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  • Mike and Helen

But I was here first...

The paradox of celebrating the armistice and praying for peace while two serious wars are raging offers a challenge to thoughtful people. What exactly are we celebrating this weekend? What exactly are we hoping for and committing ourselves to as, in this country at least, people wear their poppies and gather in remembrance in the centre of towns and villages. And perhaps the most significant question for all of us is, ‘What story are we telling ourselves about the previous wars and particularly about the various contemporary conflicts in the world?’

In a recent Church Times article, Paul Vallely suggested that our attitude to various conflicts depends on where we start. In the Middle East, do we start with the history of the Jews or do we go back before then?

Jews would claim that they were the original inhabitants of the land. The claim is based on 3000 years of settlement. But the biblical Canaanites might protest that they were there first and in some cases the victims of ethnic cleansing. The Arabs would lay claim to 2000 years of living on the land and their distant desert cousins for ages before that. Today opinions about the cold-blooded Hamas murders of Jewish young people on the one hand, and the continuing ferocious attacks by the Israeli Defence Force on the inhabitants of Gaza on the other, depend to some extent, on what story we are telling ourselves and where it starts.

Where we end up depends on where we start in discussing the conflict in Ukraine. Is it a part of mother Russia or a relatively new but now sovereign state? The question of where you start is at the heart of struggles between indigenous peoples and colonisers everywhere, as the recent Australian Indigenous Voice referendum has again shown. The ‘I was here first’ argument seems to have failed to enshrine in the constitution a right to voice in parliament for what we have long called aboriginal peoples.

All of this is not only true of territorial and political struggles. Being here first is not just something children quarrel about in the playground. It is often true in adult social groups where people who were ‘here first’ take or are given power and deference which is not given to those with less history in the group.

Whenever we need to resolve a conflict, either between children or adults, it can be useful to ask each of the parties where we start our stories. So too when we give our accounts of ourselves to others – or even perhaps just to ourselves. Our edited narratives tend to begin in places which throw the best light on ourselves and are usually attempts to offer some sort of justification either for our behaviour or our situation in life.

In the process of conflict resolution, two things are important. The first is to ask ourselves and others where we/they choose to start the story we are telling. The second is to be willing to change it. To ‘re-member’ is in some way to reconstrue. If we can do that on this Armistice Day we shall have done something worthwhile.

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