Wednesday, November 12, 2008

The Gift of Remembrance

Published as "OFF THE WALL with Padre James Bhagwan" in The Fiji Times, Wednesday 12th, 2008, p7

It has been an eventful seven days since my last column. Change came to the United States of America with the election of Senator Barack Obama as President; Guy Fawkes day was celebrated in England; the Pacific Islanders played valiantly but lost to England at Twickenham, and the Fiji Bati have qualified to meet Australia in the semifinals of the Rugby League World Cup.

Yet the most significant days for me was Remembrance Sunday (9/11/08) and yesterday's (Tuesday 11/11/08) Remembrance Day.

On Sunday I attended a special service at my village church and then joined the millions across the United Kingdom in watching the Remembrance Sunday Ceremony at the Cenotaph in London's Whitehall where members of the Royal Family laid wreaths after observing two minutes' silence in honour of Britain's war dead. Our High Commissioner to the UK, Pio Bosco Tikoisuva represented Fiji as he and other representatives of Commonwealth countries, bar Zimbabwe, also laid wreaths.

Yesterday, the 11th day of the 11th month at 11am (GMT - 11pm Fiji time) a further two minutes of silence was observed at the Cenotaph to mark the 90th anniversary of Armistice Day that marked the end of the first world war.

At the St. Simon and St. Jude Church, an Anglican Church in the Diocese of Oxfordshire, which is the closest to where I am currently staying, the service was simple yet poignant. This small community gathered to remember the men of the village who had made the ultimate sacrifice for King and country over the course of two world wars. Their names were read out by an Royal Air Force officer who had just returned from Afghanistan. Wives, children, grandchildren and neighbours gathered in this act of communal remembering. Preaching form the text of Jesus' Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:1-12), the Rev. Anne Hartley reflected on the sacrifices made for peace, righteousness and justice, as well as those whose lives are affected by conflict, grieving families, the persecuted and oppressed, the poor and hungry. She reminded us that the blessing given by Jesus ("Blessed are those...") is not just to be understood as some reward in heaven but as we pray for the Father's kingdom to come and His will to be done on earth as in heaven, we must look to the promise of this blessing in the present and work towards it.

This act of remembering and of sacrifice has put a frame around all the events of the past week. As President-elect Obama made his victory speech he paid a fitting tribute to all those who had sacrificed not just for his campaign but embodied the spirit of change in the generations past to make a dream a reality. Not just for African-Americans and civil rights champions but for anyone that dreams of the opportunity to make a difference in their country and perhaps the world.

As people braved the rain to light fireworks and attempt to light bonfires to "remember, remember the 5th of November," many did remember Guy Fawkes and the Gunpowder Plot of 1605 to blow up the British Parliament and assassinate King James the First. I recalled my mother's saying of "Any money for the Guy," and people parading the soon to be burned effigy of Guy Fawkes and chanting the same outside our Moti Street, Suva flat when I was a small boy and Fiji still carried on traditions which were inherited from our former colonisers. I remembered the common response, "No money for the Guy!" But recalling the history behind the celebration of Guy Fawkes Night, perhaps one of the earliest attempts at terrorism in England, is a sad history of religious persecution. Where dogma, doctrine and political expediency saw Christian oppress fellow Christian.

On Saturday as I experienced the best introduction to Twickenham as anyone can have, with a pre-match lunch in the Spirit of Rugby restaurant, seats to the game in the RFU Council Box and post match dinner with the two teams, management and members of the RFU Council, I remembered shared the thrill of watching international rugby test matches in the rain on the embankment of the National Stadium with thousands of equally soaked but cheering fellow Fijians. As I watched a team which had only four days of training and struggled over the last few months to be put together take on a Tier 1 team, I remembered the sense of community in the nation as we cheer the Fiji 7's team throughout the year and our amazing Flying Fijians at last year's world cup. I reflected on how much money had been spent on each team and came to the conclusion that in terms of value for money spent, our Pacific Islanders did us proud.

Sitting in church on Sunday and spending two minutes in respectful silence on 11/11 at 1100hrs I remembered the stories of our own men who risked or laid down their lives for the cause of freedom and of peace. As I listened to Rev. Hartley's sermon, I reflected on how sometimes we tend to only think of heroes and villains, even in the ongoing conflict of sorts in our own nation. We cheer and honour the heroes and we jeer and insult the villains. We often struggle to remember that our heroes may be someone else's villain and vice versa. We often forget that those we vilify are someone's son or daughter, someone's husband or wife, someone's father or mother, a brother, a sister or a friend. We often glorify conflict as a means to an end without remembering that there are so many on the sidelines whose lives are affected by the actions and decisions of few. Women and children who find themselves widowed or without a father, which can often mean without a provider of income and protection. Or those whose husbands and fathers, while returning home alive, are traumatised and not able of leading a normal life.

When we look at our lives, the life of our nation and the history of the world, what do we remember? How do we remember? Do we block out the uncomfortable, the inconvenient, the embarrassing? Do we remember the reasons why things happened or is it enough merely to remember that they happened?

When we remember the past, we claim it as our own. We acknowledge our greatest moments and our biggest failures. We remember the work that has been done and understand the work that is yet to be completed. We pay tribute to those who shone the light and made the path for us and we receive the torch to shine the way for those yet to come. When we remember as a people, we share our common history and strengthen the bonds of our community. We remember our elders so that future generations will know themselves fully.

Memory is a gift. It allows us not only to remember the pain and suffering but also the healing and the joy. It forces us to avoid the mistakes of the past. It helps us learn the lessons from the struggles of others. History (and "herstory" - for gender balance) provides us with the means for remembering the whole story, not just the parts that we like and remembering that we were not the first and we will not be the last to struggle for peace and for justice. It challenges us to see the other side.

Let us remember those who have paid for our dreams to become reality. Let us remember those before us that worked for the future. Let us remember those who gave up all they had so that we could receive a full measure of it. Let us remember that we too, will one day be remembered.

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.

Laurence Binyon (1869-1943)

May your week be blessed with love, light, and peace!

Reverend James Bhagwan is an award-winning radio and television producer and writer. He is currently on leave from the Methodist Davuilevu Theological College where he is a member of the Faculty. All opinions expressed in this article are personal and do not necessarily reflect the opinion and policies of the Methodist Church in Fiji or any organization that Rev. Bhagwan is affiliated with.

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