"Remember the days of yore, understand the years of generation after generation. Ask your father and he will relate it to you, your elders and they will tell you. When the Supreme One gave the nations their inheritance" Deuteronomy 32:7-8
There are to my mind, 3 principle outlooks which shape many societies and individuals, one of them focuses on the past, on past golden ages, one focuses on the present, and one is future orientated.
Past orientated world-views tend to encourage a wallowing in nostalgia and very often lead to an embrace of a stifling victim mentality if the present does not, as is almost always the case, live up to the mythical perfection of a past era. The discomfort caused by such a mismatch in past glory and present misery, is often transferred onto the other, who then is demonised as the cause of all woes. And as the cause of the problems is now seen as outside, then nothing of any value can be done to fix it. A society in the grip of this outlook diminishes and contributes very little to the world. The Hebrew biblical commentators found much cause to condemn Noah for planting a vineyard when he left the ark (for reasons of nostalgia they claimed) instead of a useful crop such as wheat which could be used to build for the future. The lesson is clear, dwelling too much on the past can lead to our debasement. As King Solomon said: Do not say, "How was it that former times were better than these?" For that is not a question prompted by wisdom. Ecclesiastes 7:10
Present orientated vistas often lead to a wallowing in hedonistic shallowness. Pleasure begins to take the place of happiness and selfishness becomes the rule of the day. The very idea of deferring pleasure to a future time becomes anathema. What makes me feel good must be right, must be seen as my right and that is that, to hell with what people think or so goes the dialogue. People repeat the mistakes of a past they do not and will not recognise and plan nothing for a future they rarely consider. Children, the living representatives of our futures, are devalued as obstacles to happiness and if present are sidelined.
An ever present risk in future orientated world views is often a sympathy with, if not an actual pursual of totalitarianism. The past is considered as some fossilised relic to be expunged from memory and the present can, it is thought, be harmed in the pursuit of building a glorious future utopia. A small example of this was illustrated by the disgusting behaviour of so many middle class, wannabe revolutionaries this past week in London. Like past orientated ideologies this mentality feeds off a discontent of the present and magnifies the faults of today and promises to be rid of them, whatever the cost, in the perfection of a tomorrow upon which the sun will never set. Religious folk have often fallen into this trap and have wreaked mayhem in trying to bring about God's kingdom on earth. Secular utopianists, who believe that they too can bring about a perfected world, have also trampled all underfoot in their futile pursuits, and many persons in striving for personal success at work, have allowed themselves to raise themselves by climbing on the doubled-over backs of their colleagues.
It strikes me that what is needed is a mixture of all three viewpoints.
"O God of ages, help us,
Such citizens to be,
That children’s children here may sing
The songs of liberty."
"Send out Thy light to banish
The shadows of the shame,
Till all the civic virtues shine
Around our city’s name." William G Tarrant (1842-1928)
The arrow of time points in one direction. The sages of Israel see significance in the very first letter of the Bible. The Bet (ב), they say is closed in on three sides, only the side facing forward is open, this teaches us that we must always go forward, we can never go back. Rabbi Hirsch, that hero of German Jewish Orthodoxy said brilliantly, that the strong words against making oaths in Judaism, and expressed so beautifully and powerfully by our master Jesus, "Again, you have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘Do not break your oath, but fulfil to the Lord the vows you have made. But I tell you, do not swear an oath at all: either by heaven, for it is God’s throne; or by the earth, for it is his footstool; or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the Great King. And do not swear by your head, for you cannot make even one hair white or black. All you need to say is simply ‘Yes’ or ‘No’; anything beyond this comes from evil" Matthew 5:33-36, stems from a belief that we are always moving forward, we are always changing and that in making an oath prohibiting us something or committing us to something, we fail to take into account that we and our lives may change, and we run the great risk of failing in our word and desecrating the holy name of the Divine. Change is implicit in our existence and like it or not the future is on the way. Taking this into consideration we must always have in the forefront of our mind, the world as it should be and work towards that goal. (While never loosing the awareness that a perfect society will come about only by the work of God, when His Kingdom comes and His will is done).
In our desire to work towards a better future we must not lose site of the present. We must always be genuinely aware and thankful of the liberty we have, and seek to preserve that which has been bequeathed to us. In striving to improve on this inheritance we must not embrace the idea that the ends justify the means which is a scourge that has brought bitter tears to our world. As we are told by our Maker; "righteousness righteousness shall you pursue" Deuteronomy 16:20, in other words, with righteousness shall you pursue righteousness. The needs of people as they exist now have to be considered and attended to. It is only by dealing with the problems of now, that a better tomorrow can be forged. We must live lives suffused with the happiness of the moment, we are to celebrate the pleasures that God has bestowed upon us within the parameters that He Himself has set. We must rejoice in the here and now, and be constantly cognisant of it. And while working towards the future we must entrust ourselves to God, and realise that only He can bring about our success and survival. Let us not fall into the trap of "my strength and the might of my hand made me this wealth" Deuteronomy 8:17, or as William G Tarrant put it:
"Let all the people praise Thee,
Give all Thy saving health,
Or vain the labourer strong right arm
And vain the merchant’s wealth".
We need to be aware of, and honour our past. We must see the past, and especially that of our own community, our own country, not as history but as memory. As Jonathan Sacks explains in his wonderful book "The home we build together" history is someone else's story, memory is my story". There is very little in our lives as individuals or nations, that is not shaped by the events and choices of the past. Every novel scientific discovery made today is only possible due to the cumulative discoveries and theories of preceding generations right back to the dawn of man. The authors, jurists, monarchs, priests, poets and common people of the past, created the fabric of nationhood that provides the stage on which we live our lives. Our fathers and mothers, our grandfathers and grandmothers shape our present not only by the genes that they passed on to us, but by their choices, actions and beliefs. That is why we should remember the fallen in past wars. When this nation was threatened by forces hostile, these brave individuals gave up their present so that we might have a future. Without their sacrifices we would be living in a very different reality, this is most certainly the case regarding those who died defending Britain from the Nazi menace. Our past is our heritage, and just like any other valuable heritage it is our duty to care for it, to maintain it and if possible to repair its imperfections and polish it to bring out its lustre. How can we so arrogantly junk that which took centuries or millennia to build? Our debt of gratitude to those brave men and women who died in the service of our nation, is greater than a moment of silence one day a year. We must ensure that we honour their sacrifice by preserving that which they died for. Our freedom. Every time we try to silence those with whom we disagree, every time we try to force people to act against their conscience we lose faith with the sacrifices of old. It saddens me to see a growing intolerance in our society coupled with a growing lack of genuine democratic accountability. This does not bode well.
We do not have to agree with the conflicts of the past to honour the sacrifice of our ancestors. I myself believe that the First World War was an abhorrent aberration, and have yet to be convinced that this country should have involved itself in that quagmire of nation against nation. I reject utterly the disgusting jingoistic propaganda that made people view their fellow man as aliens worthy of death, of vermin in need of destruction. This was a war that stripped the image of God from the face of man, and diminished our nation's faith in that selfsame God and contributed to the creation of that second even more terrible conflict. Despite this I have no doubt that those who fought did so with an absolute conviction that it was our freedom they were defending, and for their sacrifice I must, and shall, honour and remember them. And who knows, without their sacrifice we may never have had the spirit to fight that just battle against the devilish depravity of Hitler.
When we commemorate those who gave up everything so that we could have the freedoms we do, we realise that we too will be a future generation's past. Our collective decisions today will shape the lives of those in times to come. Let us look around us and see what we are doing now. Will our future descendants thank us for what we are doing? Are we taking the legacy of freedom that so many struggled to pass to us, conserving and developing it to pass on to the generations still to come? Or are we chipping away at it, leaving the future denizens of Britain in a worse place?
Each of us has a part to play, for after all one person can change the course of history. Gavrilo Princip thought his actions were important and would bring about improvements for his people, but instead his actions lead to a conflict that destroyed empires, changed the borders of nations, irrevocably changed cultures and led to the deaths of an estimated 37 million people!! Obviously the actions and choices the majority of us make have repercussions far less world-shaking than those of Gavrillo Princip, but they do, nevertheless, have effects far beyond what we may realise. Let us venture on a thought experiment: Have you ever been rude to someone on the bus, or someone on the end of a phone who you had little time for or been nasty to a work colleague who was irritating you? Imagine if you will that this person was going through some personal crisis, perhaps your rudeness worsened their mood and led them to argue with their spouse. Imagine that during that row things were said that led to the seeds of resentment being sowed, eventually the damage germinated and grew ultimately leading to the destruction of that relationship with all the subsequent problems that can give rise to. Can you really wash your hands of the consequences of your actions? Can you really salve your conscience by regarding your rudeness or nasty quip as small and insignificant? This scenario might sound farfetched but as far as I can see, it is simply one of many many possible negative outcomes that can follow a simple act of unkindness to our neighbour.
There is one constant in both past, present and future and that is He "who changest not". He who was there when Franz Ferdinand rode into Sarajevo and who was with the Franks in an annex in Amsterdam and was overseeing the events of Dunkirk, is with us now! And He will be there with those who live long after every single one of us alive today has become a memory. As Libera so spectacularly sing:
"I rise with the spark of life the dawn of all time, I call to the worlds yet to be, the music is everywhere in life in the sea and air to join in the perfect song of all eternity."
In Him we see the span of infinity and we too when joined with Him join in with that eternity. If we are faithful to Him, and cleave to His guidance, then we can rest confident in the knowledge that our actions will bring only goodness and happiness to our lives and the lives yet to be lived, while honouring and connecting with all His children who came before us.
Above all our remembrance of conflicts past should ignite in our souls a passionate desire to rid the world of war. For while we recognise the bravery and heroism of those men and women, and the salvations that with God's help, their actions brought to our nation, we must never forget that their deaths were also a terrible and irreplaceable loss. Our world is diminished with loss, and every life taken through these conflicts leaves the edifice of humanity damaged and wanting. War is not a glory, our nation is not sanctified or honoured by war. May God make better our losses and lead us all to an acceptance and commitment to the words of the prince of peace: “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God.” Matthew 5:9. To stand in silence in remembrance, but not work towards the cessation of war, is a betrayal of those who fought so that we would not have to ever again.
So let us all pause to dwell on the memory of those whom we commemorate today. Let us mourn their loss. Let us yearn to embody even a little of their courage so that we can face the challenges in our life with the same determination. Let us educate ourselves in the achievements of our forefathers and ask God to lead us as we refuse to give up "that mental fight, until we have built Jerusalem in England's green and pleasant land." And above all let us pray for the day when humanity will be united under the Kingship of the Creator, and "nation shall not take up sword against nation, nor will they learn war any more" Micah 4:3