I spent this morning at a local Memorial Day ceremony. The chaplain at the local VFW chapter asked me as one of the local clergy to provide the prayer of invocation and the benediction. Having served as clergy in small towns, a request from a local veteran’s group for this service is not unusual. It’s an honor to do it.
If I am not called upon to participate in this local event, I usually attend the one in Pittsfield. The ritual has a sacred aspect and one that I believe a community should pause long enough to acknowledge. Memorial Day commemorations are for the community to remember and acknowledge the men and women from the community who went to war and never returned.
It is a solemn occasion. It also pairs religion and patriotism, which becomes troubling if it moves to nationalism. Slipping into nationalism is easy because the day often promotes American mythology, wars in which men and women died were fought for freedom, specifically our freedom. Add to that Anselm’s belief that Jesus’ death on a cross and it elevates death in battle to a noble and righteous sacrifice. Thus we are freed not only from political oppression, but freed from our sinfulness as a nation as well.
We can’t ignore that this nation was founded in war. The Revolutionary War was the violent overthrow of English rule over the colonies and the success of that war brought about our birth and freedom as a nation. A few decades later the War of 1812 solidified it.
The Civil War also contributed to our American mythology. Both sides could justify the war. Union soldiers died to preserve the nation. Even Confederate soldiers died to sustain a cause.
As we advance through our history, though, making a blanket statement that men and women died to preserve our freedom gets more difficult. Could we say that about Korea or Vietnam? How did the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan preserve our freedom, even if they were fought in response to a deadly terrorist attack? And the current drumbeats to become more involved in the conflict with ISIS stretch this blanket statement even further.
Saying reflexively that men and women died for our freedom is a statement which exposes our reluctance to confront our mythology. Without offering a critical note to our mythology, we perpetuate our justification to project and protect our national values and interests through weapons of violence of destruction. We don’t encourage exploring non-violent, peaceful alternatives.
I’m not sure how many clergy today will note the contradiction war has with the gospel. While it would be inappropriate to contradict directly the speakers who readily tell us that men and women died for our freedom, I believe it is a dereliction of our responsibility not to note in our remarks that war is contrary to God’s desires. Without critical notes, we implicitly offering our blessing to the proceedings and the mythology conveyed through the ritual.
Here are my remarks from this morning:
Prayer of Invocation
O God, we gather this morning to remember and honor your sons and daughters who left home in service to this nation. They responded to the call. They faced evil. They lost their lives. They never saw home again. While their faces may have faded from our memories, we know them by their names etched in these stones. You, however, O God, know them because they are with you for all eternity. Their faces are forever young. Nevertheless, their deaths left wounded and empty hearts among their families, friends, and community. Bind up the wounds and wipe away the tears. Fill the broken hearts with your love and compassion. Help us to be mindful that they will carry their heavy hearts to their graves. Finally, O God, we pray that the world’s political leadership will recognize war’s madness and brutality. Grant that they will take to heart the words of the prophet Isaiah, who wrote, “they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.” Open their eyes, their minds, and their hearts to understand that war is the most abhorrent of all options to settle differences and that true peace will only come when we extend to all people your justice, rooted in you steadfast love. Amen.
As we leave this hallowed ground we will carry with us our memories of those who rest here under this sheltering sky. Do not forget that they heeded their nation’s call and gave their lives for it. Give comfort to those families who lost sons and daughters, brothers and sisters. Honor the fallen by the lives we lead: giving hope to the hopeless, comforting the afflicted, and pursuing justice for the oppressed so all people will know God’s peace. Amen.