Carla J. Bailey, Senior Pastor
Memorial Weekend - May 24, 2009
In Flanders Fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.
Canadian physician and Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae wrote one of the most known of World War I poems in 1915, the literary basis for the symbolic and prolific crepe paper poppies for sale over this Memorial Day weekend.
In the introduction to a chapter of poems about the nation in an anthology of poems called Singing Sages (The Bethany Press, 1966), Winfred Garrison makes this interesting observation, “Most modern Americans probably love their country as much as their [parents and grandparents] did, though they are more aware of [its] defects and of the existence of problems that cannot be solved by rough-and-ready methods as were those of the frontier. They are aware also of a wider field of responsibility and a wider circle of loyalty. …The relations of America of America with other nations… have become more intimate and more complex in recent years. We see our country as a member of the family of nations, but it is an unquiet family and our position in it is ambiguous. Out of the unquiet of this ill-assorted family have come wars. A rather large proportion of the poems dealing with the nations are poems about war – and all of them are against it. There is no escape from the conclusion that the poetic response to war is almost unanimously one of revulsion. War may sometimes be a necessary evil because its alternative would be worse, but it is an inhuman business with nothing ‘sweet and seemly’ about it. True or not, that is what most of the poets are saying, and some of them are saying it from experience.” From Garrison’s collection of poems comes this one, “Valley of the Shadow”, written by John Galsworthy, adapted here to be read responsively.
Leader: God, I am traveling out to death’s sea,
I, who exalted in sunshine and laughter,
Dreamed not of dying – death is such a waste of me!
People: Grant me one prayer: Doom not the hereafter
Of humankind to war, as though I had died not.
Leader: I, who in battle, my comrade’s arm linking,
Shouted and sang, life in my pulses hot
Throbbing and dancing!
People: Let not my sinking
In dark be for naught, my death a vain thing!
Leader: God, let me know it the end of human fever!
People: Make my last breath a bugle call, carrying
Peace o’er the valleys and cold hills forever!
Following the end of the American Civil War, many individual communities in both the north and south set aside a day as a memorial to those who had died. These observances coalesced around Decoration Day, honoring the Union dead, and the several Confederate Memorial Days. According to Yale History Professor David Blight, the first memorial day was observed in 1865 by liberated slaves at the historic Washington Race Course in Charleston. The site was a former Confederate prison camp as well as a mass grave for Union soldiers who died in captivity. The freed slaves disinterred the Union soldiers and reburied them in individually marked and decorated graves. Three years later, in 1868, the freed slaves returned to the graveyard with flowers and decorated the individual gravesites, thereby creating what came to be known as Decoration Day. The official birthplace of Memorial Day however, is Waterloo, New York where, beginning in 1866 and every year thereafter, the village reserved a day in May to honor and remember its war dead by decorating their graves. It was a practice that grew in communities until, on June 28, 1968, the United States Congress passed the Uniform Holidays Bill, which cemented Memorial Day on the last Monday in May. The law took effect at the federal level in 1971.
In his powerful and disturbing book War Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning (Random House, 2002), Chris Hedges explores the force of our nation’s war mentality. He was a war correspondent, a journalist with a self-described addiction to the adrenalin of covering uprisings, skirmishes, the first Gulf war and the war in Bosnia and Kosovo. Hedges contends that war works on our contemporary psyche in ways we rarely question or explore. War provides an enemy, a cause, a national passion that excites and inspires. Interspersed among his observations of war’s psychological sweep, are stories of the sufferings of individuals, civilians and soldiers, scenes of destruction, grief, and shame. He wrote his book, he says, “not to dissuade us from war but to understand it. We must guard against the drug of war that can render us as blind and callous as some of those we battle.”
It seems to me that one step, perhaps the first step to treating our national addiction to war would be to immerse ourselves in the realities of the individual human cost of war and to linger, for a time, among the graves of the war dead. In that way and for that purpose, I have come to welcome and honor Memorial Day. Let us remember the victims of our collective human addiction to war.
“Put up the sword!” The voice of Christ once more
Apeaks, in the pauses of the cannon’s roar,
O’er fields of corn by fiery sickles reaped
And left dry ashes; over trenches heaped
With nameless dead; o’er cities starving slow
Under a rain of fire; through wards of woe
Down which a groaning diapason runs
From tortured brothers, husbands, lovers, sons
Of desolate women in their far-off homes,
Waiting to hear the step that never comes!
O men and brothers! Let that voice be heard.
War fails, try peace; put up the useless sword!
Fear not the end. There is a story told
In Eastern tents, when autumn nights grow cold
And round the fire the Mongol shepherds sit
With grave responses listening unto it:
Once, on the errands of his mercy bent,
Buddha, the holy and benevolent,
Met a fell monster, huge and fierce of look,
Whose awful voice the hills and forests shook.
“O son of peace!” the giant cried, “thy fate
Is sealed at last, and love shall yield to hate.”
The unarmed Buddha looking, with no trace
Of fear or anger, in the monster’s face,
In pity said: “Poor fiend, even thee I love.”
Lo! As he spake the sky-tell terror sank
To hand-breadth size; the huge abhorrence shrank
Into the form and fashion of a dove;
And where the thunder of its rage was heard,
Circling above him sweetly sang the bird:
“Hate hath no harm for love,” so ran the song;
“And peace unweaponed conquers every wrong!”
John Greenleaf Whittier (1807-1892)
“Hate hath no harm for love, and peace unweaponed conquers every wrong.” Do we believe this? We should, we who are disciples of Jesus Christ. We should believe that love is the greatest value, the final goal, God’s deepest hope for her children. But the war poets have seen and sung an uglier truth – that national mythology and the slushy sentiment of patriotism too often are the disguises for war’s validations and love, sacrificial love, passionate love, agape love, are relegated to a distant perch, too fragile, too innocent, too soft for the muscular and well-armed warrior to emulate.
“Peter, put away your sword”, may now be among the most important words Jesus ever spoke, and the most difficult to honor, because, as Chris Hedges has gone on to write, our addiction to war is now a permanent disease. This is no better illustrated than with the common language that describes our national response to terrorist acts as a “war on terror”. We’re hooked. The drug has permeated every layer of our lives. Its appetite is voracious, and, most incredibly, the war drug has altered our outlook so effectively, we have come to believe there is no alternative way to live, no passion without its adrenalin, no peace secured by any other means.
The War Weary
When I think of war I think of Falluja, massive
firepower total obliteration till silence descends
and one can hear blood dripping from the cross.
No heroes here only scarred and scared soldiers
who will take this horror home and remember it;
and for whom the war will go on in nightmares.
Falluja, here a miasma of fear obscure the ruined
dwellings workers are rebuilding, but how do we
repair a heart that has seen too much blood shed?
© Jan Osman., all rights reserved., October 2007
The War Works Hard
How magnificent the war is!
Early in the morning
it wakes up the sirens
and dispatches ambulances
to various places
swings corpses through the air
rolls stretchers to the wounded
from the eyes of mothers
digs into the earth
dislodging many things
from under the ruins..
Some are lifeless and glistening
others are pale and still throbbing..
It produces the most questions
in the minds of children
entertains the gods
by shooting fireworks and missiles
into the sky
sows mines in the fields
and reaps punctures and blisters
urges families to emigrate
stands beside the clergymen
as they curse the devil
(poor devil, he remains
with one hand in the searing fire)..
The war continues working, day and night.
It inspires tyrants
to deliver long speeches
awards medals to generals
and themes to poets
it contributes to the industry
of artificial limbs
provides food for flies
adds pages to the history books
between killer and killed
teaches lovers to write letters
accustoms young women to waiting
fills the newspapers
with articles and pictures
builds new houses
for the orphans
invigorates the coffin makers
gives grave diggers
a pat on the back
and paints a smile on the leader’s face.
It works with unparalleled diligence!
Yet no one gives it
a word of praise.
Dunya Mikhail (1965 - ), translated by Elizabeth Winslow
On Memorial Day, I remember and mourn the war-dead, soldiers whose lives were shortened by a national failure of imagination and will. War may be inevitable, but if it is, it is because failure is inevitable. But such a double standard concerning failure do we hold when it comes to war! When we see the child who fails, do we say, failure is inevitable? We do, but what then do we say? Give up? Stop trying? We do not, of course we do not. Why, I wonder, do we accept the failure of love, the failure of generosity, the failure of peace as inevitable and therefore not again attempted?
Do not give war a word of praise. Rather, remember the “scarred and scared soldiers who will take this horror home and remember it”. Amen.