Thinking Aloud about the Philippines

Most of us are probably still too stunned to take in the magnitude of the disaster that has overtaken the Philippines. The numbers alone make the mind boggle. The earliest reports suggested, if you remember, just four people known to have died, and there was some modest congratulation of the Government for its excellent evacuation and  response plans. But then reports began to come in of whole cities destroyed and millions of people affected. The latest figures suggest many thousands dead and more at risk as the struggle to provide food, water, shelter and medical aid becomes a race against time. The Government, too, appears to outsiders too traumatised to act effectively.

Those who have Filippino friends will know something of the anguish they are experiencing, and true friends know how to give comfort. For the rest of us, the best we can do is to muster an imaginative sympathy, dig deep in our pockets and pray. And we must be content with that. Every human life matters; every dead body we see  in the news reports is an individual, with a being and a history as precious as our own. The fact that we do not ‘understand’ is a reminder, albeit painful, that we are not as in control as we like to think we are. For now, however, our business is to help in whatever way we can — and do not underestimate the power of prayer in that.

There are many aid agencies that have set up appeals for the people of the Philippines. Please support them if you are able to do so.


Remembrance Sunday 2013

How shall we mark Remembrance Sunday? Last year I wrote, a little glibly perhaps, that the act of remembering was essential to our learning the lessons of history:

Today, at 11 o’clock, the country will come to a stop for two minutes of silence and prayer for those who have died in two world wars and subsequent armed conflicts. It will be a moment of sadness for some, of awkwardness for others. It is the only time in the year when we make a collective act of remembrance, and its importance grows greater the further we are from the events which prompted it.

When I was a child, the effects of World War I were still plain to see: the elderly men who coughed and wheezed and were missing limbs; the great-uncle who still shook uncontrollably at times; the elderly maiden ladies who lived lives of genteel poverty, their fiançés killed in France or Flanders. I grew up listening to the men and women of my parents’ generation talking quite naturally about the events of World War II. Indeed, even today, I have only to open one of my father’s poetry books to see the flowers he picked in the Western Desert, the bloodstain where he was wounded, and the small black and white photographs of people and places that to me are only names, if that. For my nieces, even that tenuous thread is broken. It is all one ‘with yesterday’s seven thousand years’.

We need to remember because if we forget, we shall forget why freedom matters, why decency matters, why some things are worth fighting for, however much we may shrink from the idea of violence. So, we pray today not in any triumphalist spirit, but gratefully, humbly, and with the hope that we may learn the lessons of history at last.

I still think that’s true, but the terrible reality of the war in Syria, the loss of life to natural disaster in the Philippines, and the recent shocking revelation of a British soldier’s murder of an Afghan insurgent put another perspective on it. Death, it seems, is all around: brutal, inglorious, needless. Perhaps that is what we ought to think about today, as well as praying for those who have died in war or been crippled in mind or body as a result of war. It is not only those who die heroically but those who die abjectly, cowardly — perhaps especially those who die abjectly, cowardly — who remind us of our essential fragility and vulnerability. Peace is a precious gift it is only too easy to destroy.