According to a BBC news report two Japanese government ministers and dozens of lawmakers recently visited the Yasukuni shrine on the anniversary of Japan’s surrender in World War II. The shrine is a testimony to Japan’s past militarism under a ‘divine emperor’ including the colonisation of the Korean peninsula and the invasion of China. It commemorates Japan’s war dead but also honours 14 convicted war criminals from World War II. Today its history museum continues to peddle a version of World War II history that either ignores or denies the crimes committed by Japan in Korea and China. Visits to the shrine by lawmakers anger and offend Japan’s neighbours.
The past holding the future captive – does this sound familiar? Northern Ireland’s problems with commemoration of those who died in conflicts are of course not unique. Think of recent commemorations of ‘volunteers’ – depending on which side we are on, one person’s brave ‘volunteer’ is another’s terrorist. Both sides of our community have their own versions of reality in which they have tried to airbrush historical facts of the past in order to justify that past. Nonetheless we need to recognise the right of others to commemorate and to hold to perspectives with which we disagree. And where there is disagreement with other perspectives both sides must be open to engaging in dialogue about them. If we could do this there would be the possibility of rising above divided memories.
But how might we transcend them? Can Christians whose primary allegiance should be to God’s kingdom provide a model of how to commemorate? Our last PS… gave an example of recognising a common humanity in the actions of the ‘other’. And writing some years ago in the Presbyterian Herald about annual commemorations of events in 1690 Rev John Dunlop commented ‘We appear to be so obsessed with our own anxieties that we cannot understand with compassion the traumatic experiences of the other people with whom we share this Island…….Can you love your neighbour and at the same time celebrate the anniversary of his defeat?’
Jesus said “My kingdom is not of this world” and all who profess to follow Him, of whatever denominational background, must be counter-cultural. How can we be counter-cultural Christians in this part of Ireland where sub-cultural histories on both sides are idolised? Only, it seems to me, by seeking to become Christ-like. Which means that our counter-culture must be characterized by love and self-sacrifice. The Christian divine emperor is One that turned the concept of empire on its head by entering into human life and giving up His life for his enemies.
We must therefore live lives in the midst of ‘enemies’, who may come to like us or may turn on us. Lives in which we build but don’t grieve too hard when our buildings are knocked down. Lives lived under one flag but where we could promote the values of that flag while living under another flag. Lives in which we pray for the Shalom of those around us. Not primarily so that they’ll like us and accept us – though that might occasionally happen, but because we are patiently awaiting and praying for the action of a Sovereign Lord to bring about justice on our behalf (Luke 18 v 1-8). When Jesus returns will he find faith on earth? Or will we just be paying lip service to His challenge and be resorting to our own misguided efforts to assert the truth of our particular perspective on history?
Noel McCune is Chair of the Board of Contemporary Christianity and previously worked as a Consultant Psychiatrist in the NHS.