Christian Remembering

by David Clough.

Remembering is the practice of recalling the past in the present with implications for shaping the future. It’s what I do when deciding on the route I want to take to cycle to work: recalling being passed by cars uncomfortably closely on the most direct route, I tend to opt for a quieter route even at the cost of taking a few extra minutes. I recall an experience from the past in the present and behave differently as a result. You will have performed the same everyday act of remembering in different contexts very many times already today.

As well as being a humdrum and everyday practice, remembering is a practice of profound religious importance. Remembering is a fundamental obligation for the people of Israel, commanded hundreds of times in the Old Testament. Moses institutes the festival of the Passover so that the Israelites will remember that they were slaves in Egypt and liberated by the mighty hand of the Lord their God. In the New Testament, remembering is also a central expression of faith. On the night before he is crucified, Jesus shares bread and wine with his disciples and commands them: ‘Do this in remembrance of me.’ Through this central practice the church today continues to remember the life, death, and resurrection of Christ.

The remembering to which we have been called in the run up to the centenary of the end of the First World War is of a very different order. It is a remembering we are called to by national and perhaps familial ties, rather than by our faith. What is remembered on this centenary is not God’s work but human works and human losses. And the reason for this remembering is also different. The remembrance Christianity calls us to is to shape our lives as a response to all that God has done for us and for all creation. The remembrance to which our nation calls us on this Remembrance Sunday is to recall our debt and gratitude to humans who gave their lives or had them taken in a war that advanced British national interests and contributed to the conditions of the lives as citizens we now enjoy.

There is an inescapably political dimension to the project of national remembering. Perhaps it is easier to see this at a distance. The recent mid-term US elections were an obvious case of political opponents telling different narratives about how the past should be recalled in the present in order to win support for their preferred plans for the future. National remembering was literally weaponized in the campaign of pipe bombs against Trump’s opponents, and in the shooting at the Pittsburgh synagogue. It was much more widely metaphorically weaponized in racist and xenophobic political rhetoric preying on fears of lost white privilege. Some of the debate about immigration echoed rhetoric and imagery widely used in the run-up to the Brexit referendum.

Our task as Christians must be to decide how the religious remembering commanded in the Old and New Testaments relates to national projects of remembering. God’s people can never be wholly impatient, but there is a holy impatience in our daily prayer that God’s kingdom come, God’s will be done on earth as it is in heaven. The Lord’s Prayer is not just a prayer for pacifists: for every eager member of the armed forces who hopes for a taste of combat there are veterans who desire nothing more devoutly than that no one else should have to suffer and cause suffering as they did. Thy kingdom come.

Christian pacifists and those who believe war can be justified differ on how far the life of God’s kingdom can be lived here and now, but they must make common cause in recognizing that that because Jesus — the Prince of Peace — announced a blessing on those who make peace, the fundamental Christian vocation in relation to human conflict must be to work for a just order within and between nations that reduces the frequency and intensity of disputes; to be committed, skilled, intelligent, and creative in seeking non-violent resolutions to conflicts that arise; and that any recourse to violence to resolve conflicts must be with the utmost reluctance, restraint, regret, and with full awareness of the devastating impacts of warfare on its combatant and non-combatant victims.

The church of Jesus Christ and nation states must do their remembering in different ways and the church in particular must remember the difference. The church remembers that God is the one who brings liberation to the enslaved, commands us to remember our saviour in the sharing of the good things of the earth, and who is bringing a kingdom where redundant weapons become tools of food production. Thy kingdom come; Thy will be done.

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