Remember Why We Remember


Tomorrow, November 11th, is Remembrance Day in Canada. It’s the day when we remember those who fought and died in World War I, giving their lives for their country. We wear red poppies, the flowers that grew on the battlefield where thousands of people lost their lives. We pause to quietly reflect on the sacrifice and horrors of war, and the freedom with which we are privileged to experience as a result.

But for many of my Mennonite friends, this day brings with it some conflicted internal feelings. Anabaptists are known for being people of peace. Our stance of conscientious objection means that many of our Mennonite ancestors chose alternative service when conscripted into the military during wartime. Mennonites aren’t the only historically peaceful tradition, but the way of peace has become so much a part of our belief system that it becomes difficult for us to reconcile anything to do with war or the military.

So on a day like November 11th, what do we do? Perhaps we feel by wearing poppies and honouring the day, we are glorifying war and violence; that by remembering, we are condoning what happens in war. Or perhaps we have a sense of survivor's guilt, that it’s wrong for us to remember when, because of our stance, our ancestors didn’t die, but were allowed to serve their country in non-violent ways. Perhaps we feel the need to make sure that people know what our position is as we remember, just so they don’t think we are saying war is okay.

But I would like to suggest for tomorrow that we simply remember. 

The act of remembering is a powerful catalyst for individuals and communities. To remember where we have come from, or who has come before us, keeps us grounded as we move forward. We often forget that even though we may think we are pioneers of our experience, many people have already lived through what we have lived through, and often in more difficult circumstances. When we forget the past, as the saying goes, we are bound to repeat it.

The story of the Israelite nation in the Old Testament is a prime example of the act of forgetting and remembering. After their deliverance from Egypt by God, the Israelites found themselves wandering in the desert, heading to what they were told was the promised land. They were freed from slavery. They were on their way to a better place, but it’s as if, over and over, when things didn’t go the way they hoped, they got angry and bitter at God, forgetting what He had done for them.

In Psalm 106, the poet goes into the history of his people, naming at least three times when the people forgot what God had done for them.

“But they soon forgot what he had done
and did not wait for his plan to unfold.
In the desert they gave in to their craving;
in the wilderness they put God to the test.
So he gave them what they asked for,
but sent a wasting disease among them.”
- Psalm 106:13-15

Whenever Israel forgot what God did for them, they choose to go their own way and walk away from God. Yet the festivals of the Jewish people were meant as a way to remember. The Passover feast was their way of remembering God’s deliverance out of slavery in Egypt. They paused to remember who their God was and the mercy He showed them. But even with festivals and acts of remembrance like these, they still forgot.

We, as Christians, have times of remembrance as well, where we celebrate what God has done for us. At Christmas we remember that God became incarnate and decided to make His dwelling among us. At Easter we remember the extent of God’s love for us and the power He holds over death. At Pentecost we remember that the Holy Spirit is alive and well and lives in every believer. 

When we remember, we reframe our current experience to the ways in which God has acted in the past. We remember so that we don’t fall into the same patterns of selfish ambition that so easily entangle us. We remember so that when we go through difficult times we know who is in charge, and keep in mind the bigger picture of God’s kingdom. We need acts of remembrance to look back to celebrate, but also to lament sins of the past; to remember those we’ve lost, and to remind ourselves where hate and intolerance can lead us. When we forget, we repeat the same destructive cycles that stop us from moving forward. So it’s for these reasons that I want to pause tomorrow and remember.

World War I saw some of the most horrendous acts of violence and hate. When earthly powers fight for dominance, young men and women pay the price. Some 40 million people died as a result of this war. That’s more than our current Canadian population. Soldiers paid the price, often without choice, to fight the battles on behalf of their country’s leaders. Civilians felt the effects of shifting territories, their homes destroyed and, most notably, their loved ones not returning home.

The nature of an event like Remembrance Day is that it forces us to look back and examine the harmful effects of oppression, domination, greed, and violence. It forces us to remember those who lost their lives because of it, and in a way, try to feel the pain of that loss. This tradition ensures that we don’t forget, that the tragic experiences of such events don’t lose their significance in our history. It reminds us of our frailty and our need to trust in something or someone bigger than ourselves. 

Beyond that, this act forces us to look forward. It invites us to check our own heart, motivations, and struggles. It gives us the opportunity to examine ourselves, our communities, and our countries. It begs us to change so we don’t repeat the sins of our ancestors. In so doing, we become participants in the act or remembering. It forces us to do something, to not sit idly by and allow the same things to happen over and over again. As the phrase taken from Mennonite Central Committee says, “To remember is to work for peace.”

Remembrance Day is not about the glorification of war. It’s not a time of guilt. It’s not a time to make sure our voices are heard above others. The act of remembering is powerful enough in and of itself to bring us to lament, to help us imagine a better way forward, and to force us to work for peace in a broken world. And so, tomorrow, I pause and remember.