Saturday, November 12, 2011

Reflections for Remembrance Day

Tyne Cot Cemetery by Marc Aert

Since its original inception as Armistice Day in 1919, people in countries around the world gather on November 11 to commemorate the thousands of men and women who died in armed conflicts.

Over time, the international community has developed a set of traditions to mark the day, and to set it apart from other days. We wear poppies on our coats. We lay wreaths. We observe a period of silence. We listen to the roll call of those who died. We express our collective desire for peace. 

Peace - the absence of war or hostilities
Peace is defined as the absence of war or hostilities. The definition of peace suggests the reality that Remembrance Day draws to our attention; the world struggles with peace. The world defines peace by what it is not. Peace in this definition is a political reality; a nation or nations are not at war.

Growing up in Canada, I can relate quite easily to this definition of peace because my experiences of war are vicarious. I know about war not because I have lived through one fought on Canadian soil. I know about war because I have seen images of it on television, read about it, studied it, and listened to the wartime stories of others.

Family stories of growing up during World War II
My father has some fascinating stories about growing up on a farm in northern Italy during the Second World War. He and his family were no strangers to the insecurity that war creates. They lived with hunger, poverty, and a sense of an ever-present danger that accompanies living in a war zone.

Some of his stories are humorous, like the story of the bridge. The German soldiers repeatedly attempted to blow up a nearby bridge to cut off the transportation route. Instead, they repeatedly blew up ground around the bridge, always missing the bridge itself. This was a source of amusement to the villagers, and provided them with lighthearted moments of relief while living with the tension of war. After a time, the villagers began to suspect that the failure to destroy the bridge was a sort of mutiny. Everyone needed the bridge; it was a symbol of the common good.

One of my favorite stories speaks of the persuasive power of conviction. Towards the end of the war, as discipline in the German army broke down, my grandparents routinely assisted German soldiers who were deserting their posts. They did this although they were putting themselves in grave danger.

One day, members of the Black Shirts, a paramilitary Fascist group of armed thugs, descended on the farm. With guns pointed, they demanded that my grandmother hand over the two soldiers the family was hiding. My grandmother calmly told the men to leave. When they refused, looking the leader steadily in the eyes, she revealed the handgun under her apron, and repeated her request. Remarkably, the men backed away. They never returned.

They shared a common humanity
What was it about my grandmother that made such a profound impression on these thugs that they obeyed her? I think it was the strength of her conviction that she, the German soldiers, and the Black Shirts shared a common humanity. Her quiet but strong demeanor unearthed the goodness buried deep beneath the exterior cruelty of this particular group of men. She was the bridge of common decency that rehabilitated these men, at least temporarily.

My grandmother’s actions speak of an unshakeable belief in the inherent dignity of the human person. The German soldiers that she helped were not the enemy, the hated ‘other.’ They were simply young men, not much older than her sons. Like her sons, they too bore the image of a good God, and deserved respect. To hand them over would have been contrary to her belief.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights
In 1948, as a direct result of the atrocities of World War II, the United Nations adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The members of the drafting committee came from a broad spectrum of political, cultural and religious beliefs. Despite their differences, Hernan Santa Cruz of Chile, a member of the committee, said they came to this consensus: the supreme value of the human person comes from the very fact of existing, not from belonging to a particular nation or group.
Read Santa Cruz's remarks:

Remembrance Day is a fitting moment to recall the preamble to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.  The foundation of freedom, justice, and peace depends on recognizing and honoring the innate dignity, and the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family.
Read the Universal Declaration of Human Rights:

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