May 29th 2016
Acts 20:19-24 John 15:9-14 1 John 3:14b-19a
We are using three scripture readings this week, something we almost never do. I’ll tell you frankly, I struggled with this week’s worship; for a while yesterday, I thought we might not have a message at all. I chose the photos which appear on the bulletin, and changed them; I chose the music… and changed it; I chose scriptures relevant to the emotion of the Memorial Day holiday, I changed them, changed them again, rearranged them, and eventually surrendered and used all three. My problem was, over time I’ve become increasingly troubled with how we celebrate Memorial Day.
My consternation is not that it’s Memorial Day, the unofficial kickoff of the summer season, (nor that technically summer doesn’t begin for another three weeks). We fervently hope the weather will cooperate… when we will parade, have BBQ’s, invite friends and family; we’ll eat hotdogs – not because we like them but because it’s traditional, and yes many will indulge a little too much. We will break out all the summer paraphernalia, the kiddy-pools, the paddles, if we’re young and energetic maybe even a ball and bat, or is baseball no longer the national pastime? We’ll get the flowers planted (I’m guilty); maybe we’ll buy poppies from the Vets outside the supermarket, even hang some red, white & blue streamers.
None of ‘that’ is what troubles me about Memorial Day. My disillusionment is in how, as a growing culture in the United States, we have embraced and extol the bravado of violence and subjugation as a virtue; I get upset in the way we glorify the false-glamorization of war…and to a very large extent, the way in which we glorify the consequences of war… soldiers returning without limbs are celebrated as if their loss elevates them to a status to be emulated.
It has no place in Memorial Day observations, but is very evident in the contemporary celebrations. Its roots can be traced at least to the 2003 invasion of Iraq, but really go back at least a decade earlier to the Iran-Iraq War, that brief six-month display military technological might known as the Gulf War. Now there was a war! No muss, no fuss – push a button and watch the carnage in living color in your living room. And didn’t we celebrate ourselves as knights in armor coming to the rescue, of… of the oil consuming world.
In the twenty-six years since, that culture, perpetuated and manipulated by politics and the greed of a highly lucrative military industrial complex, (an alliance President Eisenhower warned of over a half-century ago) has become so thoroughly ingrained in the way we live and think, that we have almost completely lost sight of the stark realities of war. I admit that I am an unapologetic pacifist, something which has never been popular, and even less so when conflicts flare in the world, but I just cannot reconcile that carefully cultivated militaristic bravado with the message of Christ, which I place far more faith in.
I guess it wasn’t coincidence that I saw a website link yesterday, to a list of seven books about World War I. I was compelled to detour from what I was doing, to compare their list to several of the books I’ve read. I found I was familiar with only two; Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms, and Dalton Trumbo’s dark 1939 novel Johnny Got His Gun, which sits on my bookshelves. Trumbo’s novel, and later film, takes place completely in the mind of a wounded World War I soldier whose horrific injuries from an artillery attack have left him limbless and faceless, rendering him blind, deaf, and mute, but has left his mind completely intact. At first he struggles to find a way to die, later he decides he would prefer to be placed in a glass box and toured around the country in order to show the true horrors of war. The title is a play on the popular 1917 patriotic song, “Over There,” which features the refrain “Johnny, get your gun, get your gun, get your gun.” I would argue the list should be expanded to include Adam Hochschild’s “To End All Wars”.
But these seven or eight books are the exceptions to the rule; it is no accident that movie theaters are filled with violence-packed, patriotic-infused, action filled war movies. The political – military industry needs them to keep us thinking the way they want us to think, a way that ensures their continued reign. They couldn’t survive if too many of us watched movies, read books and listened to the stories which depict the realities of war.
I had a friend, whom I may have spoken of in the past, who passed away a few days short of his 93 birthday. One day we were driving to a ballgame and I encouraged him to reminisce, hoping to elicit stories of the early NY Yankees. He began talking about the early years with his wife when he got very serious. He said, shortly after they married he joined the Army, during World War II, not merely because he expected it would only be a matter of time before he was drafted, but because it was “the right thing to do”. I suspect, as first generation German descendants, he was motivated to demonstrate loyalty and patriotism to the U.S. In any case Emil told me he landed on the shores of Normandy on D-Day and fought in every major European battle between there and Berlin, including the Battle of the Bulge. And then he became even quieter, and said, “if I had known about the things I would see during the war, I would have rather had killed myself than gone.” We drove the next several miles in silence.
We appropriate the word hero; we misuse it, sometimes because we’re at a loss for the right words, but also, often times unwittingly but too often intentionally, we use it to further an agenda where the ‘hero’ is only ancillary. We refer to those who have died as making the ‘ultimate sacrifice’ as if their death had divine purpose, and commandeer the loss felt by the ones left behind to cheer-lead our infatuation with our military might. Had Emil perished it would not have been because he was a hero, but because he had believed in the need – a real need which he never denied or rejected, to serve. He would have been remembered, like the legions before him throughout our warrior history, as brave and heroic, but he did not, would never have thought of himself in those words.
While it may not be popular it is more honest to concede that dying does not intrinsically make the deceased brave or heroic, or their death sacrificial. Not every soldier returning from a deployment in a flag-covered casket was a hero; the sacrifice, made not by the dead but by those left behind, is immense, and the promise of a future lost unfathomable. In the same context that the unfortunate occupants of a felled airliner are victims not heroes, as devastating as the attacks on September 11th 2001 had been, relatively speaking there were few heroes among those who perished in the Twin Towers and Pentagon; most were tragically, frightened victims. And I am not referring to the clearly brave and heroic (in every sense of the word) first responders. War is brutal and indiscriminant in its victims, horrific beyond the comprehension of most of us. It spurs the evilest instincts within the human soul. There is nothing, nothing in war, not even the brave and heroic acts of those caught up in it, worthy of glorification.
Throughout history our Christian faith, and by that I mean the widely perceived understanding of who and what that means as well as the organized church itself, has gone through periods similar to what we are currently in the midst of, when Christianity has been appropriated – hijacked to demonize and proclaim superiority over anyone who does not believe what we believe… even when that is how we view Christianity itself. We in the U.S. wrap our Christianity in a red, white & blue flag, and our flag in our bible. We take Christ’s words out of context and frame them to support our own attractions to violence, domination and power, as if Jesus were the manifestation of the avenging savior 1st century Jews were anticipating; yet everything He every taught denies that.
Taken in context, when Jesus says, “There is no greater love than to lay down one’s life for one’s friends” he is not talking about taking up arms, about avenging, about violence… not necessarily talking about physical death. Laying down one’s life does not explicitly refer to death: Mother Theresa laid down her life after she received “a call within a call” to serve “the poorest of the poor”. Dorothy Day, cofounder of the pacifist Catholic Worker Movement, laid down her life following her conversion to Christianity. Thomas Merton, author of more than 70 books, mostly on spirituality, social justice and a quiet pacifism, laid down his life to promote interfaith understanding. Each laid their life down for Jesus.
Paul understood that in both contexts; he suffered great pain and persecution during his ministry and was confident his path would likely bring him to a violent death someday, but he understood that his physical body was not the life he had laid down. The life he laid down was his sinning, and the inflexible and myopic faith he had been living prior to being struck down on a road to Damascus as he was headed to imprison followers of the rabbi who, at the insistence of the Temple, the Romans had crucified.
The author of 1st John sees it in both contexts as well; Jesus literally gave up his human life for us, but he urges us, out of His example, to show compassion and love for our brothers and sisters. We cannot merely say that we love each other if we are not prepared to make sacrifices, to live for each other, not ‘merely’ die for each other.
So before we get ready to picnic, party and parade, we should insist on time to remember and honor those whose lives have been cut short, and instead of getting sucked into that seductive trap of glorifying the deaths of the long list of those who have perished in this nation’s wars, we should contemplate how much might have been accomplished, what loving fathers and mothers they might have been, what wonders their careers might have created, we should imagine the ways in which they might have served their God faithfully… if only they had lived. Instead of heralding their death as some valiant sacrifice, we should rather ask why we continue to send young men and women to die; death is only valiant to those who are not on the field of battle.
Jesus said, “There is no greater love than to lay down one’s life for one’s friends” and calls us ‘friend’ but He is not asking us to stand up and ‘take one’ for the troops. He is asking us to give our living and breathing and productive, fruitful lives, to use the gifts of intelligence, feelings and emotions, to follow his teachings. He is asking us to live for him – to Live for Jesus – to live for God, by serving others and God.
Over the years I have learned that it is always a mistake to pick a sermon title and then try to write a sermon to match it – it almost always fails. It took me until the last paragraph, but there was my sermon title – Living for Jesus… and rushed to once again change the music.
— Amen ―