Memorial Day is a day of gratitude, memory, and faith.
The first Memorial Day was a day when freed slaves in South Carolina exhumed bodies of Union soldiers from a mass grave to bury them individually. It was an act of respect and thanks. Black hands executed an ancient African spiritual imperative to honor the dead, to decorate their graves, to remember their names and deeds. Theirs was a cosmology and a definition of community that survived the unspeakable horror of the Middle Passage and the dehumanizing intent of slavery, an understanding that the community is composed of the not-yet-born, the living, and the dead remembered. When the work of reburial was done, the occasion was made sacred with sermons, singing, and a picnic.
Today Memorial Day is one of the high holy days of the American civil religion. We pause to honor, with gratitude and with memory, those who have given their lives in service to their country. And, along with the solemn ceremonies, we fire-up our family grills, making offering of worship and devotion to the gods. Lady Liberty, Blind Justice, the Goddess Columbia, Nature and Nature’s God enjoy the sweet savor of meat and fish and a variety of vegetables cooking over smoke and flame. We gather with friends and family to eat and drink, to tell tall tales, to enjoy each other’s company and to celebrate the de-facto beginning of summer. Some of us who live near the ocean will go “down the shore” to keep traditions of summer fun alive.
The gods of the nation are pleased. Their favor, however, is a dangerous idolatrous thing because they require blood sacrifice, or at least they live because women and men are willing to sacrifice themselves and their children for the sake of the nation. Idols require blood and tears because they have none of their own. Warriors die for love of country, but the country cannot love them back. Only human beings can love other human beings in return. Only a God that is Divine Love itself can love in return.
Jesus taught that God is a spirit and they who worship God must worship God is spirit and in truth. (John 4:24) So it is with all the gods. They are spirits, the breath of a transcendent idea breathing through creation, open to human interpretation, misinterpretation, use, abuse, and deceptive manipulation. We dress them up in images, and name them with specific names, give them anthropomorphic qualities so that the abstract idea becomes thinkable. We are able to talk about the ineffable in a way that is only the slightest whisper of what we mean. We are able to build a tradition around the story of who they are, what they do, and what they require of us. Then we are able to make our way to one God who is the One most meaningful to us. Problems come when we want to enlist God in our wars.
Most wars are declared by the rich for the sake of the rich and are fought by the poor for the sake of such noble causes as liberty, justice, or the moral duty to protect the innocent and the weak. On Memorial Day we remember with gratitude those who were willing to fight and to die in the nation’s perpetual war against itself, against our own fears and lies. Yes, the world is full of evil, both within and beyond our national boundaries. Yes, there are human beings who have been indoctrinated to do violence for the sake of this or that god, for this or that religious tradition, for this or that political ideology. The larger question is: what is the best way to overcome evil and the cycle of violence and vengeance?
Radical love and radical Christianity say: “overcome evil with good.” (Romans 12:21) Now the question becomes: What good ought we to do and to whom?
I say and say again that the answer to this question lies in a utopian imagination, a poetic, prophetic imagination that projects an image of every one sitting under his or her own vine and fruit tree, enjoying the sustenance and joy of life. Religion, for all of its crimes and dangers, for all of the blood shed in its name through the course of human history, at its best is the tie that binds human beings to each other, to a transcendent spirit, to all of nature and to all of creation.
Some day the wars must end. My faith tells me so. My faith is the substance of this hope and the evidence of this not yet world. My living faith in this utopian ideal requires me to not only believe so, but to say so and to live so. This Memorial Day let us not only remember with gratitude the sacrifices of those who have died in war, but let us also place faith in the prophetic vision of peace and the day when no one dies in war ever again.