Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Memorial Day Prayer

Yesterday at the Memorial Day ceremony at the Franklin D. Roosevelt Library, I offered the following invocation:

Heavenly Father, as we gather together today, many of our fellow citizens will be traveling to relatives or grilling out with friends.  Many are marching in or watching parades and gloring in tradition.  But bless us who gather here today to honor our war dead.  Help us remember that there is no glory in what we observe, no glory in war itself, only the failure of humanity to live up to its potential.  Help us more to grieve the countless young lives wasted in conflict than to celebrate the conflicts themselves.  Help us to remember that the first Memorial Day in 1868 honored soldiers from both sides of the Civil War as an act of reconciliation.  Help us to remember the words of Frederick Moore Vinson who at Arlington National Cemetery on Memorial Day, 1945 said, "Wars are not acts of God. They are caused by man, by man-made institutions, by the way in which man has organized his society. What man has made, man can change."  And help us to strive for the day when, as the prophet Isaiah wrote, "They shall beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks: national shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more."  What we do here today is a small thing, but O Lord, if you help us to remember these things, perhaps we may help reduce the numbers of young men and women sent into battle.  So bless us, dear God, so that we may bless a war torn and weary world.  Amen.

Mind you, I am no fan of the careless and almost flip way in which national leaders tend to enter into war, forgetting that it not only kills soldiers but also, and more tragically, civilians who want no part in it.  If I weren't such a coward, I would speak more stridently against the current war.  But this is what I could muster.

If I had to add anything, there would be three phrases I've heard countless times in Memorial Day speeches which I would like to contest.  They are:

1.  "They made the ultimate sacrifice."  Why is it the ultimate sacrifice?  Does that mean that death is the ultimate end?  Does that mean that death is the worst that can happen to you?  I disagree.  Losing your soul is the worst.  There are many people suffering through a living hell for whom death would be relief.  But more generally, if we are Christians (and most in this country claim to be), then death is to be greeted with joy, for it is God who welcomes us to heaven afterward, and as Christians, we await eternal life with Christ, assured that we don't have to earn our way there, but that it is a free gift.  Besides, a sacrificial victim is one who has no defense against that death.  Soldiers don't go into battle thinking they are going to die -- they go trying to kill other people, to make them pay the ultimate price (as it were).  There are many who die trying to do good (say in NGOs like the Red Cross) but never carry a weapon.

2.  "We honor those who served this country."  As if the military were the only way to serve this country.  As mentioned above, there are non governmental agencies like the Red Cross (as an example only -- there are countless great agencies), and they serve every bit as much if not more.  Without defenses, quite often, they go into hotspots to bring comfort and aid to the most vulnerable.  Unfortunately, when they get killed in the line of duty, they are often portrayed as fools or unrealistic dreamers who should have known better.  In general, though, I think of countless volunteers who feed the poor and teach children (one of the most important services there can be), and care for the elderly.  Yes, people actually volunteer to do these things, aside from the professionals who offer their time.  

3.  "We owe our freedom to them."  Two problems with this.  First, I'm not sure we do.  You'll notice that Canada did not have a revolution while we did back in the 1770s.  Yet they are free.  My point is that every time we think we need to go to war, there are consequences, and those consequences are not usually just "freedom."  On the other hand, there's a very good likelihood that without going to war, we would end up with similar results in the long run, and possibly more lasting peace.  There was an interesting study recently that said each war can usually be directly or indirectly linked to the previous war.  The Civil War (and the War of 1812, for that matter) certainly has its roots in the unfinished business of the Revolution where northern and southern states banded together but even then held their noses to do so.  

Besides, what is freedom?  We bandy that word about but have not real clue what it means.  Is is the right to do whatever you want?  We don't have that.  Is it the right to determine your leadership?  We only partially have that, and as other countries are discovering, there are better ways to determine the will of the people than our money-based system.  We truly are not more free than folks in a lot of other countries -- many of which never resort to fighting. Add to that the sinfulness of our current war which is protecting nobody's freedom -- Iraqis aren't too happy with the current situation, and we are less free since this war began than before.  

And for Christians, freedom was never something that could be fought for.  You can't win it because it is a gift, like eternal life.  We are free in our souls, and what others do to our bodies is ultimately of little consequence.  We are free, not because someone else died in a battle but because Christ makes us so -- it's not free because we give up everything to God, not because we have to fight for it.  

So, that's my beef.  I only get a minute at Memorial Day ceremonies, so I pack into a prayer what I can.  But now, at least I can say the rest.