I preached this sermon this past Sunday. I wanted to address Memorial Day and in the original sermon included a Memorial Day prayer that I posted on this blog last year at this time. In this sermon I alluded to two deaths in Berkshire County this month. One was a veteran who committed suicide as the VA was backlogged with cases and could not get to his. This past Friday the town of Dalton, just east of Pittsfield, buried a young soldier who died in Afghanistan a couple of weeks ago.
May 26, 2013
Scripture: Romans 5:1-5 and John 16:12-15
This is an excerpt of the opening paragraph from the book This Republic of Suffering Death and the American Civil War by Drew Gilpin Faust:
“No one expected what the Civil War was to become. Southern secessionists believed northerners would never mobilize to halt national division or that they would mount nothing more than brief and ineffective resistance. … When military confrontation began to seem inevitable, northerners and southerners alike expected it to be of brief duration. … Neither side could have imagined the magnitude and length of the conflict that unfolded, nor the death tolls that proved its terrible cost.”
The total population in the United States in 1860 was just over 31,440,000 people, including slaves. Approximately three million people, almost one-tenth of the population, took up arms between 1861 and 1865. Note that during the American Revolution the army never exceeded 30,000 men.
At the time of the Civil War, ars moriendi, Good Death, was a deeply rooted Christian tradition dating back to the 15th Century. It clearly established beliefs and practices concerning, death, dying, and the afterlife. Whereas preceding the 15th Century death emphasized humanity’s collective judgment, ars moriendi shifted attention to individual judgment after death. A Good Death required specific preparation on the part of the individual and the family. By the 1860s the rules defining Good Death transcended Christianity and became part of middle class norms. Faust noted that death became a service to nation, God, and comrades. It rationalized the violence and devastation by casting it as nationalism and Christian imperative — soldiers died for God and country. By focusing on the dying, soldiers were able to mitigate their responsibility for killing.
Dying traditionally took place at home. Good Death made the moment of death significant as it defined the spiritual condition of the dying. Typically, family members gathered to witness the last moment of life. Death on the battlefield, especially on such a scale, however, was unprecedented. Extra steps were taken to find witnesses who could convey a soldier’s last moments of life to his family through detailed letters attesting to the last moments and even the last words. Dying for the cause validated death in battle. What could be better than to die for God and country? Preachers of the day citing “just war” theory would say that killing was not just tolerated but required in service to God.
Mounting casualties increased callousness towards death. Burying the dead on such a scale was problematic. Even in death distinctions between Union and Confederate troops remained – sometimes the comrades in arms of the deceased from one army would be buried while the other was left to rot in the field.
The unprecedented suffering endured by this nation transformed our government and our national culture. The government created an infrastructure of agencies to address the casualties: identifying them and notifying families. It created a system of national cemeteries to register and inter the dead. The federal budget increased because the nation took responsibility to support the war’s widows. Though immediately following the war the Confederate dead were not honored with the Union dead, by the end of the 19th century the dead from both sides became a unifying symbol to forge a national community of reunited states.
Though that was the transformation through suffering this nation experienced, would that have satisfied God? Certainly caring for the widows and respectfully burying the dead came out of compassion for our neighbor. Reconciling the North and South over two generations was a mark of God’s grace, but we still didn’t learn our lessons sufficiently because God desires peace for us. In Proverbs (3:13-17) we read:
Happy are those who find wisdom, and those who get understanding,
for her income is better than silver, and her revenue better than gold.
She is more precious than jewels, and nothing you desire can compare with her.
Long life is in her right hand; in her left hand are riches and honor.
Her ways are ways of pleasantness, and all her paths are peace.
Peace is indispensable to live well. But the terrible suffering during the Civil War was not enough to transform this nation to eschew war.
Since the Confederacy and the Union ceased their hostilities we have been mired in wars too numerous to count. Here’s something to consider: Our nation has had armed conflict in foreign countries in every decade since 1900. Hometowns across this country have buried their sons and daughters who gave up their lives on foreign soil. Though we will cheer and applaud our veterans in parades around the country tomorrow, too many veterans return psychologically scarred and cannot receive the mental health services and support they need to have mental peace. The fortunate ones may live in a shelter, but many live on the street. Some cannot live at all, and so they take their life. Berkshire County saw a soldier’s funeral on Friday and mourned a vet’s suicide earlier this month. Shouldn’t their suffering be our suffering, too? We can no longer simply say, “War is horrible” or “We should stop war” without acknowledging how deeply ingrained war has become a part of our national identity.
When we blur patriotism and nationalism we can mythologize war. War becomes a noble cause. To that end this morning’s hymn, The Battle Hymn of the Republic, was an intentionally ironic choice. Our current noble cause is terrorism, which is not a defined enemy but a twisted and nihilistic political strategy. The journalist Chris Hedges described mythic war, “we imbue events with meanings they do not have. We see defeats as signposts on the road to ultimate victory. We demonize the enemy so that our opponent is no longer human. We view ourselves, our people, as the embodiment of absolute goodness. Our enemies invert our view of the world to justify their own cruelty…Each side reduces the other to objects – eventually in the form of corpses.”
I have said often that true peace does not come from weapons of destruction, but from the bread and the cup. We will never be free of war until we intentionally practice Eucharistic theology in our daily lives. Until we understand and have true faith in the transforming power that is love, we will consign ourselves to the unending suffering that is always a part of war. Military funeral corteges of men and women will continue to turn out mournful witnesses along this nation’s Main Streets. Psychologically wounded veterans will be a part of our communities long after the actual shooting stops.
Tomorrow is Memorial Day, a day of remembrance born out of the Civil War’s carnage. We should mark it by honoring the men and women who have died in service to our nation. But at the same time we would be remiss if we do not also think about the suffering that accompanies war. We must open ourselves to the Holy Spirit in order to have courage and strength to stop mythologizing war. We must receive the bread and the cup as more than symbols and memory. We must have faith in love’s transforming power. Then, we can be transformed to press for true peace, God’s shalom.
 Faust, Drew Gilpin. This Republic of Suffering Death and the American Civil War. Alfred Knopf:NY 2008 Page 3
 Ibid. Page 3
 Hedges, Chris. War is a Force That Gives Us Meaning. Anchor Books: New York. 2003 Page 21