By Mark Edington
The first days of fall in Vienna brought with them the memory of summer, with temperatures rising into the 80s under brilliant, slanted sunlight. Exploring the city around the edges of a conference I recently attended there, it was easy to be caught up in the throbs of government, finance, education, and culture moving together to a stately tempo in that great city, blending the formality of Austria’s manneristic past with Vienna’s appetite for combining cultures, visions, and ideas.
What is singularly lacking, even if you look for it (as I did), is any evident expression of remembrance that would tell you the significance of this year, and this season, in Austria — the centenary of the end of World War I, the fuse of which was lit by decisions made in this city by leaders who moved and worked in rooms now visited by tourists.
Nor is there any seeming memory of the layers of tragedy that followed from those decisions. The punitive and unsustainable peace constructed at the close of that war ended the hostilities but deepened old wounds and spurred a new eagerness for blame and retribution — the force of which landed on those easily identifiable as “others” within — Jews, Romas, gay people, pacifists, anyone with a suspiciously independent conscience.
The connection of these events was once a source of urgency; it now seems forgotten. An earlier generation, not only in Austria but throughout Europe — and in our country as well — saw in them a chain of causation, linking several things: the stones of human error and folly that paved the road to the deaths of millions in a thoughtless reflex of tribal hatred and a war between developed, advanced states; the creation of an international order from the ashes of Europe to bind the war-making capabilities and tendencies of even the most educated and advanced peoples; and the determination of the United States to act in its self-interest by assuring the creation and vitality of institutions that would secure these gains.
And yet, we forget. In the last days of summer, the British prime minister came to Austria to negotiate her nation’s withdrawal from the project of European integration; and in the first days of fall, the president of the United States stood before the General Assembly of the United Nations and set the ideas of patriotism and globalism as entrenched opponents.
Someone needs to tell Disney World that it’s not a small world after all. But it is, increasingly, a small-minded one.
If you look for them, you can find the efforts made by generations past to speak to us about the importance of remembering these things. They are the carefully written honor rolls of those who fell, once kept by towns and churches and now gathering dust in attics and closets. They are the statues in forgotten squares, inscribed “Lest We Forget.”
They are the lines of poetry written by Alan Seeger as a warning to his country before perishing as a volunteer for France in the Battle of the Somme:
You have the grit and the guts, I know;
You are ready to answer blow for blow
You are virile, combative, stubborn, hard,
But your honor ends with your own back-yard;
Each man intent on his private goal,
You have no feeling for the whole;
What singly none would tolerate
You let unpunished hit the state,
Unmindful that each man must share
The stain he lets his country wear,
And (what no traveller ignores)
That her good name is often yours.
They are the elegant proportions of the Memorial Church in Harvard Yard, built in the midst of the Depression — and in the face of protest and ridicule— to remind those who had the privilege of graduating from there of the sacrifices made by those who might have, and did not.
And they are the nearly 70,000 tiny bronze stolpersteins — stumbling stones — marking, in the sidewalks of 22 countries throughout Europe, the last known place a victim of the Holocaust lived or worked as a free person before being taken by those whose ideology somehow overcame their humanity.
Are we at all willing to listen to these voices? Can we even hear them anymore?
It happens that the date upon which the catastrophe of World War I finally ended — on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month in 1918 — coincides for us this year with the 25th Sunday after Pentecost. Many of us — I include myself in this — are wary, even vigilantly opposed, to the conflation of national observances and the life of the Church. We have had our battles over flags carried in procession or the singing of the national anthem in the context of worship.
But this occasion demands our attention and our teaching. The Church is, in its essence, a community of memory. When we gather around the eucharistic table we are, among other claims, making an argument that an act of memory has the power to shape the future, to direct it in ways God intends.
We live in the midst of a season of forgetting, a time when the discipline of memory seems too troublesome, too unfashionable, too anachronistic in a time seduced by the new. We live in the moment when the culture teaches that our past seems somehow irrelevant to our future.
It is hardly surprising, then, that we are stumbling blindly through darkened alleys we have walked down before — with tragic, and utterly avoidable, results.
We in the Church are not entirely innocent of this. Anxious to show ourselves intelligible to the culture around us, we pursue innovation and reinvention often for their own sakes. We are tempted by the zeitgeist that demands everything be reinvented and redesigned, another way of telling ourselves the story of our precious uniqueness.
The irony is that it is exactly by imagining that the past has nothing to teach us, that we are uniquely new people in uniquely new circumstances, that we show ourselves lacking in the humility to learn from a past willing to teach us. When we point to all that separates us from those who believed such dehumanizing ideas and carried them out with such ancient technology, we easily overlook all of the frailty, the self-regard, and the capacity for folly that unites us to them.
And that, too, is folly. Folly of the same sort that brought nations to conclude that slighted honor was more important than the blessing of peace, folly that credits the lie that race or ethnicity can be mapped onto character.
It is not necessary, of course, that we revisit the same path of error that began to unfold a century ago. It is not our fate, but instead our choice, to be.
To leave the season of forgetting and awaken to our circumstances will take intention and purpose. It takes engaging in the discipline of memory, and taking part in the institutions that devote themselves to shaping the future by transmitting the lessons of the past. It takes leaders who imagine that the past has something to teach them, and are unafraid to disclose their willingness to learn.
For us, it will not mean glorifying a military victory or a national cause pursued in war on a notable anniversary. Instead, it will mean reminding ourselves of the desperate and dangerous consequences that come from the fall into forgetting — and of the importance of sustaining and strengthening institutions that, like the Church, keep alive the discipline of memory to shape the possibility of the future. And it will happen on a day on which one of the appointed psalms reminds us, “Put not your trust in rulers, nor in any child of earth, / for there is no help in them.”
Whether we can summon the will to do this — whether we, in and beyond the Church, can hear in the rise of anti-Semitism and the clamors of nationalism the toxin of the past ringing through to our time — will determine how another generation’s history will someday remember us.
The Rev. Mark Edington is bishop-elect of the Convocation of Episcopal Churches in Europe. He is currently rector of rector of St. John’s Church in Newtonville, Massachusetts, and director of Amherst College Press.