a memorial plaque to the five murdered British airmen on which was written the words “Father forgive”. Tom, with some trepidation, decided to go to Huchenfold, and the following words are his: “It was clear I had become a symbol of reconciliation. I was greeted by so many people, all of whom wanted to shake my hand. I’ve never been hugged by so many ladies in all my life! I also met Emilie, the woman who in 1945 had sent me the boots. Guilt had hung over the village for years, but by going there it somehow changed things for them. I was so welcomed, and so well looked after, that suddenly I realised I’d made a mistake. I wish that I’d gone to Germany earlier to relieve these people of their guilt. When someone comes with arms open to embrace you, you can’t feel enmity any more. The act of friendship invites forgiveness.”
Armistice Day could be, then, not just a day of sad remembrance, but a day to focus on celebratory and miraculous hope, and where that is still needed. Our reading from Mark sees Jesus proclaiming “the good news of God…”. The expression “good news” is, in fact, the technical one for the announcement brought from a battlefield that the battle has ended. The battle is over, Jesus is saying. Repent and believe: put down your weapons, take courage and come and follow me: there’s a new kingdom coming and you’re part of it. Amen.