Why is it that I, who have never donned a military uniform, am proud on this day to stand alongside those that do?

Why is it that I, who have never been taught to stand to attention, want to raise my right arm and salute?

Why is that I, who have experienced little conflict in my life, should feel a sense of solidarity with those who engaged in combat beyond my worst nightmares?

Is it because of my great interest in history?

Or is it because of my love for people?

Or my desire to preserve our freedom and those justices that have been hard won over generations?

I believe it to be a combination of all three:

History, people and a commitment to do the right thing whatever the cost.

We should never forget the events, we should never forget those who stood up to great evil and we should never forget the price they paid.

 

In his magnum opus Life and Fate, in my opinion one of the finest novels of the 20th century, an epic account of the war on the Eastern Front, Vasily Grossman told the stories of the seemingly insignificant individuals who made up the great swell of resistance to the Nazi threat. He was well qualified to do so.   As the finest journalist with the Soviet forces he was at the siege of Stalingrad, he was at the great tank battle at Kursk and he was a witness to the liberation of the Treblinka death camp.

There are many memorable moments of reflection in the book. Here is just one on the importance of human kindness:

The more I saw of the darkness of Fascism, the more clearly I realized that human qualities persist on the edge of the grave, even at the door of the gas chamber….I have seen that it is not man (sic) who is impotent in the struggle against evil, but the power of evil that is impotent in the struggle against man (sic). The powerlessness of kindness, of senseless kindness, is the secret of its immortality. It can never be conquered. The more stupid, the more senseless, the more helpless it may seem, the vaster it is. Evil is impotent before it….Human history is not a battle of good struggling to overcome evil. It is a battle fought by a great evil struggling to crush a small kernel of human kindness. But if what is human in human beings has not been destroyed even now, then evil will never conquer. (Vintage Press 2006 p394)

 

As a minister I count it a rich privilege to have heard the stories of people in my congregations and the communities I have served over the years.

I have been both moved to tears and wholly inspired by accounts of their contributions to the effort to preserve freedom from tyranny. Sadly their accounts may never be made into documentaries, or fill the pages of books, worthy of being so though they are.

Ordinary people who had lived ordinary lives, called to serve their King and country, who gave their time, even their lives, in the fight for a better world.

Today we honour them.

 

Some have argued that this is a watershed moment – that after a century of remembering in the way that we have we should move on. No, sisters and brothers, no. We must never forget.

I owe it to those who told me their stories to never forget.

We owe our freedom to them so we must never forget.

But our world, in its current climate, is in danger of doing just that.

Of forgetting how close we came to being overwhelmed in the First World War and in the Second falling to fascism.

Partly because there are those forces that seek to win the battle that we thought was beaten back decades ago.

At no time other than this has the socio-political climate been so aligned to that of 1930’s Germany.

Today national populism is sweeping what was once seen as a bastion of democracy – the United States.

Trump’s utter disrespect toward women, his hatred of ethnic minorities and his appeal to some of the vilest sections of society are deeply worrying to say the least. But Trump is merely an acute expression of what is surfacing across the world – not least here in the UK.

 

If the German nation, at the time one of the most highly cultured and educated nations there had been, was swept along by the rhetoric and the simplistic policies of that lunatic Hitler and his more coldly calculating henchmen then it can easily happen again.

Today it is claimed that China is herding hundreds of thousands of Muslims into concentration camps in the desert for ‘re-education’ – I shiver to think what the eventual outcome will be in a nation where control and the economy are seen to be more important than the rights of the individual.

Today, across the UK, the policies of both the far right and the far left are becoming mainstream.

The views which once sent a shiver down the spine now fall on receptive ears.

Our knowledge of history tells us that what at first seems inconsequential can become something of great importance. Like a pebble dropped into a pool the ripples spread.

Millions were slaughtered in trenches across the fields of Europe because of an assassination on a Sarajevo street. The death of a single member of a crumbling dynasty led to unimaginable grief in every hamlet, village, town and city.

Similarly, last Friday was the 80th anniversary of Kistallnacht, the night of broken glass, when synagogues were burnt, Jewish shops destroyed and lives were lost.

The Holocaust didn’t begin with gas chambers but boycotts and broken windows.

So, if we are to avoid the mistakes of the past when seemingly insignificant acts went unchecked and led to conflagration, we have to be alert and discern that which could again lead to catastrophe.

 

However, it is not only acts of great evil that begin in small overlooked ways, so too do those movements that have made our world a more just, a more equitable, a more caring and compassionate world.

Peace in our world really does begin with me – and you.

It may sound trite but it is true.

It is my responsibility for me to not fall for the rhetoric that divides and disfigures our communities.

It is my responsibility for me to look out for the warning signs, to not scoff or discriminate against the one of a different race or religion, ability, gender or sexuality.

As a Christian I follow the teachings of one who sought to break down the barriers that divided communities, the one who welcomed the stranger, the one who taught us how to love whatever the cost to ourselves, the one who laid down his life so that we too may have life and have it in all its fullness.

 

Today then, we remember a great historical moment when the guns were silenced.

Today we remember the fallen

and all who gave of themselves that we might live in freedom.

May those events, those lives be not in vain.

Let us in response commit ourselves to resisting that which threatens the wellbeing of our world and each and every individual within our world.

Advertisements

 

Walk

I am now in my 60th year. It is a truism to state that there is less time ahead for me than is behind me. Of course no one quite knows how much time there is left ahead for them whatever their age. How could my father have known it was his last day on earth when he rose one Friday morning in February 1959? At just 23 he completed what would be his final day at work, enjoyed an evening out with his young, pregnant wife and their friends but by midnight there was no more time ahead for him.

So it is that on a day such as this, when the crispness of autumn is felt on my cheeks and I smell the wet fallen leaves on my woodland walk, I take a big, deep breath. It’s a breath that desires to soak in the moment; it also indicates that I still want so much more time; but I know in my heart that I have no idea how much more there will be for me. I can only hope that my health holds up as long as possible and that no unforeseen accident comes my way so I might yet experience, contribute and achieve more. But under the kind of bright, blue sky, with a few fluffy white clouds only a child could paint, I breathe in deep, soak in the moment and give thanks.

This weekend is one of remembrance. On Sunday, the centenary of the Armistice, we will hold two minutes silence and pay tribute to the fallen in not only the First World War but also all subsequent wars that have kept us free from tyranny. Whilst our focus has rightly this year been on the so-called ‘war to end all wars’ we will not overlook those other faithful and dutiful souls who have paid a great price for our freedom. Every hamlet, village, town and city across our island nations will be linked to communities elsewhere in our world in remembering the cost of human conflict.

 

Having grown up in close proximity to the largest German military cemetery in Britain I try to be mindful of the complexities surrounding the failures of diplomacy and also the manipulations of entire populations that have led, and to this day may still lead, to conflagration.

 

Tonight, Friday 9th November, is also the 80th anniversary of Kristallnacht, the night when synagogues were burnt and lives lost. The world should not have been left in any doubt as to the vulnerability of the Jewish communities under the Nazi regime, but many chose to ignore the warning signs. We will remorsefully pray for our nearest faith neighbours as they remember the pogrom that led to the near total destruction of European Jewry. We should also pray for those in fear of the recurring rise of antisemitism in our own time.

 

We must never forget that the First World War began with an assassination on a Sarajevo Street and the Holocaust with boycotts and broken windows. As we stand in silence over this weekend we will remember the past and the sacrifices that were made. But afterwards we should set further time aside to reflect upon the present and consider where our words, our seemingly insignificant actions and blind indifference can lead. To stem the flow of blood and put a stop to the violence that has assaulted our human dignity over the centuries, we must exercise greater caution when choosing to comment about others and seek to cease from taking sides before we know the full facts.

 

In an age when hate speech is on the rise, populism is gripping the world of politics and extremism pits family member against family member and neighbour against neighbour, we should seriously consider courageous resistance to avoid repeating past mistakes before unrestrained evil is again unleashed upon the nations.