This week, lights went out across the United Kingdom as people remembered the outbreak of the First World War, leaving a single candle lit to remember that even the darkness is not bereft of light. “The lamps are going out all over Europe; we shall not see them lit again in our lifetime” was what Sir Edward Grey, British Foreign Secretary, is famed to have said in 1914 as the darkness of war descended upon Europe. That war would spread well beyond the continent as the empires that had shaped much of the history of the previous generation brought over 60 million combatants into conflict with one another.
A century later, as western leaders gathered in Belgium and reflected on how enmity had turned to European cooperation and a capacity to offer remorse for the sins of the past, rocket fire still bombarded Gaza, and the seemingly unending conflicts in eastern Ukraine and in Syria continued to rage on. It can be argued that the political impact of the First World War in Palestine and today’s bloody conflict in Gaza are intrinsically linked, with the Balfour Declaration, the British proclamation of a Jewish “national home” in Palestine, made while the Third Battle of Gaza was still being fought between British and Turkish troops in November 1917. The map of the Middle East and the crumbled Ottoman Empire that was re-drawn following World War One suited the western powers that had battled over it, but left a region’s various peoples dis-membered from one another.
Beyond the Middle East, it can still be argued that the sense that we live in a single global community is one of the legacies that the First World War left the century that followed it. On one hand, the past hundred years has seen the commitment to global multilateralism through bodies such as the U.N., and to regional cooperation such as the European and African Unions. Most recently, the emergence of the digital age has enabled us to be connected to one another in ways that both transcend and subvert national boundaries. Yet, despite this sense of our oneness, each generation that has passed since 1914 has seen a clash of values and interests, from the Second World War to the Cold War that followed it, to today’s ‘clash of civilizations’ played out not in the trenches but on city streets stretching from Baghdad tho Boston.
All of this serves to illustrate the fact that our present cannot escape its past. We all live in the shadow of empires past and within the power structures of the neo-imperial powers, both governmental and corporate, that have inherited their mantle. And so, the call this week, through ceremony and symbolic action, to remember the past is one we should heed. Yet, is remembering enough? Is it an adequate response to the legacy of conflict we still live with today for us to remember the dead, to remember the evil that we have done to one another in the hope that in remembering we will never again repeat the sins of our fathers?
The question that is striking here is what these acts of remembering are for. For this week’s beautifully choreographed acts of remembrance, from Westminster Abbey’s candlelight vigil to buglers playing the last post at ceremonies in Belgium and the Tower of London, there is always the danger that remembering becomes the witnessing of a spectacle and that what gets remembered, particularly for those who now have no direct connection to the losses of World War One, is the veneer of tragic death, not its gritty reality. Perhaps uneasy at the prospect of remembering becoming an act of spectating, when Horst Hoheisel designed his re-build of the Aschrottbrunnen Fountain in Kassel, Germany, he chose to re-build the fountain destroyed by Nazis as a negative form memorial. The original fountain, designed by the City Hall architect, Karl Roth, and funded by a Jewish entrepreneur from Kassel, Sigmund Aschrott, had been a 12-meter high, neogothic pyramid surrounded by a reflecting pool located in the main town square. Hoheisel’s fountain retained the 12 meter flow of water, but now the water cascades down from the surface, the negative of the fountain that was there previously, that shot vertically into the air. His hope was that people would walk upon the top of the inverted fountain and somehow participate in the memory of the murder of the Jews of Kassel that the fountain’s destruction marked.
The eucharistic table is also a place for the participation of a memory, not of gilded candlestick and cross, but of a bloody imperial execution. Worship around that eucharistic table also has the same danger of inviting us to remember a spectacle, and the vocation of every host at that table is to curate a space for worship that leaves the table’s guests feeling that they have participated in a meal that unnerves them, that questions their previously held assumptions, that renders them more inclined to see the disjuncts and dis-eases of our world. If we are to remember the horrors of the past, we must find within ourselves a commitment to the hard work of seeking to make whole that which has been dis-membered, to re-member that which hubris and hatred have rent asunder. For, without the will to re-member the brokenness of the past, we have little hope for peace as we look to the future.