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Rev Dr Giles Fraser - 31/12/15

Thought for the Day

On the 17th April, 1975, the communist guerrillas of the Khmer Rouge advanced into the Cambodian capital, Phnom Penh, and declared Year Zero. The past was to be eradicated. Within hours, government officials, Christian clergy, intellectuals, the police – in fact, even people who wore glasses – were rounded up and shot. Year Zero demanded a fresh start. And a fresh start meant the obliteration of the past.

Something similar had happened at the height of the French Revolution. On the abolition of the French monarchy, the revolutionaries declared the first day of the Republic and the beginning of Year 1. From then on in, the so-called reign of terror ensued.

Not that I don’t see the appeal of the fresh start. My old diary is all chewed up and a bright new one sits on my desk. Its blank pages suggest a brighter future, full of promise and potential. Unlike the old diary, the new one doesn’t have any failures in it. Indeed, later today I will make a New Year’s resolution to be some better version of myself in the year ahead. And even more radical a conception of the whole fresh start philosophy can be found in the Christian theology of baptism - that process by which believers are born again, or born a second time. For despite the fact that most Anglicans tend only to go in for a gentle bit of water sprinkling, the ceremony is actually a simulated drowning. The old self is killed off so that the new one can be re-born. As St Paul puts it, baptism is all about participating in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

Even so, I remain extremely wary of the very idea of year zero and the belief that there’s such a thing as a wholly fresh start. There’s this wonderful old black and white film in which two people stand on the shore and look out towards a distant island. They dream of a new beginning they might make for themselves, a beginning free from the chaos of their past. Yet the problem with this dream, as one says to the other “is that you have to take yourself with you”. In other words, there is no escaping yourself, even in the fresh start. Or to switch back to the language of theology, even the resurrected Jesus bears the marks of his crucifixion.

Which is why it makes no sense to me to buy a brighter future with the cheap grace of forgetting or eradicating our past - however painful or compromising it has been. So, for example, I don’t see how pulling down a statue of Cecil Rhodes from an Oxford College is the right way to deal with the sins of our colonial forebears. Of course fresh starts are possible - often desirable - but not if they pretend some radical discontinuity with our past. There is no magical short cut to becoming a new and better person. For what the philosopher George Santayana said about history is also true of human improvement generally: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

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3 minutes