As a trumpet playing member of various community music groups, I play at a lot of Remembrance Day ceremonies.
Wikipedia reminds us that Remembrance Day (also known as Poppy Day or Armistice Day) is a memorial day observed in Commonwealth countries since the end of World War I to remember the members of their armed forces who have died in the line of duty. This day, or alternative dates, are also recognized as special days for war remembrances in many non-Commonwealth countries.) In my experience, all of the ceremonies I have attended (and I always attend because I do not forget) are thoroughly soaked with the christian message of Jesus and god and a heavenly afterlife (hellfire and damnation are for another day, I guess). Having performed at two such ceremonies today, for example, I watched several hindu and muslim veterans of the Canadian Armed Forces have to endure the christian hymns and the christian prayers and the repeated calls to the christian faith by a christian minister in uniform, as if service to these christian goals was the central feature of why all people – even those who do not share any version of the christian faith – served and sacrificed in the various wars, police actions, conflicts, and United Nations peace keeping missions Canada had asked these folk to undertake on its behalf.
Was I mostly alone in seeing the gross unfairness of imposing this particular religious ownership of the Remembrance Day tribute? Apparently so. Was I mostly alone in having visited several of the war cemeteries of fallen Canadian soldiers overseas and noted the small but significant number of headstones marked with the Star of David and the Crescent? Apparently so. Was I mostly alone in knowing service men and women who held no commitment or allegiance to any religious beliefs? Apparently so. But then, we Canadians are a very tolerant bunch. It’s difficult to imagine that this forgetfulness could be the case… in spite of the presence of non christian uniformed people, but if not so forgetful then why is there a general amnesia about properly honouring and respecting these non christians who had equally served and sacrificed?
Can a christian Remembrance Day ceremony pay proper respect to all those who deserve equal and fair treatment?
I don’t think so. I think the insertion of religious overtones undermines exactly what Remembrance Day represents and acts contrary to intention that brought about the need for it: to remember why what was won is so important, lest we forget the cost of this forgetfulness.
I think Remembrance Day is purely a secular event allowed by the faitheists and religious apologists of all stripes among us to be hijacked and abused to serve a different purpose, a very specific religious master, namely, christianity. (Is there a public tradition and/or ceremony not stolen by the christians and claimed for its own? None come to mind.) This hijacking, this theft of the meaning behind this event to remember, is a travesty, a way to disrespect and dishonour what these men and women have done in defense of the very values they held to be worth fighting and dying for:
Let’s take just a moment and understand what this term properly means unencumbered by what the religious have warped it to mean:
From Wikipedia we get a pretty good idea: namely, from Latin saecularis meaning “worldly” or “temporal” that describes the state of being separate from religion, or not being exclusively allied to any particular religion.
The religious attempt to have this term mean something quite different, that anything that applies to anti-religious sentiment defines secularism, but this isn’t true. It’s another hijacking, another theft in the service of a religious goal. Secular values refer to values that are independent of any religious authority. This is why the Wikipedia entry clearly shows that modern usage means exactly this (go check it yourself and then wonder why the religious are so motivated and determined for it to be considered a pejorative rather than unifying term).
A secular value means its authority is a bottom-up one, a value that is owned first by each and every individual, which is then considered common to all, and commonly upheld in the public domain, meaning those areas of governance and administration that serve the entire public and not simply some privileged part of it, public institutions such as defence, foreign policy, education, law, etc.. Think of the value of ‘equality’, for example; its authority does not come from somewhere else, is not bestowed upon us by a sovereign or granted by some social oligarch; the authority for this value comes from each of us based on the desire for justice, equity, and fairness in public dealings. This creates a demonstrable social benefit. The value is not granted power by nor dependent on some other authority; it is a value upheld by all of us and implemented by all of us in our daily lives. We expect to be treated fairly, with reasonable consideration shown for our equivalent status with other citizens. The principle (although not always in practice) is for all have equal access to legal representation, equal access to education, equal access to health care, equal consideration of merit, and so on. It is a value we hold in common to each other and not based on some other authority granting equality here but not there, for these folk but not those, to privilege this group but not that. So is the value, for example, of religious freedom, one owned by each and every individual which is common to all. Its authority does not rest with some court, nor is it defined only by some legislation; it rests within each of us and we reasonably expect to exercise this right in our private lives. As strange as this will sound to the ears of the religiously confused, religious freedom – like equality – is a SECULAR values independent of any other authority that attempts to co-opt it in its name.
So when I talk about a secular values, what I’m referring to is a set of values held in common and possessed by each individual… an authority over and above any other value system in the public domain that attempts to makes these values subservient to its authority. Secular values are not a top-down affair; their authority comes from the bottom up and belongs to each and every citizen. Canadian values are secular values because they are not granted by some authority figure like a king or a pope or judge to empower them; our political system itself is legitimate only because it is based on authority resting with each of us… each of us who then gives consent (through voting) by this inherent authority we individually own to be governed, to understand that legislation is passed by representation in OUR name, that laws are made in OUR name, internal governance made in OUR name, fund public education, implement foreign policy, maintain defence, upgrade health care, invest in research and development in OUR name. The authority for all of this comes from each of us, the citizen who owns the very political authority that legitimizes governance and administration of the public domain.
To be absolutely clear, all western liberal democracies are secular not because they are anti-religious per se but because they draws their authority for legitimacy to act in the public domain only from the sum of authority from each citizen they represent. This is why we call it representative government. Government IS us. That is its only legitimate authority: the consent of the governed.
I hope it’s clear that secular means individual authority, and it’s a fundamental pillar to our way of liberal democracy. It is based on the very reasonable rule of reciprocity – what the religious like to co-opt and pretend to own under such a name as the Golden Rule, for example – that the rights and freedoms I want to enjoy places on me the burden that you, too, can enjoy the same rights and freedoms I am willing to grant to myself. Where my rights and freedoms end is where they infringe on the same rights and freedoms held by you. This method of legitimate governance by the consent of the governed – the source of its authority resting in each individual – works to produce peaceful, prosperous, and civil societies based on rights and freedoms owned by all, expressed by all, and maintained by all. And when an infringement does occur, (I can only speak of my Canadian perspective) at home or abroad, many of us who voluntarily join the military and police ranks do so because we wish to uphold this secular value of fairness and equality based on individual authority.
Don’t take my word for it, of course; go talk to those in these uniforms and ask them why they serve. This prime motivator of an important secular value – of standing up for those who cannot stand up for themselves – becomes very clear very quickly. Most of us do not aspire to become bullies not agents of a bullying authority (although this danger is always present with power).
But I claim that secular value of protecting and sacrificing for this way of life, when individual authority is endangered by bullies, is what we intend to respect when it comes to the reason to participate in Remembrance Day ceremonies; we just forget to honour this prime motivator, this prime secular value, during all the praying and singing of hymns foisted on us by those who assume values worth having must come from some god.
For those not familiar with the spontaneity of Canadians in regard to honouring their military, a quick word to the wise: because our founding peoples were a triad of warring and shifting allegiances between French, English, and First Nations, we’ve had a difficult time coming to the modern era of tolerance and respect for all within a single national framework, with relatively cohesive national policies and practices that do not intend to make victims out of one of these three groups. It’s always a work in progress, combined with a long history of terrible injustices, bumbling governance, and brutal arrogance, yet through it all we have come a very long way to achieve to various degrees a remarkable and vibrant multi-cultural country that is peaceful, prosperous, and dedicated in practice to secular values.( Oh, and we play a lot of hockey, too.)
Why is this important to understand? Well, it’s important because most Canadians hyphenate our identities to a similarly remarkable degree. (Homogenous we aren’t.) This matters when we consider the following:
A Canadian soldier is killed in, let’s say, Afghanistan. At the main airbase, all the troops are assembled for what’s called a ramp ceremony where there is an official recognition of a fallen comrade being sent home by plane. Upon arrival, the plane’s ramp is lowered to an official reception by the family, and usually in some combination the highest ranking officer available i s present, sometimes like the Chief of Defence Staff, the Minister or Deputy Minister of Defense, the Prime Minister, the Governor General and of course the Base Commander and the highest ranking unit officer of the branch of the service of the killed soldier. Each soldier matters, you see, and this shows the family on hand that their son’s or daughter’s sacrifice is recognized on behalf of the public. The public is kept away during this private ramp ceremony while the soldier’s flag-draped coffin is moved from the plane into a waiting hearse for transportation to the country’s chief coroner in a city two hours away by car. The family accompanies the coffin’s journey by limousine as does the military guard in a convoy of black unmarked vehicles.
Something really interesting happens at this point. All along the route, the convoy begins to encounter Canadians who are aware a soldier is coming home for one last time, who take a moment to stand along the multi-lane highway waiting for this string of black vehicles to pass by. They come out of schools and businesses, stop their cars, get off buses, stand on overpasses, raise some personal flag or drape this national symbol over the side of an overpass. Officers of other serving branches come to the highway, turn on their emergency lights: national, provincial, municipal police cars, ambulances, fire trucks, silent flashing sentinels. Sometimes small signs with heartfelt messages will displayed, and all done spontaneously for the members of the grieving family to see and perhaps understand that their grief is recognized and perhaps shared in some small but meaningful way while on their terrible journey. We care, and we want to show our respect for their loss, honour the sacrifice of a real person, one of us, made in OUR name.
In the nation’s capital at the end of the official Remembrance Day ceremony, and in symbolic sympathy throughout this huge and diverse land at local cenotaphs and small monuments to the war dead, Canadians do another peculiar thing: we take off the poppies we have been wearing to show that we remember their sacrifice in the weeks prior to the official day of remembrance, and lay them on the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier… individually… amounting one by one until by their tens of thousands they make a blanket of tiny little flowers blood red with black centers.
None of this is organized. None of these symbols is religious. The intention is purely secular, purely individual, meant to show by each participant that this soldier is one of us, one of OURS. The poppy of remembrance belongs to each and every one of us, a common remembrance owned not by the state, not bestowed on us from some divinity, not sanctified by anything other than the value we hold in trust for the next generation, purchased individually by donation to a veteran, to demonstrate an individual debt owed to those individuals who came before and who protected our individual authority it from being usurped by force of arms. Remembrance Day represents OUR sacrifice in defence of OUR authority that empowers OUR secular rights and freedoms.
All people, religious and non religious alike, need to be reminded why their secular values are worth dying for. A good start would be to get religion out of Remembrance Day altogether…. lest we forget.