(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.