We remember them. We remember that the impact of war is on individuals – women and men and children. Young and old. War doesn’t discriminate. We remember the needless destruction of people and places. We remember the trauma that war inflicts. We remember.
Some of us who are gathered here this morning lived through part or all of the second world war. Many of us didn’t. Our knowledge of both world wars has mostly been learned – through listening to the stories of loved ones; through reading histories and historic fiction; through films and TV documentaries; through visiting museums and dedicated sites. Some of us want to know as much as we can, want to understand the psychology of those who make war. Some of us want to understand the technologies that are used in warfare, want to understand the advances in learning that came about as a result of the war effort. Some will be fascinated by stories of the courage of those who were part of resistance movements or those who smuggled children to a place of safety. And some of us will find it all too painful and will find ways to know enough without knowing more than we can bear.
But we remember.
We remember personally and we remember collectively. Some of my earliest memories are of playing on spaces that we called the bomb sites. I lived in a city that had been very heavily bombed and many years after the end of the war, there were still areas of the city that carried the scars. I don’t think, as children, that we made a connection between the dusty uneven surfaces that were our bike track and football pitch and the thing called war that adults spoke about – often in hushed tones. We didn’t make the connection between those spaces and the numbers tattooed onto the arms of some of the people within our community. And yet, those experiences form part of my personal and collective memories of the impact of war.
There were adult conversations about people who were broken. Whisperings about women who weren’t coping with their memories, men who had regular nightmares and unexpected panic attacks. And yes, I think we knew somehow that there was a connection with this thing called war – but it was pretty hard to fathom it out.
Many of you will have memories that are more vivid than mine, memories that are more traumatic than mine. Many of you will carry stories of loved ones, stories that should not be forgotten. And that, for me, is why I think it is still important to mark Remembrance Day. We can’t afford to forget.
The situation in our world at the moment is reminder enough that we can’t afford to forget. One impact of the war in Ukraine is that it has brought the reality of war into our living rooms in a way that I don’t think we have seen before. We’ve been shown the bombed out apartment blocks and the remnants of shopping centres. Images not terribly different from those that were seen in most of our major cities during the last century. And this war, perhaps more than any since the second world war, has reminded us that war is not confined to places that are very different from the places we know. The bombed out streets in Kyiv and Kherson could have been the streets we walk through; the streets we live in. We have been reminded that nowhere is safe until everywhere is safe.
Our 24/7 news means that we have seen the ways that warfare is conducted. Particular cities and areas are targeted. Infrastructure is destroyed, making day to day life nigh on impossible. And we are now beginning to hear the horror of war crimes – rape and pillage; random shootings of innocent people, just because the person with the gun could wield some power.
War is about the abuse of power. And in our world we tend to value power. To give authority to people who wield power. To support those who we think might be the winners rather than the losers. And in so doing we show how readily we choose not to remember; how easily we can we swayed and persuaded and, before we know it, find ourselves colluding.
Ordinary people, good, honest citizens, often don’t know what to believe or who to trust. We’ve seen that as we observe the way that the people of Russia are fed a diet of misinformation. We’ve seen it as we observe the people of China having their access to international sources of information censored. Powerful people control not just what happens but what people know about what has happened. And we can’t be complacent about our own access to honest and comprehensive information. We see and read what is fed to us – it may be less heavily censored and manipulated, but it’s rarely the whole story.
History tells us over and over again, that a lack of access to the whole story encourages people to turn aside, to make choices not to challenge, to go with the collective flow. The German people did not, could not, believe that their Government was simply evil. The Russian population is mostly still supportive of Putin. That may seem extraordinary to us – but we have learned that this is the way that societies function. There are voices that challenge; there are people who have the courage to stand up and be counted; they may be admired, but they rarely have the power that gives them the authority to bring about change.
And what are we to do? We could spend many hours bewailing the horrors of the situations that we observe. Not just in Ukraine, but in Tigray and South Sudan. In Afghanistan and Iran. In Israel and Palestine. On a daily basis, conflict continues.
There’s a line in this morning’s final hymn: Stand by the cross that bids all hatred cease, that gives me a prompt, a reminder that we are called not into passivity but to respond. The narrative of our faith is one of compassion and care and respect. We are called to honour our sisters and brothers whoever they are and whatever they have done. We are called to forgive but not to forget. To actively remember.
The Cross is the central symbol of our faith, a constant reminder of who we follow and why. And on that cross, Jesus spoke words of forgiveness. In this Cathedral, our Lorimer Rood cross is prominent. On that Cross hangs the body of Jesus; in the background is a field of Flanders poppies. We are being encouraged into that place of forgiveness and remembrance, called into a place of reconciliation and of hope. Into a place where remembrance is meaningful.
Christian teaching holds the pain of the past in tension with a focus on the promise of tomorrow. Remembrance holds the pain of the past in tension with the promise of a different kind of tomorrow.
We remember, we honour, we hope to learn. We try to forgive whilst committing never to forget.
We must remember them.