The only thing we learn from history is that we learn nothing from history.
This was the damning assessment of Hegel, the German philosopher who died in 1831. Our first reaction is that he was talking a load of rubbish. Experience is one of life’s best teachers. When things don’t work out, we learn from our mistakes. One of the reasons history is so valuable is that it gives us perspective. It helps us to see what worked and what didn’t. We learn from the experience of others.
Patrick Cockburn has written a book about current conflict in the Middle East. At the moment, he says there are eight different wars in progress. One of them in Syria has resulted in 4.8 million people fleeing the country and a further 6.6 million people being displaced within it. Western governments, including our own, have recently used military force in Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya and Syria. While our interventions may have helped some people, it certainly has not reduced the conflict and instability across the region. On the contrary, it seems to have inflamed it.
If humans learn from history this makes no sense. Our country has been deeply involved in the Middle East for more than a century. Our current contribution is certainly not leading to peace and may well be making things worse. So maybe Hegel was right after all. The only thing we learn from history is that we learn nothing from history.
The persistence of conflict in the Middle East can prompt two quite different reactions - the sledgehammer and the ostrich.
The sledgehammer: we imagine that if a government had the courage to tackle Assad or ISIS full on, by all out bombing or assassination, it would change everything.
The ostrich: we despair of ever finding a solution, so we close our eyes and ears, and pretend the problem isn’t there.
Neither the sledgehammer nor the ostrich will work. Neither will prevent our generation repeating the mistakes of the past.
A better approach is to remember. During November, during the season or Remembrance, we create space to reflect on history. In particular we think about our country’s involvement in the wars of the last century. The particular focus, is those who have died in the armed services. As our nation gathers at war memorials we face a stark reminder of the cost of war. When we see the names of all the young men, cut down in their prime, there is no room for glorification of conflict, for glib patriotism or for cheap triumphalism.
As we remember it warns us to be wary of the snake-oil salesman who promise simple solutions. As we remember, we are challenged by those who refused to treat it as someone else’s problem, and instead gave their lives to try and make a better world. As we remember we are forced to face the depths of human depravity and the limits of human power to make things better.
And so ultimately we are reminded that we need God. In one of the Psalms, Asaph, describes the ups and downs his country lived through. At the lowest point he says:
They remembered that God was their rock,
that God was their Redeemer. (Psalm 78:35 )
Remembrance Sunday humbles us. It is humbling to remember the sacrifices made for us. It is humbling to realise how little we have learnt from history. It is humbling to realise that the greed and selfishness, the fear and insecurity there is in all of us, is what, on a big scale, leads to war.
And to be humble is a good thing. For the Lord The Lord sustains the humble but casts the wicked to the ground. (Psalm 147:6 ) When we remember in humility, we become channels that God can use to make things better.
To see other messages from Neil, click on the appropriate month in the table below.
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