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It is Memorial Day week.
I wonder if I am the only one conflicted about this.
On the one hand, I honor the courage and integrity of those who serve in defense of a country they love and to protect freedoms and rights we sometimes take for granted. My father and one of my brothers served in the military – and I admire them for it. For those who gave the ultimate sacrifice of their lives – I take pause every Memorial day and give thanks for their lives and honor their sacrifice.
But there is an other hand.
On the other hand I am deeply disturbed by what war forces young leaders to do, especially those who after their training have to face the horrors of war. To take up arms against another requires an undoing and a doing. The undoing puts the recruit through rigorous training to undo everything they were taught about love of neighbor, respect for all people, and belief in the inherent goodness of all God’s children. I grieve every soldier who sat at the feet of an elder they loved and respected who sang to them something like “All God’s critters got a place in the choir,” or “Red and yellow, black and white, they’re all precious in God’s sight”, and who then must go through basic training and be conditioned to feel nothing when going into battle to kill and destroy.
The utter inanity of this was captured in the irony of Mark Twain in his short story “The War Prayer”. After a preacher on Sunday morning offers a prayer we often hear in times of battle, a seemingly innocuous one about “safeguard our soldiers and protect them on the battlefield,” a stranger interrupts the worship and asks to speak. Identifying himself as a messenger of God, and assuring them their prayer was heard, he only asks that those who pray with those sentiments understand the full impact of what they are asking of God. To pray for the protection and safeguarding of your soldiers means to pray something like this: “O Lord our God, help us to tear their soldiers to bloody shreds with our shells; help us to cover their smiling fields with the pale forms of their patriot dead.”
Twain wrote that to shock the sensibilities of well-meaning souls who only want to protect those whom they love. No one wants to go to war – no one. War, said General William Tecumseh Sherman, is hell. And every time we enter into war, we ask our beautiful children to enter hell. They pay a heavy price for it, even in victory.
After running from the US Army, Chief Joseph of the Nez Perce tribes uttered some of the most beautiful and painful words ever. I remember them every memorial day. It is not just those who entered battle that are to be remembered, it is also those who became the victims of war and who submitted to an enemy rather than risk certain death in facing them. Chief Joseph spoke these words to members of his tribe: “”Hear me, my chiefs! I am tired. My heart is sick and sad. From where the sun now stands, I will fight no more forever.”
I will fight no more forever.
Yes, I remember and memorialize all who have given their lives or risked their lives in service to their country. I choose not to do that, though, at the expense of other peoples who must face the soldiers on whose behalf our prayers are solicited. I choose not to do that without also calling to mind the victims of wars fought by the soldiers we pray for.
Memorial Day is a day of mixed emotions for me. I doubt I am alone in that. My spirit is troubled by it – and the ravages of war. I finish this reflection with the prayer that has always moved me to tears when singing it: let there be peace on Earth, and let it begin with me. Yes, let there be peace on this, our journey Into the Mystic.