THE GREAT LEVELLER
The war cemeteries speak more eloquently of our common humanity under God
than perhaps any other public monument.
Does equality matter? Peter Mandelson once said that the Labour government was ‘intensely relaxed about people becoming filthy rich’ – although the second half of his comment, that this was only so if the rich paid their taxes, is given less air because it is unexceptional. In recent years the political debate has moved from one about equality of outcome to a preference for equality of opportunity, the so-called level playing field that enables merit and industry to find reward. All the same, questions about deeply unequal societies remain.
Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett of the Universities of Nottingham and York have carried out extensive research over a fifty year period into this question in their book The Spirit Level (Allen Lane, 2009) and they have concluded that deeply unequal societies are more unhappy than more equal ones and that this unhappiness is spread across all sections of society, not just among those who are poor. There are greater social, health and educational problems and mental illness is 500 per cent more prevalent in the most unequal societies than in the least unequal ones. Great inequality, it would seem, is not good for people, causing damage to our common humanity. This debate will surely continue.
A Christian view of wealth should incorporate the need for wealth to foster human relationships and not to divide them, which is the greater temptation to those blessed with riches. Media preoccupation with ostentatious wealth inculcates jealousy among the population and a belief that material ambition is the chief goal of life, thus corroding our spiritual and relational commitments.
As we commemorate the victims of war in November, and especially the sacrifices made by the armed forces, there is something we can learn about the true meaning of equality in the way we have handled their deaths. I have had the privilege of visiting two or three of the war cemeteries in Normandy and the experience made a lasting impression on me.
The Commonwealth War Graves Commission preserves the names of nearly 1.7 million soldiers. Of these, 900,000 are identified servicemen and women lying in marked graves. There are over 700,000 inscriptions to the missing and 200,000 of these read ‘known unto God’ because the remains are indistinguishable. The creation of these war cemeteries is one of our greatest post-war achievements and the pathos is in their simplicity. There are no private memorials; each soldier is honoured individually; officers and soldiers are treated identically; every gravestone is the same size. We spend our lives trying to better one another (the unspoken methodology of competitive societies) and in civilian cemeteries this instinct persists. The equality in death which strangers found as brothers in arms and which the war cemeteries dignify speaks more eloquently of our common humanity than perhaps any other public monument. It is the nature and timing of these deaths which make them so hard to assimilate but as you gaze at the vast expanse of simple, white, uniform monuments there is a hint of the radical equality we shall experience before God on the Day of Judgement.
Death is the great leveller and the war cemeteries embrace this more honestly than most monuments which are erected in memory of the departed. Anyone concerned with shaping public policy among the living might gain from spending a little time meditating in one of them.
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