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Monday, November 11, 2013

Remembrance Day 2013: Forming our moral imagination

I am posting the text for the address at the Cathedral's Armistice Day Service: the service went well and one remark I received stuck with me.  I don't know the lady, but she observed, 'Although I am a pacifist, the words of this service are so moving, so beautiful, I can only concur.'

A casual bystander watching this and other Remembrance Day services might not be too sure exactly what we are about; what we are doing this for.  The sight of uniforms, of stacked arms, the procession of colours, the placing of regimental colours on the altar might – for some – seem to imply an honouring of war; even – at a considerable stretch – something like a glorification of war.  That of course would be a gross misunderstanding. 

Now it may surprise some to hear me say this, but we are not here for some sentimental or abstract purpose or to engage in a series of symbolic gestures and words to ‘honour the dead’. On the contrary, the matter is more urgent: we are here because we dare not forget.

I believe we are here to remember the horror and cost of war in a very disciplined and purposeful way and to resist to the utmost of our ability, any resort to war in the future.  We honour our dead not by any abstract remembering but by how we act and live in the present; by how we commit ourselves to the cause of peace and by how we help to shape our national life now and for years to come.

Consequently there is a sense in which we must, of course, look back.  We are accustomed to the innumerable memorials throughout our nation – many now forgotten and mouldering quietly,  all mute testimony to the unimaginable losses that decimated generations here and elsewhere.  We are accustomed to recall family albums with their sepia-tinted photographs of uniformed, fresh-faced young men, whose features are never seen again.  Books, exhibitions, films and the Internet show us images of grand departures with bands and troopships; then many more of appalling slaughter and waste; and, to complete the sequence, the return of a few, often maimed in body or mind, to a nation that has lost its innocence. Very properly and necessarily we say with Binyon’s Ode, ‘We will remember them’.

We are here because, this day of all days, through our vow to ‘remember’, we purposefully employ our moral imagination.  One aspect of our remembering is cautionary, passing on the warning across the years: a means to help ensure that we learn from history and don’t let this happen again. For, as Edmund Burke said, ‘those who don’t know history are destined to repeat it.’ It is no accident that one New Zealand War historian closed his substantial photographic history of the Great War with Hemingway’s words: ‘Never think that war, no matter how necessary, nor how justified, is not a crime.’

Another aspect of our remembering, and especially essential to the growth of any moral imagination, is our willingness to think and emotionally engage, as far as we can, with the loss and horror that this day observes.  This is essential for our humanity because the capacity to identify and empathise makes us human and shapes how we live and act.

This is critical and urgently contemporary.  For instance, with terrorism: one commentator has boldly described the act of terrorism as a failure of the imagination. Referring to the acts of September 11, 2001, the writer Ian McEwan has argued that, ‘if the hijackers had been able to imagine themselves into the thoughts and feelings of the passengers, they would have been unable to proceed.   It is hard to be cruel once you permit yourself to enter the mind of your victim.  Imagining what it is like to be someone other than yourself is at the core of our humanity.  It is the essence of compassion, and it is the beginning of morality … Among (the terrorists’) crimes was a failure of the imagination.’

This is why we keep Remembrance Day and understand it as a time when we reflect very carefully on our nation and our way of life.  We need to ask some hard questions.  Do we nourish the moral imagination or do we stifle it?  When we set political objectives or welfare policies, when we determine economic goals or employment or housing provisions for all, when we evaluate educational priorities, when we elect a government – to what extent are we driven in all of these by a concern for the priority of the moral imagination in our national life?  Take one example: in our universities and schools the humanities tend to be comparatively ‘starved’: it is alleged that the marketplace needs graduates to be in science, technology, business, engineering – at the cost of such disciplines as religion, literature and philosophy that consistently remind us what it means to be human and critique those aspects of our life which may undermine our humanity.  For instance, as ultrafast broadband is rolled out across the country, have we really addressed the destructive power of internet pornography and recognised the extent of its harm, its power to diminish our humanity?

It may be that we are now paying the price for a systemic erosion of our values.  Last week there was national shock at the discovery of the Facebook site run by a gang of young sexual predators in West Auckland.  Their smirks, their sneering cruelty and their unfeeling humiliation of their victims chilled me. One commentator’s headline asked a question we should all ask: ‘How has New Zealand raised such sons?’


This Remembrance Day we must ask such questions.  We are not helpless.  We can all be a force for good, wherever we are.  Our country is worth fighting for.  We owe those we remember this day no less than that.  
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