“They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old;
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning
We will remember them.”
I have visited Flanders Fields at various times over the years. I find it a moving place to visit, no matter how many times I go there. There are graveyards upon graveyards, with both named and unnamed soldiers, buried in uniform rows dotted with white crosses. The enormity of the loss of life in the First World War cannot be escaped in Flanders. I feel sad each time I visit, and it continues to make me ask the question – how could human beings do this to each other? Each soldier who died in Flanders Field, no matter which side of the battle, was someone’s son or someone’s daughter. They were a brother or a sister or a friend to someone. It is no wonder the tragic loss of life and the grief has continued for generations.
We should visit sites like these to help us remember the potential that human beings have to harm and kill each other. It is easy in a time of peace to forget that human relationships can dissolve into violent conflict very quickly.
That is why working for peace is something that human communities need to continue to do. And as Martin Luther King is quoted as saying, the work of peace is the work of justice.
St John Paul II reflecting on the legacy of two World Wars takes up a similar theme:
I have often paused to reflect on the persistent question: how do we restore the moral and social order subjected to such horrific violence? My reasoned conviction, confirmed in turn by biblical revelation, is that the shattered order cannot be fully restored except by a response that combines justice with forgiveness. The pillars of true peace are justice and that form of love which is forgiveness. (John Paul II, World Day of Peace, 1 January 2002)
These are challenging words. Can peace really only come about through justice and love? It does seem conversely true that violence only seems to beget violence. Even if a short lived peace might seemingly follow an initial crushing act of violence, it doesn’t seem to last for long.
We are too aware of the many acts of violence that erupt in our world on a regular basis. We are also aware of the instinctive human response to want to retaliate with the same.
The Gospel would seem to ask something more from us. Remembrance Day should definitely be a time to remember the dead and the tragic loss of thousands of (young) lives in wartime. If it is to have meaning for us now, it might also be a time for us to commit ourselves to justice: to just relationships with those around us; to just relationships between nations; to just for the displaced, the downtrodden and the marginal. If justice becomes a global reality than perhaps war will be no more. Perhaps our remembrance will bring peace.
By Fr Brendan Reed