Saturday, November 10, 2012

Reasons to show up at the cenotaph on Remembrance Day

Showing up at the cenotaph on Remembrance Day is a little bit like attending church on a holy day; I need a very good reason to miss the service. 

The act of remembrance honors those who served, and those who are currently serving in missions overseas. Our presence at the cenotaph is a way of saying thank you to them. The act of remembrance is also an expression of gratitude for the freedoms that we sometimes take for granted, and for the gift of this peaceful, democratic nation that we call home. The act of remembrance expresses our collective desire for peace, and acknowledges our responsibility to build a more just world.

Soldier Statue in Veteran's Square, Trail, BC
Louise McEwan photo

We are there to remember, not to celebrate victories or to glorify militarism
The main event of every official Remembrance Day service is the two-minute period of silence. The practice dates to a November 1919 proclamation of King George V. George V called for two-minutes of silence at the 11th hour on the 11th day of the 11th month “so that in perfect stillness the thoughts of everyone may be concentrated on reverent remembrance of the glorious dead.”  We are there at the cenotaph to remember, not to celebrate victories or to glorify militarism.

The observation of silence is a public action; it is something that everyone present engages in together. At the same time, the silence has a very private component; we are alone with our thoughts. It is a good time to reflect on the dignity, value, and sacredness of every person. It is a good time to reflect on the harms of war. It is a good time to reflect on our commitment to peace: peace in our hearts, our homes, our communities, our nation, and our world.

A few years ago, my husband and I attended the Remembrance Day service in Duncan, BC, where we were visiting a friend. The reality of conflict was brought home to me in a sobering way.  During the commemorative silence, instead of reflecting, I found myself observing the scene in front of me.  The numbers of young servicemen and women far exceeded the numbers of aging veterans.  Before my eyes, in the persons of the old and the young, I saw the wars of the past and the militarism of the present.  It was, frankly, a little disheartening.

We are still far from beating our swords into ploughshares
For almost a century, we have been remembering, yet armed conflicts continue to erupt around the world.  As a global community, we have a long way to go before we beat our swords into ploughshares.  We are better at waging war than creating the conditions necessary for peace.

Our slow progress at building peace throws into relief another reason why our presence at the cenotaph is important.  Our presence can also express an element of dissatisfaction. Our presence at the cenotaph is a way of saying that we do not like war. War offends us.

Our commemoration is not an acquiescence to war. It is not an approval for spending ever-increasing amounts of money on the machinery of war.  While our presence at the cenotaph expresses gratitude, and demonstrates support for our troops, our presence also expresses a determination to seek peace.

Military training, weapons, and equipment are not the instruments of peace. We do not win peace through violence. We build peace, not through fighting, but through the promotion of justice, and through the work of reconciliation.

The absence of peace is a result of injustice
The absence of peace is always a result of some type of injustice: political, economic, cultural, or social.  Rigoberta Menchรบ Tum, the recipient of the 1992 Nobel Peace Prize, writes, “Building peace requires that we start by weaving a fabric out of the threads of equality, justice, participatory democracy, and respect for the rights of all peoples and cultures.”

This is easier said than done, as almost a century of remembrance and the history of humanity shows.  So, Remembrance Day is also a great challenge to those of us who yearn for a more harmonious world.

While imprisoned during WWII, a prisoner scratched an already famous war memorial epitaph on the walls of his prison cell: “When you go home tell them of us and say, for your tomorrow we gave our today.” This year, on Remembrance Day, as we honor the past, let us carry the hope contained in these words in our hearts. May they inspire us to acts of transformation, no matter how small, that will advance a universal culture of peace.

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