Remembrance, Interrupted

In hindsight, we probably should have been more prepared for it.  Between the four of us pastors, we had probably over sixty years of public speaking experience.  My more charismatic colleague has had more sermons interrupted than he cares to count  by a prophetic voice.  Our local veteran and our newly arrived veteran can also tell stories of various church services, community program and council meetings that were interrupted by a dissenting voice.  A few times I have even found myself surrounded by people who were preparing to further their cause of social justice by being that interrupting voice. I guess, for some reason, we thought that this couldn’t happen at a Remembrance Day service.

It is one of a declining number of community Remembrance Day services that invites Christian pastors to play a lead role, and believe me, we approach it with the respect and humility it deserves.  The program was going along quite well, if not maybe a little behind schedule, but we were doing and saying the right things.  The eleventh hour was approaching and the trumpet player was getting ready for last post. Suddenly, a lone voice at the back of the auditorium spoke up. With the spotlights facing our direction it was difficult to identify the man, but we could see that this was a man in some kind of uniform.

He went on to list of a number of Canadians killed in WWI who were not soldiers. In fact, he was quite sure that the first two official deaths and the last one, were not technically soldiers.  He wasn’t angry. He wasn’t disrespectful.  He simply thought that an important group of victims had not been mentioned. The man at the podium thanked him, and the program continued as planned.

Nobody seemed to mind. Maybe people thought it was planned. Maybe it was because he was senior in a uniform, and if there is any time in Canada when a senior in a uniform is given extra freedom, it’s November 11th. Still, I’ve seen less solemn gatherings turn hostile when a dissenter let their voice be heard, so I was surprised that the response was so peaceful.

Later, I chatted with the other pastors about the incident.  They admitted to being surprised, but also confused. Maybe we hadn’t included WWI merchant marines, but our tributes certainly hadn’t been exclusive to soldiers.  In my opening prayer, I mentioned soldiers returning with PTSD and their families, I mentioned governmental leaders and decision makers, and I asked for time when the rules of engagement would be guided by the love in soldier’s heart (rather than the normal chain of command).  The pastor giving the meditation was careful to use generic words like ‘sailor,’ to include those who were in the navy when their boats went down and those who weren’t, and ‘victim’ to include fighters (allies and enemies) and civilians. His message honoured everyone who put themselves in harm’s way and empowered everyone in the audience.  Finally, the group prayer included such a wide swath of victims that it was hard to imagine that he had left anyone out.  Despite all of our efforts toward inclusion, we were unable to remove the need for this interruption.

We could, in self-defense, write this man off as someone who is impossible to please.  Someone even suggested that he had perhaps made this kind of interruption in the past.  But maybe there is something more going on.  Remembrance Day ceremonies are full of processions and pagaentry, poetry and prayer, but are our carefully chosen words enough?

Is an hour and a half, once a year, enough to honour the soldiers who fought (and died) in what they believed was the pursuit of freedom and justice?  Is it enough to honour the sacrifices of an entire country in the pursuit of victory?  Is there room to include the long list of victims; the soldiers who died, the mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters, wives, husbands, sons and daughters left behind, the soldiers who returned with irreparable physical and emotional wounds, the innocent and loving family members who suffer abuse at the hands of those so emotionally scarred, the soldiers who died on the other side not knowing why they were even fighting, anyone relying on entire economies destroyed in the conflict, children of deceased soldiers who swear vengeance and carry hatred their whole lives, women who raise children without their fathers because of the war, women who are called in unwillingly to “comfort” the soldiers, those who suffer from the bombs and landmines left behind by the war, those whole societies who fear retribution, and the list could go on and on and on.

I now see that this man’s voice wasn’t simply an unnecessary part of an otherwise well orchestrated event, it was a necessary part of a perpetually inadequate gathering.  We will continue to remember, and when there is a part for me to play, I am happy to do so, but remembering cannot simply be an exercise of intellectual recall, it needs to be the first step in our efforts to bring peace into this world.

What is wrong with these people?

A week ago yesterday I got back from a trip to South Korea and Thailand. South Korea is a country I’ve lived in already for a few years, but this was my first trip to Thailand, making it the tenth country I have visited. I can without too much difficulty order food and ask for directions in four different languages, and on a good day I could understand the directions given to me in more than one of those languages. I have never refused foreign food that was offered to me. So, I like to think that I have a fairly high level of cultural sensitivity. My default approach is to say that each culture I visit and every custom I observe has something to teach me. I think travelling is pretty futile without that approach.

Sometimes though, that mindset slips back a bit. On just about every trip I take, there is a moment when I forget my place in the world. When I look down from the pillar I have built for myself and I ask, “What is wrong with these people?”  Now, before you shake your heads too easily at me, walk a mile in my “I bought these at a roadside stand because I only brought shoes from Canada” sandals.

There is something about sitting in an airplane for a long time, eating foreign food and bouncing around less than perfectly paved roads that helps me develop a keen eye for public bathrooms. It’s a scary sight though, when instead of a place to sit I find a porcelain lined hole in the ground. It is at these times that I ask myself, “What is wrong with these people?” Even though much of the world does it this way and it is actually much more efficient for the task, I feel entitled to a comfortable place to sit and tank of ten or more litres of fresh, clean, drinkable water that I can dispose of my leisure.

Maybe I just grew up sheltered from the realities of the world, but I have no idea where I would go in any Canadian or American city I’ve visited to find a prositute.  Granted, it likely wouldn’t be very hard if I started looking, but off the top of my head I don’t know where they are. But in more than one foreign city I have stumbled across these women and been absolutely certain about what profession they were in. One time I was in a car with a pastor and a school teacher who accidentally drove me through one of these areas and then sheepishly explained to me that this practice was illegal in their country. I was a little skeptical that these buildings which were designed and wired for the specific purpose of displaying their wares had somehow alluded the attention of local police. I look at these women and the infrastructure around them, and I ask myself, “What is wrong with these people?” Sure, we have the same industry in Canada, but they hide it, don’t they? Our police work harder to enforce those rules, don’t they? While prositution represents a smaller portion of our tourism industry, a close look at the local news and the classified section of the newspapers in our country’s largest cities will show you that we are in no position to condemn.

I make those comments about a business I’ve never and what I’m about to say within the context of a happy marriage. When I travel to other countries, I am constantly impressed by the women. Everywhere I go I meet incredible men doing incredible work, but as a whole, the women impress me more. They take advantage of new world opportunities, they pursue and gain new world education, and they enjoy and promote new world rights, but they go home to old world husbands, live out old world responsibilities and face old world limitations. Looking at their plight, I often wonder, “What is wrong with these people?” These women look at me and want to hear about Canada, a place where women don’t face the same limitations, where husbands don’t physically intimidate their wives and young women don’t define themselves by how they appear in men’s eyes. I want to hear about that version of Canada too.

When I travel, I like to bring gifts home for my family, but it is increasingly difficult to buy cultural gifts that aren’t just souvenir trinkets. If you can find cultural clothing, it’s irrevelevant because nobody wears it anymore. Main streets are crowded with western businesses selling western products and genuine local cuisine and cultural expressions are pushed farther and farther into the obscure. Sure, I think that people all over the world should be given a choice about what they can eat, what they can wear and what belief systems they can adopt, and sometimes those choices have to be presented to them from other places, but isn’t there still room to honour and uphold old cultural expressions? Whatever pride I had that this wasn’t the case in Canada came crashing down this week.  I returned on Thursday of last week and on Tuesday of this week I sat in on another session of the Truth and Reconcilation Commission in Calgary. Speaker after speaker told stories of how their cultural identity had been made to feel worthless, how their family structure had been depleted, and how they as human beings had been abused, neglected and discarded. This time when I ask “What is wrong with these people?” I need to ask that about myself and about the men who sold land to my ancestors that was not theirs to give.

I don’t know the way forward. The solutions to these culturally engrained problems are not easy, but they will not come from us blindly exporting our answers to them and they will not come from them or anyone closing their eyes and ears to the realities of the world around them. It is not whether their side or ours is correct, it is about how we walking side by side can arrive at the destination together.