Random and not so random musings from a 5th generation NE Missourian who became a 1st generation Episcopalian. Let the good times roll!


(Graves at Arlington National Cemetery courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

O judge of the nations, we remember before you with grateful hearts the men and women of our country, who in the day of decision ventured much for the liberties that we now enjoy.  Grant that we may not rest until all the people of this land share the benefits of true freedom and gladly accept its disciplines.
 --A Collect for Heroic Service, Book of Common Prayer, p. 839

Did you know that one of the earliest  recorded celebrations of something resembling what we now call Memorial day originated in the African-American community?  Yale history professor David Blight found journalistic accounts of a celebration in Charleston, S.C., conducted May 1, 1865, just weeks after Appomattox.

The Washington Park horse track became a compound for Union prisoners in the last days of the war, 257 of them from exposure and starvation, Blight said. By the end of the winter of 1864, most of the white residents had left the city. The black residents buried the dead Yankees underneath the grandstand and erected a sign: "Martyrs of the Race Course."

On May 1, they held a celebration with a parade that included local black school children and the 54th Massachusetts, the black regiment immortalized in the movie "Glory."  Unfortunately, the racetrack was later renamed for a white supremacist governor in SC, and the intent of these African-Americans to honor these deaths of Union soldiers disappeared into oblivion, until recently.  But it still remains one of the seeds of what became our present Memorial Day.

Nine states still recognize a separate Confederate Memorial Day.  After 147 years, it seems we still can't make peace with the tragic legacy of the American Civil War, and we still can't make peace with the intent of the holiday to be to remember that one of the legacies of war is the lost potential that comes with death--young people cut down in the prime of their lives.  

Now that I am middle aged, I see  this loss more fully, as people I once knew as young, vibrant, and planning to change the world are changing it, but not the way we thought we would when we were young.  We are changing it because of our generativity and wisdom--but slowly.  Very slowly.  Very quietly.  Not because of our boldness and bravado, but because of the ways we quietly endure, the ways we live our lives to say "yes" and "no" to things, the way we give of ourselves to others.  The bravery of our youth was just as important, but it was based more in idealism and our boldness to take on the world.

I see in a new way the pathos of what it means to send 18 to 25 year old people off to war.

In that sense, I find myself more and more irritated that Memorial Day in the United States has become a day for air shows and glorification of the American military-industrial complex.  Here's my heresy--hearing that stuff about "American soldiers laid down their lives for my freedom" turns my stomach the same way it does when I hear "Jesus died for my sins."

No, I'm sorry.  I don't do substitutionary atonement--neither theological nor military.

Jesus did not hang from the cross specifically with my sins in mind.  The American soldier did not lie on the battlefield dying with my particular freedoms in mind.

But before you start tossing rocks at me to stone me, please hear me out.

Rather, I believe with all my heart that Jesus' death, burial, and resurrection was to forever tear open the curtain between Heaven and Earth, between earthly corruption, and eternal life.  Just as fervently, I believe those killed in wartime died in pursuit of what I like to believe is one of the best of our American ideals--justice and freedom for all.

The trouble, of course, is we don't get it right as much as we'd like to believe.  Also, if we glorify war, and idolize our members of the armed forces as too-larger-than-life, we begin to sound like a military state--dangerously close to the mindset that led those we saw as "the enemy" to sleep beneath the ground for their ideals.

Well.  Surprise, surprise.  We don't get Christianity as well as we'd like to believe, either.

Our work as Christians is to continue to close the gap, with God's help, between God's realm and our fallen world--to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, and visit the prisoner.  Perhaps our charge on Memorial Day is not to be too enamored with the glitter and glitz of our military-industrial complex, or to glorify dying in war, but to work to see that no more young men and women are martyred on the racetrack of war.  Perhaps our charge on this day is to feed and clothe the wounded warriors and the veterans.  Perhaps it is to help them be freed from the prison of PTSD, drug abuse, and alcoholism.  Perhaps it is to close the gap between a world at peace, and a fallen world of war.


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I'll have to brood on this, a bit, Marie. You have rather succinctly stated your case. I fear I have passed too quickly over it. Thanks for bravely sharing.

My favorite line was the "racetrack of war". Now THAT is a sound bite!

Excellent! I have always felt this way. I have been a product of the Vietnam war but never one to bad mouth our military so I have often been quiet--especially when I served in Washington, DC. But it is more important to LIVE for our country or our faith than to die for it. This does not take away anything of those who have sacrificed either their lives or the health in the name of my country. But I am tired of all the jingoism that began again in 2001. The military is an important part of the nation. But you are right--I a unwilling to support them as we lose some of our brightest and best because it keeps the military complex in business.

I loved the last paragraph of this entry. You stated succinctly what many seem to lose sight of - that honoring veterans is not to immortalize the perceived heroics of war, but to work towards healing the wounds that war sustains, both physically and psychology... on personal and national psyches.

excellent post, maria...lisa

Thanks, all. It truly is a mixed bag for me. I am outstandingly proud of the military service of many of my relatives and friends. Yet, at the same time, I was affiliated with the VA system during my training years and the first five years of my career as an attending, and I saw the dark side of how we have failed those people. They deserve better. Our servicemen and women and their families deserve better. I think back at all those old WWII vets I grew up around--and a few WWI vets too--and they bristled at any "hero-worship." They were just scared youngsters doing a job for a country they believed in, and I saw how so many of them hoped for no more wars. I have never forgotten that.

Robert Lee Costic said... May 30, 2012 at 4:51:00 AM CDT  

Only a fool could glorify war - glorify a 'hero's death' - but there was a time when only a fool could see any glory in a death on a cross. Neither are glorious in themselves - but meaning can be found in them - has been found.

A member of my extended family, Gideon Warner, Co. 'D', 52th Pennsylvania V.I., was a prisoner at that racetrack, the one you mentioned. He was captured July 1864 during a failed amphibious assault on Fort Johnson in Charleston Harbor. That autumn Yellow Fever broke out among the prisoners at the racetrack and they were transferred to the notorious prison camp in Florence, SC - one rivaling Andersonville in horror. Gideon died soon after that transfer - died before his first child was born - he lies there still - buried in an unmarked grave. Is it more honest to think of his death as a waste - to think of him as a simple draftee caught up in the world's evil - or to think of him as a man who died to free the slaves? Both responses are unsatisfying - both untruthful.

But if we can see God's love in the death of a first century Jewish spiritual leader, one also caught up in the world's politics, one executed by the Romans for his revolutionary message, can we not see another incarnation of God's love in a macho kid, in a kid who died for others, even if the 'others' were only his army buddies? Was there only one Incarnation? Only one example of self-sacrificing love? Or should we search for signs of God's presence in all human beings? Can we not honor traces of Him and His love, not matter how faint, whenever found? Should we not look for it? And if we seek, shall we not find?

Sorry! Did not mean to argue - or to be so self-righteous. But you always have this effect on me - perhaps because I know I can trust your understanding - can be honest, counting on your forgiveness.

Robert, I agree with everything you've said--so not much of an argument. It's the substitutionary atonement piece of the earlier commonly held saying I can't sign on the dotted line for. Everything you've said is precisely what we are charged in our Baptismal Covenant. No disagreement there!

Note that I never used the word "waste"--I was very careful to avoid that word, actually. "Grief" would be a closer choice in my paradox I've presented.

As always, your comments are much appreciated and valued because they're always well thought-out.



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I'm a longtime area resident of that quirky and wonderful place called Kirksville, MO and am wondering what God has hiding round the next corner in my life.

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