Lest we forget…
That line, from Rudyard Kipling’s poem Recessional, serves as a sharp prompt at this time of year. There are the familiar, perhaps over familiar, words that speak into our very souls, ‘they shall not grow old as we that are left grow old…’ words that we will hear in just a few minutes – and then this stark reminder of why it’s still important. Lest we forget.
This is the first verse of Kipling’s poem:
God of our fathers, known of old,
Lord of our far-flung battle-line,
Beneath whose awful Hand we hold
Dominion over palm and pine—
Lord God of Hosts, be with us yet,
Lest we forget—lest we forget!
The poem isn’t war poetry, it was written 20 years before the start of the first World War, it’s actually a reflection on the Empire. And the reader is being encouraged to remember that the world is God’s – that we have authority over our created world only as creatures of our God; that God’s hand is in and over all, and that we are God’s servants.
Lest we forget. Lest we forget the sacrifice; lest we forget the price that individuals and communities paid; lest we forget the impact.
Our focus today is mostly on the World Wars of the twentieth century, but they turned out not to be the wars to end all wars. Our world has continued to be scarred by conflict; young lives continue to be lost; young people continue to be scarred.
I want to tell you about someone I know. I’ll call him George. George was born in the early 1960s in a working family in Edinburgh. He didn’t enjoy school and left as soon as he could. He’d seen the recruiting posters for the army – sign up and learn a trade. Sign up and see the world. Sign up and have permission to leave home and enjoy yourself. And so he did.
And he had a few years that were great fun. He enjoyed the training and the camaraderie. He joined the paras. He lived in various places and felt that he was getting exactly what he had signed up for – and they paid him as well. And then we went to war in the Falklands and George’s battalion was called up. He and his mates found themselves on Goose Green. George was beside his closest friend when he was blown up. George was injured.
Fast forward 39 years and George still hears the sound of artillery; George feels the force of the blast that killed his mate. George has physical scars that have healed over; he has internal scars that will never heal. George doesn’t have the option of forgetting – the trauma is etched on his brain and he suffers.
We are privileged – we have the option to forget, or at least not to think about war. We see conflict on our TV screens, we read about atrocities that are committed; someone, somewhere counts the deaths. And tomorrow we may remember, and we may forget.
But George and those who fought with him in the Falklands, those who fought in Iraq and in Afghanistan and Ireland, those whose loved ones were massacred in Sarajevo and in Rwanda and in all the other conflicts that have erupted in recent years – they will never forget. Each one of them lives with the scars that were inflicted.
The scars of war present in a whole range of ways. I grew up in a city that had been scarred by war. Whole streets had been destroyed. Many street corners were simply rubble; a city filled with reminders. By now, of course, all of those bombed sites have been built upon. The new houses replace the old; the new shopping centres fill the gappy streets. And new opportunities have emerged. The recently bombed out cities that we see on our TV screens are at their lowest point at the moment, but there is the opportunity for new life to emerge – even in those places.
Let’s go back to Kipling and his reminder that the world is God’s – and all that is in it. That we are God’s created people seeking, as we pray each week, to do God’s will. Your will be done.
Your will be done. The will of God is that all of humanity should be honoured and respected. The will of God is that our created world should be honoured and respected. And war fundamentally disrespects. It scars the land; it scars the ecosystem, it scars humanity. And those scars are carried by those who have direct experience and by their descendants.
I’m not naïve enough to believe if we only all pray hard enough, people will stop hating one another and all conflict and war will cease. Our vergers pointed out to me this week that there is a plaque in the North Aisle commemorating a soldier who died fighting in Afghanistan in 1879. And that part of our world is still being destroyed, new scars are being created as we speak.
What I do believe though, is that healing is possible; that scars fade and sometimes become almost invisible. And I believe that happens when the humanity of those who have suffered most is honoured. Wars create stateless people; wars create bereaved people; wars create refugees and displaced people. Not one of them has chosen their situation – longer term, there aren’t any winners, only losers.
Each one is a sister or a brother, carrying scars that I pray I will never have. Carrying trauma and damage that, at best, they will learn to manage.
We don’t live in the midst of conflict, but we live in the midst of the impact of conflict. And we choose whether or not we reach out to support and care for the refugees and the migrants; whether we have compassion for those whose misery originated in places far away, but whose fundamental humanity is no different from our own. That may be seen as a political matter, but I want to suggest that it’s a humanitarian matter – that it’s a Gospel imperative.
Lest we forget – lest we forget those who gave their freedom in order that we might have ours; lest we forget those who live amongst us with the direct scars of conflict; lest we forget those whose scars are hidden; lest we forget that the impact of war reaches well beyond the boundaries of the battlefield; that the impact of war is with us and remains with us and changes us and our planet.
Let’s not forget.