Every year, as Remembrance Day rolls around and the two minute silence draws closer, I am reminded of a line from the Manic Street Preachers song Fragments, which speaks of “two minutes silence in a century of screams”.
I must admit that I have never really understood the song as a whole, but that line has always stayed with me. We have been observing the two minute silence as an act of remembrance since 1919, and yet we have seen war upon war fill the intervening near-century with more screams than we can possibly comprehend.
Wars of liberation in Eastern Europe, civil war in Spain, another global war, purge and famine in Russian, wars of independence across Africa, revolution in Cuba, wars involving big political powers in Vietnam and the Falklands, massacres in Bosnia and Rwanda, sustained sectarian violence in Ireland, the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, the Arab Spring, the rise of IS…and that’s just the edited highlights.
“Two minutes silence in a century of screams” is not enough. Remembering is not enough if it changes nothing.
If I can speak more personally and specifically for a moment, that lyric became particularly significant for me when I used it as part of the stimulus for a play I devised about the Bosnian War. The play was intended as an act of remembrance and a challenge to the idea that we can remember without acting, and was born out of the fact that Bosnia has been on my heart for many years now.
In fact Bosnia has been in my thoughts more than ever in the past few months. July marked twenty years since the massacre of nearly eight thousand men and boys at Srebrenica, as well as bringing the revelation that the Western powers knew an attack on the safe haven was on the cards but allowed and even aided it as they thought it was a price worth paying for peace. And this month marks twenty years since the Dayton agreement brought an end to the fighting by dividing the country into a two state nation with a tripartite government, and brings a referendum which threatens to undermine the fragile peace with increasingly looks like nothing more than a prolonged ceasefire.
Our two minutes of silence didn’t help the people of Bosnia when men were being flung into mass graves and women were being raped and children were being displaced in their thousands. Neither has it helped the people of Bosnia as they have struggled to heal and rebuild in a country where many feel like the genocide has succeeded and many others believe that a genocide never took place.
In just the same way, it isn’t helping the men and women and children facing execution for their beliefs and drowning in the Mediterranean and living in makeshift camps right now.
What is helping is the people who are breaking the silence to make their voices heard. The young people of Sarajevo who organised a beauty pageant in the midst of a besieged city to reclaim some sense of normality and draw attention to their city. The men and women on all sides of the conflict who have challenged the narrative of hate to write new stories of hope. The ordinary people telling their governments that refugees are welcome here…
All this reminds me of another line, this time from Benjamin Zephaniah’s poem The One Minutes of Silence, which contemplates the memorial pause held after racist murders and challenges us with the thought that “we have come to dis because too many people are staying silent”.
I’m not proposing that next year we all start screaming during the two minute silence as an act of protest. There is something very profound in that shared act of remembrance, and it means too much to too many people to trash it so crudely.
What I am suggesting is that silence and remembrance should be the beginning and not the end of the conversation. A beat in which we pull back our focus and really look at the world so that we can lift our voices against the injustice and hatred we see. A pause in which we can feel the sadness and the anger that we need to inspire us and transform them into the purpose and and the hope that we need to sustain us. A moment in which we connect with the heart of God for his world and commit to bringing in his kingdom of peace.
That doesn’t have to come once a year. It’s probably best that it doesn’t.