Division and Unity: Ritual

Many hundreds of years ago, there was a good and just man by the name of Tarkan. He had little in the way of material possessions, but he was happy. He lived peacefully with his neighbours and helped others whenever he could. He cherished his family above all - his wife and his two young sons. 

As a young man, Tarkan developed a habit that he would maintain throughout his life - it was a habit that helped to keep him kind and compassionate toward others. Each day, just after rising, Tarkan would go to his window and look out toward the houses around his. He would think individually of each person who lived in each of those houses and he would whisper all of their names to himself. As he did, he would tap his chest just over his heart with the mention of each name. 

Having finished his listing of all of his neighbours, he would do the same for all of the animals he knew of. And then, Tarkan would close his eyes and imagine all of the cities he knew of, all of the nations he knew of, and he would whisper their names as well, always touching the area of his heart with each utterance. 

Finally, Tarkan would say a prayer wishing peace and happiness to every sentient being on the earth. 

With this ritual completed, Tarkan would go about building a fire to warm the house, waking his sons, and preparing for his labour of the day. 

As Tarkan was an early riser, his sons only occasional witnessed their father's morning ritual. When they did, they were at first baffled, wondering who he was talking to and why he would stand at the window in this way every day. As they grew older, they sometimes tried to copy their father's ritual, although they were too young to fully understand. 

One terrible day, soldiers burst into Tarkan's modest home. A division had arisen in the land and the people were taking sides against one another. Everyone was compelled to choose or be considered a traitor. With swords brandished, the soldiers dragged Tarkan outside and demanded that he join their faction and fight those of his neighbours who were on the other side. As his wife and young sons watched, they demanded that Tarkan join them in destroying homes and driving the opponents away. Tarkan refused. "I love all my neighbours" he said, "both man and beast. I will not raise a hand against anyone." 

"If you do not join us, you will die!" shouted one of the soldiers, and he threatened Tarkan with his sword. The young boys began to cry. "Say yes, father" they begged. But Tarkan simply shook his head gently "I love all my neighbours. I will not raise a hand against anyone." 

There was a sudden movement and Tarkan doubled over in pain, his hands clutched to his belly. The soldiers stormed off and Tarkan's wife and children bent over him weeping. Minutes later, there was blood in the sand and Tarkan was dead. 

Tarkan's wife and sons fled to the safety of a nearby land. At times angry about Tarkan's refusal to cooperate with the soldiers, their admiration for his courage and bravery grew. When his sons were grown and on their own, the older son moved back to their homeland and the younger remained in the neighbouring land. Both sons independently began to imitate their father's morning practice each day. They taught it to their own children, and they in turn taught it to theirs. The practice grew in both lands as others heard about it and learned the story of Tarkan's love of peace and his bravery. Eventually, thousands and thousands of people practiced the ritual each day. 

As the two sons had been separated by considerable distance, the tradition in the two locations grew separately. Many years later, members of one group learned about the other group. They were delighted to learn of a kindred movement and they arranged for a grand reunion at a village near the border between their lands. 

Hundreds attended and they celebrated joyously with food and drink and great words of praise for the memory of Tarkan. The leader of the reunion ascended the platform to speak and announced the key event of the gathering. Everyone would join together the following morning for the ritual. "Please assemble here at 7:00 tomorrow morning" she said. 

A rumble came from the crowd. "7:00?" someone shouted angrily. "The ritual is always performed at 6:00. It dishonours Tarkan's memory to practice at 7:00." There was worry and some arguing in the crowd as the convener spoke with the elders of the two communities. She returned smiling. "Your leaders have agreed that we will meet at 6:30." There was a low murmuring and neither group was completely happy, but everyone eventually agreed and went off to sleep with excitement about the next morning's events. 

The next morning, the moment that they had all been waiting for finally arrived. Hundreds assembled to perform the practice just minutes before 6:30. As they gathered, half of them lined up facing south and half faced north. "Turn around" they shouted at each other. "You're facing the wrong direction!" "No," others yelled, "you are facing the wrong direction." "How dare you disgrace Tarkan's memory like this?" 

No one knows who threw the first blow, but once again there was blood on the sand and the north facing and south facing Tarkan followers became bitter enemies, and remain so to this very day, just as they continue their daily ritual of peace and love. 

We join together today on the 11th day of the 11th month. We began our time together with two minutes of silence - a ritual that has been observed since 1919, one year after the signing of the armistice that put an end to the First World War. 

Later, the Queen and then many other dignitaries will lay wreaths at the base of the Cenotaph - the memorial originally created to memorialize the British dead of the First World War and now also used in remembrance of the British dead from other wars. The inscription on the Cenotaph reads simply - "The Glorious Dead." 

We have other rituals associated with this day. It has become customary to wear a red poppy in remembrance and to benefit the British Legion. 

At their best, our rituals unite. At their worst also, our rituals unite. That is both their strength and their danger. 

The very same ritual that unites may also serve powerfully divide that same group from others. 

The Cenotaph is in commemoration of the British soldiers who died in war. Where does a national commemoration of these dead leave the many British civilians who died? And, of course, there is no consideration of those millions of non-Britons who also died in the same conflicts - perhaps at the hands of those we honour today and to whom we ascribe glory. 

The glorious dead? Were the wars that Britain has fought all really worthy of glory? Historians recount many different threads of the story, but the First World War is generally understood as war waged in the interest of imperialism and wealth. Perhaps glorious is not really the word we are looking for. Those who died should surely be remembered and their sacrifice honoured, but is not the greatest honour for them that we do everything we can to avoid future wars and future war dead? 

The poppies too have become something that divides just as they unite. For years, those who do not wear the red poppy have been subject to criticism and even abuse. And then there are the white poppies. Since 1926 when a group of war widows introduced it, the white poppy has been worn in the interest of peace, and wearers of the peace poppy have been persecuted for - their detractors would say - failing to properly honour the fallen British soldiers. 

Rituals are powerful, powerful things. When we move from mere words into physical embodiments of our words and our sentiments, we are working with something immensely influential - something with a strong capability to unite and also to divide. 

Today then, let us engage not in ritual that divides, but in ritual that unites. 

Not in ritual that looks toward a narrow view of 'us', but to an expanded view of 'us' that encompasses us all. 

Will you please join with me now in a ritual of peaceful remembrance: 

We begin by imagining the death of just one person. Please bring to mind the image of a person who died and who was close to you. This person may have died in war, through other violence, accident, or illness. As human beings, we are far more able to understand small numbers, so let us begin here. 

Imagine that one individual. Think of all the people they knew and touched in their life. How many people were affected by this death? How many remember this person with sadness and pain even today? 

We can imagine one life lost. We can imagine two, perhaps even ten. 

100 million lives were lost in the two world wars of the 20th century. 

Now, consider that one life as a single grain of rice. Over the past hundred years, nearly 300 million people have been killed in war. That is a vast - and nearly unimaginable number. 

If we were to bring in one rice grain for each of those 300 million, we would need a lorry. It would be 7.5 metric tonnes of uncooked rice - about 13 thousand litres. That would fill a bathtub about fifty times over. 

And every single one of those grains - every single life - represents the loss of someone sacred and irreplaceable. 

For our love of life, let us recommit to doing all we can to prevent future deaths in war. It may mean hardship. It may mean sacrifice. It certainly means struggling to understand those who are different from us and to create policies that foster equality and justice throughout the world. Our pledge must be - not "the glorious dead" - but "never again." Let us have no more war dead to mourn. 

I invite you to come forward now and take one grain of rice, remembering the loss of a single life and the hundreds of millions more who have been sacrificed. As you take a grain, I invite you to speak the words "never again" before you return to your seat. 

May war never again take another life. May understanding reign supreme and disagreements be resolved through loving dialogue. May we never have to add another death to our remembrances of this day.