This is the sermon preached to the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of La Crosse WI on Memorial Weekend, 2017j. Thank you to Bob who gave me permission to share his story as I understand it.
This weekend is Memorial Day, when we traditionally remember American soldiers who died in combat, meaning they died on the battlefield. Memorial Day started after the Civil War, when this country went to war with itself and they fought about the future of the country and the future of slavery, when Blacks were enslaved by Whites, meaning they were owned by whites and worked for free for whites.
The Civil War lasted a long time and was a horrible experience America was 31,000 000 people at the beginning of the Civil War.
There are estimates that 650 000 soldiers died in that war, and that 210 000 non-military people, meaning women, men who didn’t fight, and children, also died as a result of the war, usually from hunger or disease. This means that 1 in every 36 people in the United States died during the Civil War. Everyone loved someone who didn’t make it.
After the Civil war ended, it felt really important not to forget those people and they were looking for ways to grieve them.
Do you know what it means to grieve? It means that you are hurting inside because someone you love has died. It’s a special kind of hurt. When someone dies because they were killed in war, that is a special kind of grief that hurts the same and different.
After the Civil War, everyone was grieving someone. No one wanted that kind of war to happen ever again on American soil. When it started, no one thought it would last that long or that so many people would die.
That is how Memorial Day started, because no one wanted to forget and everyone wanted to find a way to come together and be sad together and find hope together.
Traditionally Memorial Day is a time to remember American soldiers who died in war. But we are also a nation of immigrants, and if we are going to respect all the different kinds of people who live here, it’s also important that we remember that many Americans have people they loved who died serving other countries. And, because as Unitarian Universalists, we are citizens of the world as much as we are citizens of a country, we also need to remember that people all over the world are dying in war. Every day. We need to remember those people too.
And there’s more. The way we fight wars has changed. It used to be that the different armies met each other on a battlefield and fought each other until one army surrendered. But in the last 100 years, most wars are fought where ordinary people live, in their towns and their neighborhoods, in public spaces, on public transit, at concerts and festivals, and that means that in many wars, more civilians are dying than soldiers. We need to remember them too, because they are also casualties of war.
This morning, as citizens of the world, we are going to take some time to name people from our families or friendship circles – military and civilians – who died because of war. It could be people we knew personally, or relatives who died that we may have never met but whose stories were told to us so that we would remember and know who we are. Let’s take some time to honor those people. If you have more than one name, that is just fine. We will welcome all the names.
We’ll start with ringing a bell and then a very short time of silence to gather our thoughts and think about the names we want to share. Then I’ll ring the bell again and we will start. When we’ve finished, I’ll ring the bell again and we’ll have a moment of silence to honor all the names that have been spoken.
Silence and Naming
Spirit of Life, this day remembers and acknowledges loss and so do we remember those whom we have loved and lost. We hold their names and their faces in our mind’s eye. We recall the gifts they gave to us through the strength of their being, the depth of their love, the courage of their dying, and the fullness of their living.
In the Holy Quiet of this hour, their names surround us and they live with us in blessed memory. Amen
About a week ago, on a southern Louisiana Friday morning, the last of four Confederate monuments in New Orleans was taken down. Hundreds gathered to witness and the crowd was divided, a no mans land between them. The larger group celebrated, sang, cheered, and danced because they believed that the monument of General Robert E. Lee was put up to intimidate African Americans claiming their freedom after the civil war, erected as the white south erased slavery as the central reason for the confederate cause, replacing it with chivalry, loyalty, honor, heritage and pride. This was done even as Jim Crow laws rebuilt slavery as much as possible without actually being slavery.
In the months leading up to that Southern Louisiana morning, Black New Orleanians spoke about driving, every day, by these symbols of the Confederacy honoring those who had fought to keep their ancestors enslaved. They spoke about the toll it took. There was no doubt that the monuments needed to be taken down.
The smaller group, all white, stood mostly silent, angry and bitter, anchored in the mythology of a lost golden age. They said the monuments were about loyalty and pride, honor and valor, heritage and history.
It took two years to get these monuments taken down. The bitterness, the competing loyalties, the different versions of history displayed the divisions of race and power that rule this country. New Orleans Mayor Landrieu, in a speech that went viral last week, emphasized the power of symbols to support or take down systems of oppression while emphasizing that removing symbols should never be confused with the real work.
And you might be asking, what could this possibly have to do with Memorial Day?
It actually has a whole lot to with Memorial Day.
Memorial Day began as a southern observance. There are many stories, some competing, about how it started. One features Charlottesville Virginia Confederate women going to the graves of fallen Confederate soldiers – their husbands, fathers, sons – and laying flowers. Then they also laid flowers on Union graves. The practice grew, spreading north, and Union women went to the graves of their husbands, fathers, sons – and laid flowers on Union and Confederate graves.
Memorial Day was originally called Decoration Day and became a way to foster unity in a country that was terribly divided. Everyone could grieve, together, the hundreds of thousands of lives lost. In unity, they held up that every soldier who died left behind a grieving family. And, it is certainly true that every soldier who died had years of living and loving stolen from them and their death broke the hearts of those who still lived.
It is also true that this unity was sought by white America – Union and Confederate – by pushing back the overarching reason for the war and raising up that soldiers on both sides died serving their country, serving a noble cause. It supported the rewriting of history happening south of the Mason-Dixon line. Decoration Day minimized that Confederate soldiers had been fighting to preserve the right of whites to brutalize and own blacks. The history of Memorial Day is one more example of how whites minimize the suffering of people of color in the search for unity. In reality it is not unity because it continues the violence against those who bear the brunt of oppression.
So there’s a connection between Memorial Day and those Confederate monuments. North and South both whitewashed the true reasons for the war in the pursuit of unity, whitewashed that the South was fighting for the right to continue the brutal enslavement of African Americans, held up a false unity that ignored the continued brutalization of black communities and black bodies. This positioned the White South to rewrite their loss as a tragedy, with themselves as the deposed gentlemen of a lost cause, while they simultaneously enacted all those Jim Crow Laws. And the White North said nothing, did nothing, believing it had done its duty by ending slavery.
So why raise all this stuff on a weekend that is known more commonly as the beginning of summer? The kids are finally out of school, vacation is here, hoards of us take to the great outdoors and the rest of us get the best deals on those Memorial Day mattress and appliance sales! Very few of us actually observe the day as it was meant to be observed. It’s a time for bbq’s, family, and sunshine. So why go there?
This is why. As Unitarian Universalists, we are a people committed to integrity and truth telling. We often say that the truth sets us free. Unitarian Universalism values doubt and questioning as spiritual practices that lead us towards truth. There is nothing that cannot be questioned except that we hold compassion and freedom as the essence of being human, and that we must live at all times with respect for that radical interdependence of all things. Everything else is up for grabs, otherwise we turn too much stuff into idols, worshiping what is transient and rather than enduring.
This resistance to dogmas, to creeds, to idols and our commitment to truth as a path to freedom creates a healthy ambivalence towards anything that we are asked to simply accept.
I have experienced, you may have as well, among American Unitarian Universalists, that some of us have a complicated relationship with patriotism. This struggle has become keener since November when white nationalism was used win the Presidency. We have experienced patriotism being used as a tool to harden people against each other. There is tremendous social pressure to adopt a patriotism rooted in American exceptionalism, which disrespects other nations and peoples by loudly trumpeting American superiority. This kind of patriotism is not consistent with Unitarian Universalist values. It is not rooted in a deep compassion for all of life.
So I have some questions. To what are we called to direct our compassion? What does it mean to honor our Unitarian Universalist faith and love a country? How do we honor those who die in battle and hold up that not all battles are rooted in values that affirm life?
In the interests of full disclosure, let me say where I am coming from when I ask these questions. I was raised Mennonite, and in the Mennonite faith in its purest form, it is forbidden to love a country. Patriotism is a sin against God and we are never to let love of country supersede love for God. So the whole idea of asking God to bless a country? Blasphemy. Pledging allegiance to a flag or putting your hand over your heart to sing the national anthem? Idolatry. When patriotism becomes akin to religion and is then used to stoke public sentiment for military action, it is an abuse of faith. While I am no longer a practicing Mennonite, the teachings are in me and I have brought them to my Unitarian Universalist faith. I don’t believe that patriotism is a sin, I do believe you can love a country, but I firmly believe that no patriotism should ever supersede our commitment to living our principles. There is no nation higher than our core values of compassion and freedom. No nation has the right to demand blind allegiance, to define what allegiance is, or expect us to betray our values in the name of allegiance. Our love of nation should always be conditional. Our commitment to our values should never be compromised.
At this time in Unitarian Universalism, we are in a place of waking up to how white supremacy culture is embedded in our beliefs and our institutions and our nation. Since the Ferguson Uprising, when black leaders took the streets protesting the death of Michael Brown, police brutality and a racist criminal justice system, Unitarian Universalist people of color are insisting that white Unitarian Universalists, if they are committed to solidarity with people of color, face the truth that whiteness is centered in how Unitarian Universalism happens and that this deeply impacts people of color in our congregations.
Whiteness is centered in the way patriotism happens in the United States, and the white experience shaped how Memorial Day started and what it has become. To be in solidarity with people of color means waking up to these realities and making new choices.
So to what are we called to direct our compassion? What does it mean to love a country that is rooted in white supremacy culture? How do we honor our Unitarian Universalist values, give our thanks to those who have died in our battles and hold up that every battle that has ever claimed American lives has been wed to goals that both affirm life and deny it?
I want to tell you about a man whose journey, I think, offers a way to walk into these dilemmas and find some of that truth that leads to freedom.
Bob is a member of the congregation I serve in Quincy IL where 25% of the members are veterans or family of veterans. Most of those who served in combat have PTSD. I visit Bob almost every time I’m in Quincy. He’s a Marine. He served two tours in Vietnam as a Staff Sergeant, leading his troops deep into battle. Bob always wears his Vietnam Vet cap and his Marine jacket. He runs the War Museum at the Veterans Home. His identity is shaped by being a veteran.
Bob also believes that the War was an abuse of American military power. We had no right being there. He is haunted by memories and burdened by the deaths he witnessed. He speaks of the abuses committed by his troops. He struggles with how his valuing of human life changed while he served and the choices he was compelled to make through those mutated values. Vietnam is the raw matter of his life woven into a tapestry of regrets.
Bob returned from Vietnam and served as a police chief, a CIA officer and a professor of criminology. He is convinced of the complete corruption of our government and law enforcement. He struggles to find the good in humanity.
And yet, he comes to worship every Sunday, wearing his Vietnam Vet cap and his Marine jacket. Despite his cynicism about human nature he is loyal to a religious community that celebrates the human spirit and promises itself to compassion, justice and truth. Bob is kind and generous.
What I have learned from knowing Bob is that it is a shallow thing to honor those who have served and be silent about the goals of the combat itself. To raise up Bob as a hero erases his moral struggle and the truth that thousands of Americans and Vietnamese died because America flexed its muscle and couldn’t figure out how to stop flexing it.
This is the thing. Military might cannot create peace, freedom and democracy; it cannot end ethnic hatred or racism, otherwise racism would have ended with the civil war. Military might can achieve strategic goals. Sometimes it can provide a container for change, it can stop people from killing each other, but it does not create justice. Justice doesn’t happen at the end of the barrel of a gun . It happens in relationships of equals – in council chambers and kitchen tables, in the workplaces and schools, in our friendships and our congregations.
So let’s go back to those Confederate monuments which attempted to honor those who fought on the Confederate side by erasing the truth of their objectives. Let’s remember that this is the original context for our modern Memorial Day celebrations which hold up the sacrifice of those who died in battle without holding up the complexity of the goals of those wars.
I propose that we continue to hold the utmost compassion for all who lost their lives in war, and that the magnitude of the loss escalates when those lives were lost pursuing objectives that defy compassion, virtue and reason. To be a compassionate people means to center the voices of those most impacted by those objectives. Think of those Confederate monuments, whose story should be centered? The Confederate soldiers who died protecting slavery, or African Americans who had been held in the terror of slavery for centuries and who are still held in the terror of state sanctioned violence?
This is a different kind of love for country. A different kind of compassion for those who serve. It is a different kind of patriotism, which calls in rather than separates and divides, which carries us into paradox rather than a simplistic unity that erases suffering and inequality.
This is, perhaps, part of the truth that will set us free.