Remembrance Sunday - Accepting Ambiguity and Eschewing Sentimentality

A Sermon given on 11th November 2007 (Remembrance Sunday)

As far as Remembrance Sunday is concerned we are about to cross an important line as we begin to say a final farewell to the generation that fought in the First World War. There now remain in the world only 22 veterans of that conflict. That war was of course the one that gave rise to our modern Remembrance Sunday observances. The day began as Armistice Day, which was set aside by the United States, Great Britain, and France to commemorate the ending of the war at 11am on the 11th November 1918. Following World War II it was additionally recognized as a day of tribute to the veterans and the dead of that conflict as well.

In earlier years I have explored aspects of the day which, I hope, have shown that it is a day which, far from glorifying war, in fact reveals a profound horror of it. The recent trend of wearing white poppies - whilst I certainly support the desire for peace that lies behind it - is one I have not adopted because it seems to me that the red poppy says the same thing but in ways that better allow the painful moral ambiguity of conflict to be explored.

But, today, I want to address something else connected with the imminent loss of all those who fought in WWI. One of the significant problems that occurs whenever the object/s of memory moves beyond a certain kind of sight is that sentimentality begins to enter the picture. It seems to me that it is impossible properly to honour the veterans and dead of war if we allow this sentimentalisation to occur. If we wish to avoid this clearly one important initial task is to identify in what sentimentality consists. The philosopher Roger Scruton is helpful here. In his new book, Culture Counts - Faith and feeling in a world besieged he observes that:

Sentimentality . . . is habit-forming. And those to whom it appeals are frequently unaware of its principal characteristic, which is that it is a pretence. Sentimental words and gestures are forms of play-acting: pretending to noble emotions while in fact being motivated in another way. Thus real grief focuses on the object, the person lost and mourned for, while sentimental grief focuses on the subject, the person who grieves, and whose principal concern is to show his fine feelings to the world. Hence, it is a mark of sentimentality that the object becomes hazy, idealised, observed with no real concern for the truth.

In the light of this as we engage in our act of remembrance today the key question for us must be for whom is the grief felt - for us or the veterans and dead and by extension, therefore, the war itself? In 1918, on that first Armistice Day, it would have been hard, if not impossible, for most people’s grief to be directed clearly upon the true object. The presence of the dead alive in their memories and of the survivors alive in their streets and homes was immediate. We must not forget how catastrophic and utterly unsentimental that conflict was (even though the politicians tried to give it a sentimental patriotic sheen) and the profound impact it had upon our culture and faith.

One important way of avoiding sentimentality in our remembering is simply to recall the brutal, cold statistics of the war. In the British Empire 8,904,467 men were mobilized; 908,371 were killed or died; 2,090,212 were wounded; making 3,190,235 casualties. In total, allied and axis figures are as follows: 65,038,810 men were mobilized; 8,528,831 were killed or died; 21,189,154 were wounded making, in total, 37,468,904 casualties. Sentimentality just cannot enter the frame in the immediate presence of such numbers. In passing, but importantly, we may note our own liberal religious tradition began its steep decline in the aftermath of this conflict. Our theology was at the time too optimistic - too sentimental to survive the brutal realities of the age. That is a lesson we must ensure we never forget in the future.

Anyway, when there are only 22 people who directly experienced that conflict left amongst us, then the situation is close to a significant. The inevitable result will be, unless checked, a loss of focus on the actual events and people involved and they will begin to be read in ways that internalize them - making them symbolic of our own struggles and fears, loves and hates. That may have some positive aspects but Remembrance Sunday can then easily become merely an occasion for showing off publicly - showing to the world how we really care, that we are people of real emotion and not unthinking individualists. It can also become merely a social duty that one must fulfil if one is to remain visibly 'respectable’.

It is also a moment when the occasion can begin to turn into an excuse for mere personal entertainment. Reading the Radio Times this week was an instructive exercise. I was pleased to see that the writing about the programmes being specially broadcast or made for the day was uniformly careful not to sell them merely as entertainment. The emphasis was upon educating people so that they were given a sense of the brutal 'realities’ of the conflict and its aftermath. I don’t think one can ask for more but, of course, the whole of the Remembrance Day programming needs to be seen in the wider context of entertainment and lifestyle. Today remembrance - perhaps -, tomorrow a sci-fi movie, a sit com or time spent with a shopping channel.

In case you think I am being unduly disparaging of television watchers - for those who don’t know Susanna (my wife) and I don’t have one and we haven’t for twelve years - and that I sit in pristine moral perfection, well I assure you it is not the case - it is actually impossible for any of us to escape this wider cultural context. Here is how I noticed how easy it is to be seduced. Having read through the TV pages to see how they were presenting the day I finally got to the radio section, the bit I usually read. Now I’m passionate about the music of an almost forgotten British composer, John Foulds, whose music is experiencing a revival at the moment. This evening, at 6.30, the BBC are to broadcast his "A World Requiem" a piece which has not been performed for 81 years. The work - monumental in all senses of the word - requires no fewer than 1,250 musicians to perform and was for four years in succession, from 1923 to 1926, the centrepiece of the Armistice Day Festival, which brought war-ravaged Britain to a virtual halt every 11 November - something that doesn’t happen today. How many are we today and how many are there in the new H&M and John Lewis at this very moment? But, in spite of such a successful beginning, 'A World Requiem’ disappeared from the repertoire. The reasons for this are in themselves interesting and manifold - but not to be explored now. But what saddened me was that when I read about this performance I was excited for me, that I was going to be able to hear, at last, this extraordinary, even legendary work. I was going to be entertained and thrilled and I was, in that thought alone, entertained and thrilled. But Foulds created this work, not to entertain and thrill, but to bring the listener - and himself - face to face with the abject horror of a world conflict in which 8,528,831 died and 21,189,154 were wounded. I had committed the grave sin of sentimentalising the piece and, therefore, the event it commemorated. It is worth recalling Scruton’s words at this point. I had completely lost focus on the true object of the requiem’s grief opened myself up to the possibility of engaging in a pretence - pretending to noble emotions whilst being motivated in another way, namely my own desire simply to be entertained and thrilled.

I am recording the performance and, before I wrote this address I would have been able to say to you that I would be looking forward to hearing it. Now I’m not - not at all. I’m going to listen to it, but I have been rather saddened and shaken by my observations of myself. I leave you to examine and judge your own rememberings. (Author’s note of 26 November): My machine failed to record the performance so, alas, I cannot report what I did, in the end, feel like as I listened to it.)

Because an underlying object of Remembrance Day is not war but peace, true peace, it will come as no surprise to anyone that I begin to conclude by speaking of peace. But if our remembering becomes increasingly sentimental then the danger is that our thinking about peace will also become increasingly sentimental. Again recall Scruton’s observation that it is "a mark of sentimentality that the object becomes hazy, idealised, observed with no real concern for the truth." When it comes to war and peace there must be a real concern for truth. We cannot afford to lose sight of the real object of our grief - not only the 8,528,831 dead of WWI but the many millions before and since. This is not thrilling nor entertaining. It’s a dreadful, mind and soul-numbing object but only if we face that truth - in all its stark emptiness - do we stand a chance of building a true peace.

Given all the above it was so tempting to leave you all today with an obviously uplifting thought after the darkness - perhaps a passage of scripture such as from I John 1:5: "This is the message we have heard from [Jesus] and proclaim to you, that God is light and in him there is no darkness at all." . But, although I may believe this deeply, in the immediate context, just swiftly turning to such a thought feels too close the sentimental I have been criticising. In this context I remembered a letter written in Tegel prison during 1944 by Dietrich Bonhoeffer the German protestant pastor and theologian imprisoned and then executed by the Nazi’s. As a profoundly faithful Christian and one of the most influential modern theologians he knew the Biblical text inside out. Recalling an apt text for any occasion was never a problem for one such he. Yet he movingly tells how, during a particularly bad bombing raid, he was hiding under a table with some other prisoners when he realised that in the face of all that was going on around them the only thing authentic response was simply to be with them silently and fully sharing the horror and fear of the moment. It is only in so far as we can authentically experience - or at least authentically understand and recall the true horror of conflict, the true object of our remembering today, will we be ready to work consistently and passionately for authentic peace.
So where there would normally be a reference to an ultimate good in which all is held let there be only another brief silence as we gather unsentimentally in a non-judgemental solidarity with all who have served in every conflict and whether they are whether dead or alive.


They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old; age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn. At the going down of the sun and in the morning, we will remember them.