The last few days have seen events that have made huge demands on the world’s attention and understanding: the horrors being perpetrated in Mosul, the outcome of the U.S.A. presidential election and the diverse reactions to it, the ongoing squabbles about Brexit. At the same time, we have been marking some significant anniversaries: Kristallnacht, the fall of the Berlin Wall, Armistice Day. If what I have read is in any way typical, there has been a great deal of gloating and unholy glee manifested by some who are ordinarily kind and considerate, and a good deal of self-indulgent and self-referential grieving expressed by others. These will be thought harsh verdicts and I am sure many will leap to their keyboards to accuse me of being snobbish (because I am not a populist), stupid (because I do not agree with them) and, of course, ‘judgemental’ — which no one should ever be, least of all one who professes to be a Christian (I am being ironical). I hope you will allow me to argue my point, notwithstanding.
Armistice Day always makes me think of my grandparents and the people I knew in my youth: the wheezy old gentlemen, sometimes missing a limb or two, who would never speak about war or what it had meant to them; the maiden ladies whose fiançés had died at the Front and who subsequently lived lives of genteel poverty and loneliness; the tears shed by my maternal grandmother over her two sons killed in World War II; the pressed flowers from the Western Desert and the blood stains in one of my father’s books which told their own sad story. We children remembered, even though we ourselves had no part in the wars of our parents and grandparents; and as we stood during the Two Minutes’ Silence, we prayed for all the fallen of all wars and armed conflicts and asked God to grant us peace in our day. Today that prayer looks a little frayed round the edges. What is happening in Syria is barbaric; the souring of relations between the world’s superpowers is the stuff of nightmares; and the growing feeling that we no longer share any common sense of the boundaries between acceptable and unacceptable behaviour is deeply troubling.
The polarisation of society is something that should concern us all because, left unchecked, it does indeed lead to the victimisation of individuals and groups. If we value free speech, we need to be responsible about what we say and how we say it because, when all controls are gone, the very freedom it is meant to safeguard is endangered. We are all familiar with the way in which Social Media has been used to inflict pain and suffering through the repetition of untrue or unsubstantiated claims and through direct and sinister attacks on others. I think, however, there is something we can do which might help us.
As you might expect of a Benedictine, I always pray before going online or before writing anything. In effect, what I am doing is pausing a moment to remember what it is I am about and the people involved. Sometimes, of course, I get it all wrong and express myself badly or rudely or otherwise inadequately. Sometimes, however, I get it right; and instead of stoking the fires and multiplying misunderstandings, I manage to stumble across the words needed to defuse a situation. Sometimes, face to face, no words are needed, just a smile. You might expect me to say that prayer is at the heart of this, but I would say the act of remembering precedes prayer. It is what we need to do to allow God into the situation. Remembering, in this context, is not taking up a pre-determined position and going over (yet again) all one’s grievances. It is a little more difficult than that, and requires an act of will to accompany the act of remembrance. It means saying to oneself: this is a situation I have to deal with. I can make it better or worse. What do I have to do or change in myself to make it better?
Tomorrow, on Remembrance Sunday, many will stand beside War memorials and bow their heads in remembrance. Many others will not; or will utter some sort of protest at British imperialism or the arms trade or whatever. If what I have said above is true, what matters is what we ourselves do: how we remember, how we respond. It is no use lamenting the state of the world if we are not prepared to do something about it. We must start with ourselves, and remembering is a good first step.