by Jonathan Pye.
A few days ago, I stood on the banks of the Imjin River where, in 1951, 750 men of the Glosters faced 10,000 Chinese Communist Soldiers at the height of the Korean War. Of the regulars, reservists and National Servicemen who held the hill to allow others safe withdrawal, only 63 escaped Hill 235 after the battle. The bones of those who died now lie entombed in a natural cave beside the river, standing as silent witness to the deaths of so many young men from the peaceful, wooded hills and valleys of Gloucestershire amidst the Autumnal colours of the thickly wooded hillsides close to Pajun city, their own ‘corner of a foreign field…’. Then, in a moment of great solemnity, South Korean politicians and British Methodist Ministers laid a wreath and stood in remembrance and prayer.
This week, November 11th marks our own day of national Remembrance and on Sunday, churches and communities across the country will hold services to remember those who died in the conflicts of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.
The persistence of such services argues powerfully for the importance of acts of community remembrance even, perhaps particularly, at a time when the numbers of those who served in many of the great conflicts of the twentieth century are dwindling.
In his reflection on the nature of community, Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote that, ‘God is not a God of the emotions but the God of truth.’ [i] Acts of remembrance, though often emotionally charged, are not simply emotional events but are moments of confronting truth in which the reality of the ‘other’ as person truly lays claim on us in our commitment to them – a claim which, for Bonhoeffer, mirrors God’s decisive act of commitment to humanity in the death and resurrection of Jesus.
Writing in the aftermath of the genocide in Rwanda, Mario Aguilar, Professor of Religion and Politics at the University of St. Andrews, reflects on what he calls the ‘hermeneutic of bones’ and on the experience of relatives sitting with the bones of victims and he concludes that, ‘…bones have a materiality that makes them texts of social reality but also theological texts in which the (same) image of the crucified can be found.’[ii]
From this belief, Aguilar argues in words redolent of Bonhoeffer that,
‘The centrality of God’s love denied by human beings… becomes the only possible theology and the texts of this theology are not pages of a book but the history of humanity and of God written in each one of those precious bones. Bones are not only texts to be interpreted, but represent the presence of God among his people. In the context of genocide, that presence is silent and in the context of a post-genocidal society spaces of genocidal memories remain places of silence and encounter with God. They become places where not unlike cemeteries a physical mediation between the physical and the meta-physical world can be observed and indeed experienced.[iii]
Standing that day on the bank of the Imjin River keeping silence before the tomb containing the bones of the men of the Glosters, such a physical mediation was indeed experienced, even as it will be experienced this week by so many others in silence and in memory, and it was a moment suffused with the power of the holy.
Bonhoeffer believed that blessing means laying one’s hand on something and saying: ‘despite everything, you belong to God’ and he concludes, ‘This is what we do with the world that inflicts such suffering on us. We do not abandon it; we do not repudiate, despise or condemn it. Instead we call it back to God, we give it hope, we lay our hand on it and say: May God’s blessing come upon you, may God renew you; be blessed, world created by God, you who belong to your Creator and Redeemer’.[iv]
For the men of the Glosters, whose remains lie in their far-off tomb, and for all those who, then and now, are the victims of war and violence, as for those who this week will mourn them, such acts of truth in remembrance, enfolds them in community, holds them in peace, helps make sense of sacrifice and offers hope for the future.
[i] Bonhoeffer, D. (1954) Life Together: The Classic Exploration of Christian Community. Translated and with an Introduction by John W. Doberstein. Harper & Row Publishers, p.86.
[ii] Aguilar, M. (2009) Theology, Liberation and Genocide. London: SCM, p. 12
[iii] Ibid. p. 35.
[iv] Conspiracy and Imprisonment 1940-1945: Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works, Volume 16, Fortress Press 2006, p.674.
3 thoughts on “Remembrance, Truth and Community”
I found this very helpful, particularly the para about blessing the world in Bonhoeffer’s words, a quote that was unfamiliar to me. The suffering in and of the world at the minute can feel completely overwhelming at times…I find myself paralysed about reading the news or not reading the news, unable to find any prayers except silence, so the notion of ‘Blessing’ offers a small creative response? Thank you.
Thank you, Jonathan. I was moved by the idea of a ‘hermeneutic of bones’, which is a new idea to me. There is much here for archaeologists and pathologists and any who handled the human (or animal) remains of past lives. Bonhoeffer’s notion of blessing as divine touch and Aguilar’s suggestion of bones as signs of God’s presence are theological evocative. These thoughts will stay with me this week as I prepare to represent Methodism at the Cenotaph Service next Sunday.
What a good job, then, that we have blessed so many foreigners over the years with the opportunity to explore the “hermeneutic of bones”.
I struggle to see any “hope for the future” in remembrance. We’ve been doing it since 1919 and it doesn’t seem to work. If remembrance meant that the reality of the ‘other’ as person truly laid claim on us in our commitment to them then we’d stop killing them. We’d stop ‘other’ing the foreigner. But we don’t. We British define foreigners as ‘other’ just as much as we ever have. The arms industry (which sponsors the British Legion) needs us to drop bombs on foreigners because it’s good for trade. So they pay for remembrance to keep going because it makes us feel good about the military. You’d think that after nearly a century of so-called remembrance we wouldn’t do that kind of thing. But we do. It doesn’t work.
In our state remembrance it’s not the ‘other’ which confronts us, but the ‘self’. The British Legion sells the poppy in aid only of the British military and its allies. In state remembrance we are quite deliberately refusing to allow the humanity of the ‘other’ to lay claim on us. We might try in the safety of our church buildings to widen remembrance to all who are affected by war – but that’s explicitly not the point of the state rite at the cenotaph in London.
It saddens me to see the church allying itself (or looking like it is allying itself, which amounts to pretty much the same thing) with the state and the military at the cenotaph rather than proclaiming the Christ who put two fingers up at the state and the military by entering the capital on a donkey rather than a war horse. If the day ever comes when Conference asks the president not to go, I’d be pleased.