The reason we mark significant anniversaries, create memorials, and observe certain rituals like holding two minutes of silence is to make sure we do not forget events of the past. We tend to have short memories. Remembrance is especially important as the number of those alive at the time begins to decrease and we lose their eyewitness voice. The next generation need to know how their present freedom came to be and at what cost it was bought.
‘The more you know about the past, the better prepared you are for the future’. Theodore Roosevelt
And it is in that spirit that we mark this 75th anniversary of VE Day, 8th May 1945, the day hostilities ended in Europe after the unconditional surrender of Nazi Germany the day before. What jubilation, delight and relief that announcement created all round the country! There had been more than enough of suffering, with between 70 to 85 million fatalities within six years and from nations all round the world, the highest number of casualties in any war the world has ever known, and that is without mentioning the many injured and scarred service men and women and civilians left to live with life changing consequences.
The first World War, 1914 to 1918, was described famously by HG Wells as ‘the War to end all wars’. But only 21 years later the world was caught up in another major conflict with devastating consequences for many and which was to shape the kind of world we have lived in for these past 75 years. How slow we are to learn. How quickly we forget. Churchill famously said: ‘those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it’.
Today is a moment to pause and reflect on that history, give thanks for the 1945 generation, their courage and sacrifice, and to pray for peace in the world. Sadly, many local serious conflicts still rage fiercely today and we do well not to forget them. We must continue to pray for an end to such hostilities, for leaders to work as peace-makers, and for a new generation to emerge with a desire and a determination for peace.
There’s a strange irony that while we give thanks for the freedoms our forebears won for us 75 years ago, we are far from free today. The Coronavirus pandemic has caused the world to lock down, thousands have lost their lives, many have lost their livelihoods, many are encouraged to isolate and the world is shaken to its core. It is not on the scale of World War Two, but we are not able to meet one another or gather in large numbers to mark our nation’s appreciation of those who risked their all for the sake of their country all those years ago.
Today is also a moment to reflect on three key beliefs. First, we must hold on to the conviction that every human life, from the youngest to the oldest, is precious in God’s sight and therefore to be valued. The Christian conviction that all human beings are made in the image of God must underpin the dignity with which we respect and treat one another. Life is a gracious gift from God and that has been expressed most fully in His appearance on earth as Jesus, Emmanuel, God with us. That He should choose to take on human flesh is extraordinary! It is quite another that He should choose to suffer and die to procure for all humankind the possibility of the forgiveness of our sins and the gift of eternal life. There is no greater affirmation than this of the value we should attribute to human life.
Secondly, we must learn how best to confront and stand against the evils and injustices in our society and in the world. The way Jesus was treated with an unjust trial, torture and then crucifixion, the terrible human suffering in World War Two in the fight against Nazi oppression and the fact that many today are denied the dignity they deserve show what little value some will place on the life of another person. The Christian calling is not to turn a blind eye and ignore such behaviour, but rather to expose it, shine the Christ light into the darkness and see His Kingdom of holiness transform the old and bring in the new creation. The courage and compassion required to make such a stand was exemplified by the supreme sacrifice of so many in World War Two and while it is quite different we see something of the same courage in our armed forces today and the risks those in our NHS and Care homes, and others in essential services, have been taking for the sake of others in recent days. They all deserve a loud clap not just once a week!
Jesus said: ‘Greater love has no one than this, that they lay down their life for their friends’. John chapter 15 verse 13
Thirdly, we must retain a sense of hope. As Dame Vera Lynn, now 103 years old, has said this week, while people are apart today, ‘hope remains in the most difficult of times’. That was her message in World War Two. It was endorsed by the Queen just recently, and then reiterated this week by Dame Vera. ‘We will meet again’. It lifts our eyes from the troubles of the present to the possibility of a different and better future. Again the Christian conviction of Christ’s victory over all the powers of evil through His cross, His victory over death and of His return one day as the Judge of the living and the dead, gives us the sure hope that evil will not win the day and God’s good and gracious purposes for His world will be achieved. As the old hymn puts it, ‘God is working His purposes out, as year succeeds to year.’
So on this anniversary of Victory in Europe declared 75 years ago I join with others in expressing gratitude and appreciation for the end to the hostilities of the Second World War in Europe and in praying that commitment to the common good world wide will prevent such a conflict ever happening again.
Bishop Julian 8th May 2020