2012-05-27

Memorial Day

I am remembering and offering my heart's thanks to those who made it possible for me to be, and to be here.

The poster says, "There are only two words that describe the meaning of Memorial Day. 'Thank you'." I know that our backgrounds in connection to the US military are highly varied, and our attitudes about Memorial Day are diverse. If the idea is to remember in gratitude the soldiers who fought and died in wars because they gave their all for our freedom, some of us are really on board with that. Others of us have a hard time seeing US war-fighting as having any connection with any freedom other than the freedom of US companies to make exorbitant profits.

Indeed, our Unitarian Universalist faith entails commitment to Peacemaking. We selected “Peacemaking” as our Study action issue at the Unitarian Universalist General Assembly in 2006. We select only one issue every two years. After four years of study and action and reflection on that action, crafting and revising a statement of where we stand, we approved a Statement of Conscience titled “Creating Peace” at our General Assembly in 2010. We committed ourselves to address the roots of violence, support mediation and reconciliation, and to create a culture of peace.

One thing that grows really, really old and wearisome really, really quick is carnage and killing. In our sadly belabored world of war, most of us yearn for laying down all swords and shields, and studying war no more. Even as we commit our words to the value of peace, and even as we commit our time, energy, and resources insofar as we are able to the cause of building peace, let us be mindful that our hearts are pulled in other directions, too. This isn’t about us good-guy peaceniks versus those bad-guy war mongers. The dividing line runs right through each of our hearts.

I would bid my fellow peaceniks to consider the plot of the 2010 science-fiction novel, Peace Warrior, by Steven Hawk.
“Hundreds of years have passed since Earth’s last war. The planet’s citizens are tranquil laborers who have achieved a utopian existence. Peace and harmony are the norm. Into this perfect world descend the Minith, a vicious race of planetary invaders. Their goal: to ransack Earth’s resources and enslave its population. Unable to defend themselves from their alien oppressors, Earth’s leaders, and a small group of scientists, labor to resurrect a fallen soldier from an earlier time — someone who can rid their planet of the Minith and save the human race.”
What do you think? Yes, that’s a highly unlikely scenario. If the danger of space aliens were the only reason for keeping armies and arsenals around, any rational assessment would say get rid of them. The heart doesn’t care about rational assessments. It blows risks out of all proportion. Even so... Does the heart (or is it the gut?) not react that way because it senses that if we really did become an utterly peaceful species, something would be lost? I don’t know. Would something be lost?

Let's look not to an unrealistically imagined future, but to an actual past. This example was presented in my seminary "Old Testament" class. We had been reading the parts about the Israelites marching off to war, most of the class was tut-tutting about this belligerence from a tribe calling themselves "God's people." Our professor slipped a cassette tape into the a tape deck. She told us: "This is 'Sweet Honey in Rock,' an African American women’s a capella ensemble. You’re going to hear them singing words that Sojourner Truth wrote, using the same tune that Julia Ward Howe used for 'The Battle Hymn of the Republic.' Sojourner Truth wrote these lyrics for a colored regiment from Michigan that fought in the Civil War."
We are the valiant colored Yankee soldiers
Enlisted for the war
We are fighting for the union
We are fighting for the law
We can shoot a rebel further than a white man ever saw
As we go marching on.

Look there above the center
Where the flag is waving bright
We are going out of slavery
We are bound for freedom’s light
We mean to show Jeff Davis
How the Africans can fight
As we go marching on.

We are done with hoeing cotton
We are done with hoeing corn.
We are colored Yankee soldiers
Just as sure as you are born
When the Rebels hear us shouting
They will think it’s Gabriel’s horn
As we go marching on.
(Hear it: click here)

In the stunned silence when the song ended, I realized I felt entirely supportive of what these soldiers were doing. I realized that this peacenik’s heart is not so hard that I didn’t want them to fight.

Peace and justice must go together, and where there is no justice, the only peace there can be is the temporary peace of suppression and enslavement. When it comes to oppressed peoples fighting against an unjust system, my heart is stirred with support for them. A campaign of nonviolent civil disobedience was not an option -- it wasn't something that US blacks in 1860 would have had any way of conceiving or organizing. Could victims of more modern genocide have responded with Ghandi-like civil disobedience? Maybe sometimes. Always? I only know I don't have the heart to blame an oppressed person for fighting back with the only means they can think of: violent force.

So thank you. Thank you, fighters. Thank you for being unwilling to accept domination passing for peace. You died or risked death because you feared death less than you loved hope. Your example shows the rest of us that we, too, can risk self.

Abstractions like “country” and “freedom” are the terms we hear from people far from the battlefields when they talk about what the fighting was for. Those in the midst of such battle have little thought of such abstractions. They are motivated in the moment by concrete and immediate loyalty to the mates fighting beside them, not to the large ideals they will later invoke, if they survive. Thank you, fighters, for embodying the value of concrete connection to the people around us right here and now.

We today are what we are because of fighters. Just as the comic says, "I'm in favor of sex. I come from a long line of people who had sex” – so, too, we must also acknowledge that we come from a long line of victors in battle. The victors generate more descendants than the vanquished – and even the vanquished are around to be vanquished because they succeeded as a people in previous fighting. Thus each of us has an ancestry made up of those able to fight and win. We all come from a long line of warriors – and we wouldn’t be here without their ability and willingness to fight.

Thank you, fighters. You entered situations more fearful than anything permanent civilians like me can imagine, yet you did not let your fear control you. You showed us what courage is, that we could bring courage to our peaceful pursuits.

The phrase “warrior mind” refers to a state of being concentrated yet relaxed, smoothly sizing up a situation and deploying strategies to overcome obstacles and challenges. Every time we confront difficulties rather than fleeing from them, we are drawing on the skills of our warrior ancestors – skills which today’s warriors continue to embody. Thank you, warriors.

Let us also remember this on Memorial Day. If Memorial Day can be described in two words, "thank you," it can also be described in another two words: "I’m sorry." Some of the deaths in war were not much about nobility and courage, let alone freedom. Sometimes politicians and generals made unfortunate choices when better alternatives were available. Some of that killing and dying served no purpose at all. Good people died, familes were bereft, and I’m sorry.

Beyond the gratitude, beyond the regret, Memorial Day is simply remembering. Ultimately, the meaning of Memorial Day is described not in two words, but in one: Remember. The dead say: “We are young. We have died. Remember us.”

For all who died in warfare or as a consequence of the war, tears.