Repentance on remembrance day

PoppyRemembrance Day can be a strange and puzzling experience, at least to me. Brought up to be deeply suspicious of the British state and everything associated with it, steeped in a Trotskyist tradition that starts its thinking about war from the assumption that one’s main enemy is at home in the shape of the ruling class, I find it hard to shake off that instinctive distrust. I have come to see the premise that class struggle is the main truth of political and thus of national life as not just wrong but absurd. I have rejected completely the Marxism that dominated my youth. Yet I can’t accept a strong identification with “my” nation and its state.

The Christianity embraced in my thirties not much more compatible with nationalism than the Marxism of my teens and twenties. Our identity in Christ, if it is a genuine rebirth into a new creation, cannot be simply and straightforwardly grafted on to a natural national identity. Whatever else Jesus was and is he is not English, British or European. If we are adopted into the family of God our national identity becomes, at the least, problematic.

Remembrance Day is not necessarily an orgy of national self-congratulation and identity building, of course, but it can sometimes feel too close to that for my comfort. I don’t have a strong feeling of any kind about the recent installation at the Tower but the fact that it seemed natural to commemorate only “our” war dead is both quite understandable and in keeping with the nature of Remembrance Day and deeply troubling to me. That both these things are true is what makes this day difficult. I find myself able neither to embrace nor to reject it.

Equally I have difficulty with the “white poppy” response. I am not and have never been a pacifist. It seems obvious to me that sometimes it would be irresponsible to reject recourse to violence. One could legitimately say that one chose to submit oneself to the actions of evil men with resistance, in line with Jesus’ clear instruction. I find it more difficult to accept that one can make that choice for others. Those with the authority and the capability to protect the subjects of a sovereign power of which they are the agents must sometimes do so, it seems to me. Thus I accept the broad outline of a theory of “just war” as it has been developed in the Christian tradition.

I am also keenly aware of the injunction that we Christians are to “love our enemies”. Who “our” enemies are, in this case, is not completely straightforward. As I read Christ’s words they are those who are our enemies insofar as we are Christians who are primarily in view. In this respect it is not at all clear that the enemies of “my” country are my enemies. They may, perhaps, be my neighbours or they may be people to whom I have none of the relationships named in Jesus’ teaching, neighbour, enemy, brother, sister, friend. They may not fall into any of the categories named by him alongside these relational ones, poor, rich, those who mourn, those who hunger and thirst after righteousness, the blind, the imprisoned, the oppressed, the rich. If, however, their actions in war make them my enemies then I am instructed to love them.

Alongside my unease as the Church as the Church, which cannot really see itself as national, remembering the losses of one nation rather than another (an unease that recognises reasons why it might properly do so) comes another. What difference does it make it the wars in which people died were or were not, to whatever degree, “just”? Does it make a difference to our attitude to their deaths if we think they were in the interest of a good or of a bad cause? Does it make a difference if they were willing and enthusiastic participants or unwilling or even mutinous? Do we remember those shot for cowardice differently from the way we remember those killed doing heroic things for which they were awarded posthumous medals? If so, why?

At any rate our memorialising, as Christians, has to have at least a substantial element of repentance. All war is wrong, even just war, even war we cannot responsibly avoid. Jesus really does tell us not to resist the evil man and when we do we are quite clearly doing what we are told not to. It should come as no surprise to anybody with much acquaintance with the post-Reformation Christian tradition that we cannot keep ourselves pure of sin. Our lives are lived out in a fallen sinful world as fallen sinful people. This by no means absolves us of the struggle to align ourselves to God’s will as best we can but we should be under no illusion that this will leave us nothing to regret or confess, nothing to repent of.

Of course we can’t repent on somebody else’s behalf, when we remember the dead we do not remember or confess their sins. The primary modes of Christian memory in this case are thanksgiving and expectation. We give thanks for the gift of life, which is past, and we look forward to resurrection. Insofar, though, as we identify with the lost, in a moment of national solidarity, then there is repentance. The nation is responsible for these deaths and for the deaths of those killed on the other side of every war, and of this we should repent, even where we fought justly.

Balancing these various perspectives, us as Christians set aside and apart from our nation, as members of a national community mourning, in the Christian way of thanksgiving and expectation, those who have been lost, as members of a national community repenting of our sinful warring, is difficult, but it must surely be the task of the Church on these days of recollection.

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