War Histories or History Wars?

[This post is courtesy of Phillip Jensen, Dean of St Andrew’s Cathedral in Sydney.]

[Note for international readers: November 11th is Remembrance Day in Commonwealth countries, remembering the service of those in the armed forces who have died in the line of duty.]

One holiday I read a book entitled “What If…’. It contained a series of essays posing questions about the great turning points of history and asking the simple question “What if something different happened?” What if Alexander the Great had been slain in battle? Or what if the Spanish Armada had landed successfully in Britain?

At the base of this book is the great truth that the world as we now know it is the result of earlier decisions and actions. Our life and society is contingent on past lives and society.

This simple observation is part of why Remembrance Day is so important. It is easy to remember 9/11 because it happened in our lifetime and yet World War I, which finished before we were born, had a greater effect in shaping our world than the attack on the World Towers. To remember the Great War requires effort—it requires setting aside time and occasion, statues and ceremonies.

We remember wars for lots of reasons. It can be that we are still grieving our lost relatives—the young men and women who never had the chance to grow old. It can be we are filled with gratitude for their service—dying that we may live, captured that we may be free. It can be that we are trying to grasp the meaning of life, or at least the understanding of our own life.

However, our memory is fallible. It is so easy to forget the details, to be confused about what actually happened. Instead of understanding our situation we can come to misunderstand it.

One of the problems of memory is just plain forgetting. We do not revisit the events and they slip from our mind in the busy overload of information that is bombarding us daily. In this last week we not only have the end of WWI to remember, but also Guy Fawkes’ failed bomb plot and Martin Luther’s courageous act that started the Reformation. The poppies may remind us of Armistice but without the bonfires and fireworks, and without any memorial to Luther—our society celebrated the absurd fun of Halloween instead. The memory of two great acts that established the nature of our society is being lost to the tawdry commercialization of superstition. It is why revision lessons are so important for keeping our memory fresh.

A second problem for memory is more intentional than simply forgetting, for today’s revision lesson is more than re-reading your notes to refresh your memory. It is now correcting your notes in order to ‘re-vision’ your understanding. This revisionism tells the story of the past from different perspectives, choosing different facts to weave alternative understandings of what happened in the past, so as to give an entirely different explanation of why we are who we are today. Sometimes revisionism is more than a different perspective on the facts; it becomes an alteration of facts or purposive omission of inconvenient facts. For example, the Christian foundation of organizations such as the Red Cross, RSPCA, YMCA and the Flying Doctor service etc has been largely forgotten.

History becomes intensely political because it is out of our common understanding of the past that our community finds a cohesive meaning of itself upon which to build for the future. As George Orwell observed: “Who controls the past controls the future. Who controls the present controls the past.” So the last 30 years in Australia has seen the ‘history wars’, where people have challenged each other’s vision of history. If history is to be anything more than the imposed propaganda of the victors, we have to work hard at remembering what actually happened.

A third problem of our memory is our presumptuous ingratitude. Ignoring our history and culture, many people live for today without considering the cost and sacrifice of previous generations who have made our lifestyle possible. It is a great shame that we are so influenced by the American Halloween instead of their Thanksgiving. Little thought is given to the reality that if we were born in the Horn of Africa we would be starving; if we were born in Syria we would be war torn; if we were born in Malaysia we would be facing racism; if we were born in Saudi Arabia we would be facing persecution. We are the heirs of other peoples’ sacrifice and hard work, in fighting for social justice, creating freedom, wealth and the culture and the pattern of life that we enjoy today. It is an inheritance to be thankful for, not to take for granted.

Nowhere is this ingratitude more apparent that in the failure to remember God’s victories. Consistently the Bible calls upon us to remember. The Apostle Peter wrote his second letter as a reminder to keep in mind the predictions of the prophets and commandments of our Lord and Saviour for as he said: “we did not follow cleverly devised myths when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eyewitnesses of his majesty” (2 Peter 1:16). Christianity is not based on mythology but history—the events interpreted by God’s prophets. For as Peter goes on to write: “and we have something more sure, the prophetic word… no prophecy of Scripture comes from someone’s own interpretation… but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit” (2 Peter 1:19-21). This message needs no revisioning for we have God’s vision of what happened, but we do need to keep revising our memory of it by re-reading and studying it.

It doesn’t matter which day we remember with gratitude those who have laid down their lives for our nation—be it Anzac Day or Remembrance Day—but it is important to stop and remind ourselves of our inheritance and the cost others paid that we may enjoy life as we do. And if we should remember with gratitude those who paid the supreme sacrifice for their friends, how much more should we remember God’s love in sending his Son for our salvation and Christ’s sacrifice in dying for us, his enemies (Romans 5:8).

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