A single light shining in a dark place

(December 24, 2020)

My favourite part of Christmas Eve church services in different places over the years was always singing Silent Night by candlelight.

There are many variations, of course, but it’s emotionally powerful to see a single candle, burning in the darkened room, and then to watch its light spreading out as all the other candles are lit from it. One by one, the room brightens into (literally) a blaze of light, as the song ends.

I don’t know why singing that carol and candle lighting has become such a western Christmas Eve tradition over the years — its words by Father Joseph Mohr, its simple melody composed by Franz Gruber, and first performed in rural Austria in 1818.

But the image of light overcoming darkness — even a single light — is rooted deep in ancestral memory. Humans have always been afraid of the dark. With eyes adapted to daylight, we are completely vulnerable to predators that see well when we can’t. So the light of a fire kept them at bay, and kept us safe and warm in the dark.

These symbols of light and warmth are most powerful in the northern hemisphere, as we pass the winter solstice on Dec. 21, the longest night of the year. It may not always be the coldest night, but the long darkness can certainly make it feel that way.

Close to the equator, there is little difference between night and day, all year long. But as you move farther north, to the latitudes where most of the people of Europe lived, the cultures there combined the winter solstice with the pagan feast of Yule (and no doubt a few others), the Roman festival of Saturnalia, and finally added the Christian celebration of Christmas.

Long before what we would recognize as math (or even geometry) in more southern climes, people measured and marked the longest night, the furthest distance away from the warmth and light of spring. The candle — or fire — lit at the winter solstice was a reminder that the sun would return, leading people toward the longest day and the first fruits of spring planting.

The famous passage grave in Newgrange I once visited — a megalithic mound built on an Irish hillside 5,300 years ago — precisely angled the entrance to illuminate the central burial chamber as dawn struck on the winter solstice. Similarly, 1,000 years later, the stone pillars at Stonehenge were arranged to have the light strike them at a unique angle at sundown, on the same day.

The image of a single light shining in a dark place transcends the religious and cultural settings in which it is found. “Light One Candle” was a powerful idea long before Peter, Paul and Mary first performed their hit song, because its symbolism extends beyond the duality of light and dark. Whether it is the lights of the menorah, celebrating the miracle of Hanukkah, the celebrations of Diwali lanterns lit for Chinese New Year or any of the local (or family) traditions involving fire and light, all make their defiant contrast against some background of darkness.

Whoever first said, “It is better to light a candle than to curse the darkness” understood the emotional relationship between light and hope. All it takes is that one first candle to defeat the darkness, no matter how large or strong it seems to be.

As that candlelight service always reminds me on Christmas Eve, we receive the flame from our neighbour to light our own candle. It is our choice to dip the unlit candle to the flame, knowing that when we do it, nothing will ever be the same again, as we then become light-bearers ourselves.

By our choice, and the choices of others around us, it spreads from that one flickering flame to light the whole room — and, once outside those walls, into the world around us and across the generations.

One of the individual lights that went out in 2020 was U.S. congressman John Lewis. Hero of the civil rights movement, because of his persistence in working for justice and equality right to the end, he set an example of hope that will continue to spread and grow.

Throughout his 2017 book, Across that Bridge: A Vision for Change and the Face of America, Lewis drew on that image of a single light in the midst of darkness. Bringing it all home, the last page began:

“You are a light. You are the light. Never let anyone — any person or any force — dampen, dim, or diminish your light.”

Whatever the darkness, Lewis’s words remind us that what is good, in ourselves and in others, is the fuel we need to keep that light burning.

This Christmas Eve, in a world darkened by pandemic, may we find ways to share with each other the light we all need.

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Pass torch to younger hands

(November 10, 2020)

“In Flanders Fields” is woven into the framework of my memories of Remembrance Day ceremonies. For years I have wondered why that poem stands out more than others I have read from the Great War.

It could be somewhat personal: I recall the plaque identifying the McCrae family pew in St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church in Guelph, and John McCrae’s name etched into the Memorial Wall at the University of Toronto, close to the arch I passed through many times.

I was brought to think of that poem again this year, as I listened to a young girl bravely recite it, supported by her mother in dress uniform and medals, as part of a service in Stony Mountain intended to be streamed on this strangest of all Remembrance Days.

There is a simple plaque on the cenotaph in Stony Mountain, noting that it contributed the most volunteers, per capita, of any community in the British Commonwealth, to service in the Second World War. Every year, their intergenerational Remembrance Day service has been packed to capacity by their descendants.

One line from that poem caught my attention, this time: “To you, from failing hands we throw the torch…” Taking a pause from treating (as best he could) the wounded and dying from the unending horrors of trench warfare on the western front, McCrae knew his generation was failing the test it had been given at the start of a new century. In a shattered world in which there were many victims but no victors, those who survived knew the reality of that failure, too.

Mere months after the armistice ending the First World War, even before the Treaty of Versailles was signed in 1919, people started preparing for the next war. Pandemic disease (the Spanish flu) followed world war. Later, the global economy fell into the Great Depression. To desperate people, the promise of strong leadership led them to support totalitarianism and fascism.

But at least, on the Allied side, there was victory in 1945. Seventy-five years ago, we won. There was no failure, this time. In the surge of triumphant emotion, the United Nations was then set up, riding that wave of victory into a better future. We had caught that torch, held it high, and let the dead finally rest in peace, in Flanders fields and elsewhere.

Believing this was to be some final victory, however, turned out to be a serious mistake. The generation that caught McCrae’s torch and fought through everything to win in 1945 did not, in turn, throw the torch to the next generation. They (and their children, the baby boomers) did not lay the necessary foundation for future generations. Instead, deciding on their own reward for sacrifices made and services rendered, they have built a world only they themselves are able to enjoy.

These are harsh words, aimed as much at myself as anyone over the age of 50 who reads this. But they are true.

In some ways, the people of Germany and Japan have done a better job — there was no triumph for them in 1945, just a shattered society that (literally) had to be rebuilt from the ground up. That generation could see its failures all around, every day, and so worked hard to make amends to the next generation.

Certainly, in reunited Germany, that sense of loss, guilt and determination is palpable — inescapably woven into the fabric of its society, because everyone remembers, still, the high cost of failure.

Here in North America, we seem to have forgotten victory costs almost as much as defeat. The gains of a post-war world have steadily eroded since 1945. We now live in a society that seems more polarized and less tolerant every day. The gap between the obscenely rich and the rest of us widens.

More troubling, that sense of voluntary service to others has faded with time. (Think of the community service groups that have withered and died, as the Royal Canadian Legion struggles to survive.) Members of that wartime generation set an example of service, without communicating clearly to the next generation why they felt so compelled to volunteer.

They held on to the torch, and my generation did not demand it. Instead, we baby boomers have amused ourselves and each other into the mess we are all facing today. Twenty years into the next century, our own world war has been against the planet, not each other. Now, our own pandemic is here, too.

In the U.S. between 1933 and 1939, the New Deal responded to the Great Depression with programs, public work projects, financial reforms, and regulations.

The world, not just the U.S., needs a global New Deal — a green one, in which there is ecological justice, racial equality and economic sufficiency for all. We are called, once again, to live in service for others — especially for that next generation, into whose younger hands, very soon, we must throw the torch.

Otherwise, we will be the ones who break faith.

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Sometimes it’s more than just a matter of opinion

(August 22, 2020)

IT’S hard for an academic to write an op-ed. No footnotes or bibliography are allowed. Nor does anyone want a C.V. that details your qualifications.

On the other hand, many more people will read whatever you write!

I have been thinking and writing about nuclear weapons for a long time. My first effort, with my friend Bruce in Grade 5, won a prize in the St. James-Assiniboia school division Science Fair for an enthusiastic presentation of what Winnipeg would be like after a nuclear blast, with Portage and Main as Ground Zero. (Note to the curious: it would be gone.)

So the 75th anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki was an obvious topic for an op-ed — and yet from the letters published in response, my “opinion” was not appreciated.

Fair enough — it’s a free country — but the academic in me took umbrage at the comments.

There are experts on the history of what happened, who researched the original sources, talked to the people and wrote the academic articles and books, especially as new materials became available. Then, in the next wave, are the scholars who have studied what the first scholars discovered.

I count myself in that second wave — as adjunct associate professor of history at the Royal Military College of Canada, where I have been a subject-matter expert in technology and warfare since 2003, teaching undergraduate and graduate students. (Most of them were members of the Canadian Armed Forces, some studying while on deployment.)

To say that nuclear weapons have embedded racism and xenophobia since their inception is therefore not merely my opinion, but the result of decades of scholarship — including my own. To say the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people — either directly by blast or horribly later on from radiation poisoning — were not needed “to win the war” is also a product of such research.

For anyone to claim that my criticism of the inhumane and unnecessary decision to drop those bombs somehow disrespects the Canadian veterans who suffered (and died) at the hands of their Japanese captors is therefore offensive to me. It also reflects an implied racism that unfortunately is still widespread, 75 years later.

Conclusions such as “the Japanese deserved it because of what they did to us” was not what I remember hearing, growing up, from one of my neighbours, who had been captured in Hong Kong and barely survived the POW camps that broke his health. He would have been horrified to find his suffering used today to justify such inhumanity — after all, what kept him (and others) alive was the fact that, despite their treatment, they refused to abandon their own humanity.

This is why we need to confront the systemic racism that underlies the “master narratives” of our culture, including this one about Hiroshima and Nagasaki — narratives that claim sometimes there are good reasons for nuclear attacks, especially against someone “worse” than us. As long as nuclear warfare is considered an option, as long as someone, somewhere, believes there are some conditions when the missiles and bombs can justifiably be used against “them” — whoever “they” are — none of us will ever be safe.

Years ago, when I taught my first university course, which included this version of the atomic narrative, I had an old man in my class. He came to see me, and told me he, too, was a scholar — I was chagrined to learn I had given a C-plus on an essay to someone who held a PhD from an Austrian university in the 1920s.

He laughed, and said he deserved it, but then told me he and his wife had been held in a Japanese prison camp since the fall of Singapore. He had a different perspective, because dropping the bombs saved their lives, so he was grateful it had happened.

But now that he had children, and grandchildren, he was also troubled — because their lives were saved in that way, their own family and all the people whom they cherished, the world they loved, was now at risk from an even greater evil than the one they so narrowly survived. He wished someone could have found another way to end the war, and grieved the inhumanity of a decision for which he now felt somehow responsible.

“It was wartime,” he said. “No one could safely challenge the government.” Shaking his head, sadly, he concluded, “People do terrible things in war” — before meeting my eyes, gripping my hand and thanking me for the course.

The racist, xenophobic idea that the people of Hiroshima and Nagasaki deserved what happened to them has had more poisonous and long-lasting fallout than the bombs themselves. It needs to be fiercely challenged wherever it is found — and that is definitely not just my opinion.

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