The Bishop's Son and the Bellicose President
Everywhere there are poppies on lapels and lampposts. BBC Radio has been playing Voices of the First World War - memories of military men recalling the carnage and the courage and of their time at the Front. Sunday will bring wreath-laying, band-playing and marching men and women at war memorials across Europe. It’s Armistice weekend.
As a ‘baby-boomer’, I recognise my good fortune in living through more than seventy years without seeing war. My only experience of ‘the war’ about which my older relatives so often spoke was the end of sweet rationing in 1953. My parents rationed confectionery anyway. It meant nothing to me!
But when I talk to our children and grandchildren about war or armistice or remembrance, there is even less comprehension. What can they possibly imagine when they are exhorted to ‘remember’? How can they - and we - find meaning and value in what seems an important but unreal and backward-looking event?
Only, I think, if we stop looking ‘outwards’ and ‘backwards’ and start looking nearer home for the seeds and roots of war. For a start, there’s the ongoing civil conflict over the Brexit vote - seen by many young people as a complete reversal of what people fought for in two world wars. Here in the English Home Counties, there may not be war with bullets or bombs but there’s no shortage of violence - not least the knife-crime epidemic so close to us in London. Its causes are complex - family breakdown, youth unemployment, funding cuts in youth and police services, mental health issues, racial tension… the list goes on. We can all vote both locally and nationally for policies that we believe build rather than diminish community.
Political solutions apart, there is one resource available to each of us to work against conflict. It is our use of language. I thought of that this week as I watched news from another conflicted arena - the presidential press conference after the mid-term elections in the U.S. At first, the president, who was claiming ‘very close to a complete victory’ had his time to threaten a ‘warlike’ response if the Democrats launch investigations against him.
Then the Bishop’s son asked his question. Up stood Jon Snow, longest presenter of the UK’s Channel 4 news and son of the former Bishop of Whitby. He asked the President about the future. First, he presented the facts about a campaign in which there has been ‘division and hostility’. He offered a reminder that there has been ‘quite a lot of abuse and violence and…people have died’. Then he politely sought the President’s opinion: ‘Is there any way that you think the temperature could be lowered?’ he asked. He went on to envisage a different world, to make some suggestions. ‘Perhaps peace could break out with the media. Perhaps your bi-partisan relationships across the house and the senate may now produce some change.’ And he concluded with a question: ‘Or are we going to have more of the same?’
The President responded quickly. He proclaimed his desire for ‘unity, peace and love’. And then he went on to blame the media for not ‘covering me fairly’! He had clearly not discerned the spirit of the question!
But Jon Snow’s approach reminded me of my belief that identifying the facts, seeking other people’s opinions and painting a picture of a better future can still change things. Asking myself and other people open questions which present choices is a vital route to non-violence. This approach may demand a different sort of self-discipline and courage from that of the military men and women we will remember this weekend. If our fragile freedoms are to be protected, it is no less needed.