The right wing thought police have been out and about counting up students who do and don’t wear a red poppy at this time of year. Not wearing a poppy (or wearing a white poppy instead) means you’re left wing, a foreigner, or unpatriotic – perhaps even all three. But what is Remembrance for, with or without a poppy?
The purpose of our national Act of Remembrance, and the countless smaller commemorations, is to remember before God those who gave their lives for their comrades and their country and to stand in awe at their courage and sacrifice. It is also to pledge ourselves, as we do this day each year, to work for the kind of peace which is more than just the absence of war, but which is the precondition and context for human flourishing. For we know that as we seek and work for the kind of Kingdom Jesus came to bring, the causes of war – poverty, injustice, oppression and greed – stand less chance of destroying our human relationships and creating the conditions where conflict breeds.
So Armistice Day and Remembrance Sunday aren’t just days for remembering the dead; they are not a sort of equivalent to All Souls when we pray for the faithful departed. Remembrance Day is a time for marking in our public life the things that are important to giving coherence and meaning to our society and our world; it’s a time for celebrating, in Christian terms, the godly values and vision that draw us towards being the best we can be; it’s a time to commit ourselves to those things that give us meaning and purpose and worth. Remembrance is not a requiem, but a commitment to the future based on learning from the past. We remember today, we remember and celebrate and learn from the things that can, even in the worst of times, make human beings great.
Remembrance in the Jewish and Christian traditions is never a mere remembering, a recalling of events that are past. Remembrance is always bringing the past into our present in a way that shapes our future. As we gather in God’s name across the country on Remembrance Day, or as we share bread and wine around the Lord’s Table, so we make him present in our lives now to make and shape our future. So too with our civic remembrance: we bring those who have died in war into our present to help make and shape our future, recognising in them and their sacrifices the values and actions that can help to make our world a better place, a place where we can live happily under the judgement and scrutiny and by the values of God.
When I was a parish priest and led the Remembrance service for our town, I was always very moved by the force with which all the old soldiers present committed themselves to working for a better future, a future in which their kind of sacrifices would no longer be necessary. They wanted to make sure that the sacrifices they had made would actually make a difference to the world. They wanted us all to work to eliminate the things that lead to war – poverty and oppression, hopelessness and fear; they wanted us all to give ourselves to peace-making, to trying to heal the divisions between people and nations that so often lead to war. They wanted their sacrifices to be worth it by knowing that we would build on what they had done. Of course they looked back, often with great sadness at what they and others had lost. But most of their concern was for the future, with making the world a safer, fairer and happier place. Their message to us was that the world need not be the way it is: it could be better.
Looking ahead to a future which is God’s, and bringing our past into loving remembrance, should enable us to see just how much there is for us to do in the present, to see the high calling God has for us, God’s people, as we confront the great and pressing needs of our world today.
General Secretary of Modern Church