This year marks a number of significant anniversaries: the 75th anniversary of the battles of Monte Cassino, Imphal and Kohima, the Great Escape, the Battle of the Bulge, the V1 and V2 rocket attacks, and most notably, D-Day.
It also marks the 50th anniversary of Troops deployed in Northern Ireland,the 20th anniversary of the end of the Balkans war and today is the 100th anniversary of the first Remembrance Sunday.
Among all the many notable anniversaries this year, one stands out as particularly personal to me and pertinent to the current times we live in: the 30th anniversary yesterday, of the falling of the Berlin Wall.
I’ve mentioned in previous years about my childhood in Brussels. Growing up in Belgium gave one a very different perspective on life (not least on food!). The question of invasion was a live issue for every generation and shaped much of the national psyche. I remember when I first moved to England being shocked when discussing the threat of invasion to be met with the complacent reply, “but it hasn’t happened since 1066.”
That was a totally different world to the one I had grown up in, and perhaps in that microcosm we see a glimpse of the different perspectives that separate this island’s understanding of Europe from the mainland. Belgium was formed in response to the problem of repeated invasion. It had seen two invasions within living memory at the start of the two World Wars and every family could tell of loved ones lost in the accompanying atrocities. And now we lived daily under the expectation that the Soviet Union might invade at any moment. So swift would it be that the first we knew of it would be Soviet troops in the street.
We lived not far from the German border and the Iron Curtain was an afternoon’s drive away. I remember visiting friends in Kassel in West Germany and peering down the valley across the barbed wire into East Germany. The Cold War felt cold indeed.
The fall of the Berlin Wall was a moment of unimaginable hope and reconciliation. It felt like the final chapter of the two world wars. The peace they had fought for was finally a reality and Europe was united at last.
Yet as we survey the world today, we might wonder what happened to that peace and unity. I remember the old war veteran who shouted at me one day, when I was a particularly loutish teenager: “I fought in the war for the likes of you!” And I wonder – was this what he fought for?
The post-war world in many ways seems to be receding and the peace is disturbed once again. In the last two weeks, we have seen mass protests in Hong Kong, the Netherlands, Indonesia, Peru, Haiti, the Lebanon, Iraq, Chile and Spain. In our own country, people on all sides of the political spectrum worry about national reconciliation and we face a general election with perhaps the starkest choices between the political parties since the Berlin Wall came down.
Now politics is not my concern. But as your vicar, my concern is how I help us to live together as a community in what is becoming a turbulent age. Today, in particular, I wonder how we learn the lessons from our past and ensure that the peace which our community paid such a high price for is preserved.
And the preservation of peace requires us to engage in conflict. You might find that paradoxical, but any sustained relationship is only possible if we have a way of expressing and resolving conflict. And it seems to me that we have forgotten, as a society, how to express conflict and resolve it healthily. And this relates to our recent history.
By the time the Berlin Wall fell, Europe had seen almost a century of brutal conflict (to the point of global nuclear extinction) brought about by opposing ideologies promising utopian futures which they failed to deliver. By the time the Berlin Wall fell, that conflict was seen as pointless and destructive. As Communism and Fascism finally left the stage, there was a strong desire for peace at all costs.
Liberal democracy no longer needed to worry about competing ideals, sparking a race for the political centre ground. Compromise and pragmatism were the guarantors of the peace we longed for above all else.
We moved into what sociologists called Post-modernism. Truth became subjective – I had my truth and you had yours. If we disagreed, it was because my truth was different to your truth. We just had to be tolerant of that difference. It didn’t do to question each other or to try to resolve our competing truth claims. There was no longer any objective truth, so neither of us could ever be wrong. Tolerance and consensus ruled by common consent.
The same dynamic was evident in international relations. In the post-war years, any accord between former enemy states was seen as a triumph and sign of hope. Agreement itself was an achievement and was more important than the content of those agreements.
But now are people are reviewing those post-war agreements and questioning whether they constituted a good deal. All the post-war coalitions are under strain: the EU, NATO and the UN. And the same is true in our domestic politics and increasingly in our personal relationships.
It seems that addressing issues is once again more important than getting along together. Conflict is back on the menu and is something we are prepared to face once more. The trouble is that we haven’t done it for so long, we no longer have a common etiquette for disagreeing, so we just fall out instead.
In the 30 years of peace since the Berlin Wall, disagreement was brushed under the carpet. We had stopped fighting. We had stopped arguing. We even stopped expressing disagreement. If we tried to disagree, people would blandly tell us that we just had different truths and we had to tolerate each other. You couldn’t get a decent argument for love nor money! We were all, somehow right.
And there were many good things about that time. We seemed to have left the divisive political battles behind us and arrived at a common sense pragmatism. The only issue at elections was competence. There was very little difference between New Labour, Lib Dems or One Nation Torres. But now issues have begun to emerge which we cannot simply ignore. It isn’t enough to say that we each have valid truth positions, because those positions cannot co-exist. You cannot be pro-Brexit and pro-Remain. Even if you can see both sides, you have to pick a side. You cannot have a neutral position on social care, mental health provision, the environment or knife crime.
So many in our society no longer see the political consensus in positive terms, but as a sweeping under the carpet of real and serious issues. In this atmosphere, the old political centre ground is perceived by many as nothing more than a mid-point between extremes, a barren no-man’s land, devoid of conviction that has failed to recognise the problem, a bland argument for a status quo that is no longer bearable.
I speak as one whose natural instincts lie in the centre ground, it part of the problem is that, while it has stood for keeping the peace and for tolerance, it has failed to allow discussion of many of the real issues. It has left those discussions to others. So instead, the real issues find expression on social media, where there is no control over what’s said or how it’s said. Issues are expressed in ways that are often angry and not infrequently offensive. But perhaps the deepest trouble is that, in social media, we encounter one another as issues, not as people. So we have ceased to treat to one another as people to be loved, but as issues to be fought.
The Bible, however, reminds us that our battle is not against flesh and blood, but against the spiritual forces of evil. Ours is a different battle. We are to hate the sin, but love the sinner. And that requires us to do battle first with ourselves so that we can love each other.
So my prescription to this community is to spend more time together. You might not expect me to say this, but go to the pub more often. It is your Christian duty! (to love your neighbour at least) And go to the cafe and all the other places where we meet as neighbours. Let’s encourage one another to talk about what matters and try to understand one another better. Let’s engage with the issues, not as know-it-alls, but as friends exploring the future together.
The future belongs to all of us collectively, but to none of us individually. As our Gospel reading reminds us, it belongs not only to us, but to future generations and to all living life. The lessons of history tell us that whatever our political views, they almost certainly won’t be the perfect solution to everything. So let’s explore them together with the humility that is lacking in our political leaders. Let’s bring the great issues of our day out into the light together and have a good look at them together. Let’s recognise that much of the anger is justified, if ill-directed. Let’s accept that we don’t all agree, but we do still have a duty of care for one another. Let’s remember that we can’t win if it’s at the expense of our neighbour. Our war dead are reminders that the path of peace involves personal sacrifice – us for the sake of our neighbours, whether we agree with them or not. And in the end, our political views are only of real value if somehow they provide a solution for our opponents as well as for ourselves. And we can only find that by engaging together.
Somehow we need to find a way to live together in a single society without resorting to force. So let’s disagree, not as enemies, but as neighbours. [Because you’re all wrong anyway! And so am I. But you know what? We’re all right!]. So may God bless us and help us to disagree well and may he also give us peace. Amen.
Preached: – Brougham, Morland, 10 November 2019