Not just remember but don’t ever forget
So we were having our coffees in the bright morning sunshine, facing the historic market hall at Covent Garden, when we realised that it would soon be 11.00 am. This was yesterday, 11 November. So daughter Jennie googled and discovered there was a war memorial just on the other side, the entrance facing St Paul’s Church. We assumed that there would be some form of ceremony. There was, but very low key. No clergy, no civic dignitaries, no military presence, no one (as I could see) wearing their campaign medals, no bugler. Just a simple honour guard of hi-vis security personnel, and those people who just happened to be there at that time. The bell for 11.00 am sounded and everyone stood still for the two minutes. Always very moving. A second bell sounded – and then normal life resumed, in just a few seconds. In some ways, unremarkable. All over the country and beyond Armistice Day is marked by simple ceremonies to remember the fallen primarily of the two world wars. This was certainly the case for this memorial stone, set into the pavement at Covent Garden. It reads: To the memory of those who worked at Covent Garden Market And gave their lives in the Great War (1914 – 1918) And the Second World War (1939 – 1945).
However, what I did not realise was that this was the very first time that this particular war memorial had been used, so to speak. It was only this July when it was unveiled by the Lord Mayor of London, just four months ago. In fact, the public remembrance on Armistice Day is relatively recent, no more than ten years in my experience. Previously we simply had Remembrance Sunday, the Sunday nearest to 11 November, a move made in 1939 in order not to interfere with wartime production. The paradox is that the further the two world wars fade into the past, the greater the emphasis on remembrance. In fact, we are almost at the stage when no one alive can remember anyone who fell in WW2; certainly not from WW1. For what we are talking about now is our collective memory, how as a society we recall the past. As such it is an important component in how we see and understand ourselves. How often do we hear the phrase “Dunkirk spirit” in times of adversity. This was certainly our experience during the first Covid-19 lockdown, as captain Tom became a focus for national resilience. The Queen ended her address to the nation with the phrase “We will meet again," evoking the spirit of defiance of 1939. We knew what she meant. Collective memory is very important. It may well be historically inaccurate but that’s not the point: it is not as others see us but as we see ourselves. The danger is that we romanticise the past. As a child my impression was that my parents’ generation wanted to forget the war. For while we have collective remembering, we also have collective forgetting. As I mentioned last week I've just finished reading Colson Whitehead’s remarkable novel The Underground Railway. And it certainly woke me up to the appalling inhumanity of the slave trade, in which Liverpool played a major role. Such terrible injustice cannot simply be shrugged off. For as the writer Hilaire Belloc sadly observed: “Time after time mankind is driven against the rocks of the horrid reality of a fallen creation. He continues: “And time after time mankind must learn the hard lessons of history- the lessons that for some dangerous and awful reason we can't seem to keep in our collective memory.” As Christians we have a special responsibility to face up to the truth, even as Jesus taught: “Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” (John 8:32) As beloved children of God, our status is secure. We do not need to pretend or deny . “So if the Son sets you free, you are free through and through.” (v34) The Bible has huge emphasis on collective memory, especially how the people of Israel was rescued by God from merciless slavery in Egypt. The annual festival of the Passover, so important for Jesus, was a collective act of remembrance involving the entire nation. And yet at the same time scripture is unsparing in its recollection of failure and rebellion. Even as Moses was receiving the ten commandments, the people of Israel – with the encouragement of his brother, no less - were melting their gold to make an idol for them to worship. The whole sorry episode is given an entire chapter in Exodus. However, the Bible uses memory not simply to evoke gratitude but also to motivate justice today for the downtrodden and forgotten So God speaks (as he speaks to us): “Make sure foreigners and orphans get their just rights. Don’t take the cloak of a widow as security for a loan. Don’t ever forget that you were once slaves in Egypt and God, your God, got you out of there. I command you: Do what I’m telling you.” (Deuteronomy 34:17f) Not just remember but don’t ever forget. The two go together.