Unitarian Universalism and Veterans Day
Our progressive religious faith has had a conflicted relationship with Veterans Day. Some UU churches will not mention the observance. Others will give it passing recognition. Others will dedicate their entire worship service to it. This conflicted relationship is the result of the struggles in our religious tradition over the rightful place of military force.
In the early days of Unitarianism and Universalism in the United States, there was little question about the necessity of military force. The impact of the American Revolution was strong and the ideals that were lifted from that struggle became pivotal to the emerging American identity. When the Civil War erupted in the 1860s, northern Unitarian and Universalist churches dutifully supported the Union Army. Many had been in the forefront of the abolitionist movement and hoped the war would end slavery. Southern Unitarians and Universalists had more of a struggle. Many had supported abolitionism, although cautiously, because the implications of that stance were more risky. But ultimately the South was their home and these were their people. Many southern congregations actually disappeared during this time.
When the United States entered World War I, the majority of Unitarians and Universalists supported doing so. There were a few pacifists and they were treated like pariahs and questioned about their patriotism. There were also few dissenters during World War II. Those that spoke up often found themselves receiving a chilly welcome in our congregations.
This changed dramatically with the onset of the Cold War. Many Unitarians and Universalists questioned the reason for American involvement in the Korean War in the 1950s. And then came the Vietnam War in the 1960s, a war that changed the face of America. Strong anti-establishment and anti-military sentiments emerged in our congregations. Many Unitarian Universalists joined the anti-war protests and wanted their congregations to join them. Many UU congregations experienced a deep factionalism between those who supported the Vietnam War and those who did not. Some congregations divided over the issue. When the nuclear disarmament movement emerged, many Unitarian Universalist played pivotal roles in the protest. By the 1980s, it was not unusual to hear Unitarian Universalists express the sentiment that being UU and being in the military were antithetical to one another. The majority of UUs did not support the first invasion of Iraq or the second. It became more and more difficult for UUs in the military to feel at home in our congregations.
This is why Veterans Day is approached with some trepidation. However, despite this sea change in attitudes, there have always been Unitarian Universalists who have proudly served and there always will be. This is certainly true in our congregation. There are also many committed members and friends in our ranks, strong Unitarian Universalists who generously support our congregations with their time and money, who earn their livelihood serving the military needs of our nation.
I will admit I have struggled with this day all my life. I was raised in the Mennonite church, which is a peace church. I struggled with wearing a poppy, which is how Canadians recognize this day. I was raised to be a committed pacifist, and I still am. But I have also developed a strong regard for those I have come to know and care about who serve their nation. I have seen their families’ struggles, I have seen their commitment, I have seen the sacrifice. I have also seen a nation that has largely resorted to supporting our troops in parades and bumper stickers and turned its back when our veterans most need support. I cannot understand how our nation can tolerate veterans who live in poverty or in homelessness because of the impact of war on their health and ability to work.
The congregation I serve, Emerson Unitarian Universalist Chapel (www.emersonuuchapel.org), has restored the recognition of Veterans Day into our worshipping calendar for several years now. Regardless of our stance on war, we will recognize those who made the choice to serve, whether we agree with that choice or not, because that choice does include the possibility of losing your life. If we are truly committed to honoring and respecting the diversity of our fellow spiritual journeyers, it means actually honoring and respecting it. I have found many veterans, especially those who have seen active combat, who are as strongly committed to peace as I am. They have seen the scourge of war. They know what it can do. They know its power and they also know its limits. I would never have known this if we silenced their voice or their experience in this congregation. Knowing them has changed me profoundly.
This Sunday, our Affiliate Minister and Acting Minister of Religious Education, Rev. Julie Taylor, will lead us in honoring the recognition of our veterans. There will be a roll call. Julie will speak about how we engage our third principle, that we covenant to affirm and promote acceptance of one another and spiritual growth in our congregations, on this day. Julie is speaking from experience as Julie is currently preparing to serve as a military chaplain.
You are welcome to join us in worship this Sunday, regardless of your position on the military and your sentiments on the use of force. We can be united in our commitment to peace without agreeing on the tools that create it.