The First World War had no clear reason, and that is why we are so traumatised by it
A recent article from Sir Simon Jenkins on the subject of Remembrance Sunday over at the Guardian is more or less guaranteed to annoy virtually everyone who reads it. One barely knows where to start in refuting it, so I will not bother; but there are one of two things that can and need to be said about the concept of remembrance.
Remembrance is a secular thing, as we all can remember, whatever our religious beliefs; but remembrance has Christian roots, and these roots help us to understand exactly why remembrance is so important to human beings. Animals, of course, remember things, as everyone who has ever had a dog can tell you, but they do not do so in the same way as we do. As a philosopher would put it, we are constituted by our memories, both individually and as a society, and one cannot say that of animals.
“Do this in remembrance of me,” commanded the Lord at the Last Supper. In so doing He founded the Church – the community that remembers, the community that is called together into union and communion by the act of sacrifice which is the Holy Mass. The act of remembrance makes us who we are, and it looks backwards to what Jesus did on the night before He died, and it looks forward as well, for the Holy Mass shapes our project for living. We want to live and we try to live, with the grace of God, of which the Eucharist is so essential a source, as people who sacrifice themselves for God and others. The offering of His Body and Blood made once and for all, and for all eternity, now and always, is the source of the moral imperative by which we try and offer our bodies and our blood as well, for the good of the Church, the glory of God and the well-being of our brethren spread throughout the world.
The remembrance that happens on Remembrance Sunday is perhaps best understood in the light of the remembrance commanded by the Lord. If Remembrance Sunday is to mean anything, it must mean not just a looking backwards, but a looking forwards and a resolve to create a better world for future generations. The fact that we have failed to create such a better world should, of course, drive us to reflection, repentance and taking refuge in God, He who alone can give peace. I think our Remembrance Sunday acts are largely drained of the full meaning of remembrance in this sense, and thus represent a sort of secularised civic religion. What happens at the Cenotaph outwardly looks religious, but in fact has little religious meaning. Some people want to secularise Remembrance Sunday, but to my mind this is pushing at an open door, for it is pretty secular as it is.
But even so, Remembrance Sunday has some value and I would hate to see it abandoned. Sir Simon makes a mistake when he says that none of us remember the First World War. This is true in so far as all those who took part or were directly affected have died. But it remains true that the First World War represents a huge trauma in our shared consciousness, for remembering is not simply a solitary occupation, but something that we do as a collective. Recently I went to Ypres for the day, and I saw the reconstructed Cloth Hall, the rebuilt Cathedral, and the Menin Gate.
As the train made its way across the flat land of Flanders one saw little cemeteries besides the track and the some perfectly circular ponds that must have started life as shell holes. Despite the reconstruction, despite the passage of a century, the land bears the scars of war, and so do we all. I found Ypres, quite a pretty little town, deeply sad and utterly depressing, and a day spent there left me weighed down with the thought of so much useless human suffering, all of which could have been so easily avoided. We are not over the First World War. We have not found that elusive closure. If only we could! The Second World War is different, as it had a very clear purpose – to stop Hitler. The First War had no such clear reason, and that is why we are so traumatised by it.
The First World War and its senseless slaughter has not just scarred the landscape of Flanders, it has also made a huge and enduring impact on the soul. For many it signalled the death of religion. Dr Trevor Wilson argued that the ‘rampant omnibus’ of the First World War killed the Liberal Party and it is quite often assumed that the War did irreparable damage to the Anglican Church’s hold over the national consciousness. The old teaching no longer made sense; there were new questions that the Church could not answer. (This is not to say that the Anglican padres failed in their pastoral duties – far from it.) By contrast, the Catholic Church did not have such a bad War, thanks to the fact that it had a ready made theology of suffering to hand. But one thing is clear: a hundred years on from the Battle of Passchendaele, and we still have to absorb the enormity of it all.
Humankind cannot bear very much reality, and we need time to take it all in. That is why, whatever Sir Simon Jenkins says, we must continue with Remembrance Sunday, however inadequate a response it may be. Indeed, we need to add to Remembrance Sunday, making it not just a day of remembering, but one of prayer and repentance and hope for the future as well.