THE BLOG

Death, Glory and Honour: What Place Religion in Public Remembrance?

04/11/2014 17:08 GMT | Updated 03/01/2015 10:59 GMT

In the dry moat of the Tower of London a total of 888,246 ceramic poppies make up the dramatic and profoundly moving Remembrance installation, Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red. There is one poppy for every British and Commonwealth fatality suffered during the First World War, a conflict which sees its unhappy centenary this year. Taken together the poppies stain the moat in a great wash of blood red; looked at individually, they are each somebody's son, young men who didn't so much as give their lives as have them ripped away from them.

Behind each poppy is a story of loss; perhaps heroic, or noble, or mundane, or accidental, or just plain absurd; but certainly loss.

Absent from the installation is any religious symbolism. People are free to look at the poppies and reflect on their meaning without the imposition of any particular set of beliefs. (Some Christians might consider that the symbolism of the poppies could be seen to resonate with the doctrine of Christ's blood being sacrificed for the redemption of mankind, but they must surely understand that it is not the purpose of the design to promote this view, even if they wish to meditate on it themselves.) The absence of religious symbolism is a characteristic that the poppies share with the permanent memorial to the country's war-dead: the Cenotaph. The memorial, which forms the focus of the annual Remembrance day commemoration, was designed to be secular in recognition of the religious diversity of the fallen.

This is not the case with other war memorials. Just across the road from the Tower of London stands an imposing construction that was built to honour the twelve thousand members of the merchant navy who died in the First World War and 'who have no grave but the sea.' The commemorative inscription at the top of the memorial begins, 'To the glory of God.' It is a phrase that is repeated in memorial services and can be found on village war memorials throughout the land. But what does it mean?

In what sense could God have been glorified as a result of the First World War? Was he on the side of the British and her allies? Is that why we won, and is that what glorified him? Didn't the Germans pray to the same God? Trying to answer all those conflicting prayers must have been very confusing; perhaps that's why it went on for so long - God couldn't decide who to hand the victory to. Or perhaps he just wanted more casualties: the more death, the more glory.

Anyone who has read the Bible to any depth knows that two of God's favourite things are warfare and being glorified. He shows how strong and powerful he is by doing a lot of fighting, whether it's slaughtering the enemies of the Israelites, or slaughtering the Israelites themselves (some people only understand one way of talking), or finally defeating Satan in the comedy spiritual battles of the book of Revelation. God gets through a lot of warfare and, somehow, that brings him glory which, for unexplained reasons, pleases him.

To give him his due, in his heyday the God of the Bible was a master Ethnic Cleanser; he could defeat any army, any time, if he chose to. He was nothing if not thorough. One of the most chilling encounters with Warrior-God is recorded in the book of Numbers where the tribes of Israel are instructed by the Lord, through Moses, to fight against the Midianites. Unsurprisingly, they win an emphatic victory and 'kill every man.' This, however, is not enough for their insatiable General-in-the-Sky who further instructs them to, 'kill all the boys. And kill every woman who has slept with a man, but save for yourselves every girl who has never slept with a man.' (Numbers 31: 17-18, NIV). In Christian theology this is seen as glorifying God since, at its heart, it involves an act of obedience to his commands. In the real world, it's seen as a war crime.

'To the Glory of God' is a redundant, meaningless phrase that has no place in the public remembrance of war. If individuals want to interpret human tragedy in that way then it's up to them, but for many of us it is painful enough to know that so many lost their brief lives in the terrifying chaos of war, without having to imagine that such waste brought glory to a needy, narcissistic Divinity. We're better off without that pretence. God can leave us in peace and take his warmongering and the glory it supposedly brings him elsewhere. We have enough poppies already.

Paul Beaumont's debut novel A Brief Eternity was nominated for the Dundee International Book Prize and is available on Amazon and other retailers.