Matthew 11:12-17. From the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven has suffered violence, and the violent take it by force. For all the prophets and the law prophesied until John came; and if you are willing to accept it, he is Elijah who is to come. Let anyone with ears listen! “But to what will I compare this generation? It is like children sitting in the marketplaces and calling to one another, ‘We played the flute for you, and you did not dance; we wailed, and you did not mourn.’
The last shot of the Civil War was the one which killed President Lincoln. It could also be called the first shot of the war which gained new life on January 6th.
There are two kinds of wars--civil wars and foreign wars. Our Memorial Day came out of the American Civil War. It was said to have started at Gettysburg with President Lincoln’s address there. At some point much later, Memorial Day became a memorial for the dead of our foreign wars.
And by the war dead, I mean our war dead. The 3100 Union dead were interred and memorialized at Gettysburg. But not the 3900 Confederates who died at Gettysburg. Today, our memorials for WWII, Korea, Vietnam, and Iraq memorialize only OUR dead, although between 25,000 and 250,000 German civilians in the firebombing of Dresden died. [Ambrose Beirce/Kurt Vonnegut (Slaughterhouse Five[
Isn’t our true spiritual challenge to mourn all the dead of war, which is an equal opportunity employer, because war is the enemy. Isn’t war the enemy, truly? Whether war is fought for land, for food, for pride--it is the enemy. Whether it’s Napoleon or Eisenhower, whether it is Sergeant York or Lt. Calley. It’s a fine line between memorializing the war dead and glorifying war.
There’s no accounting for war. People have tried, but war and the suffering it imposes defies comprehension. There is no adequate explanation nor satisfactory way for humans to disgorge the welled-up grief of it, although we try. Then we get this grief all mixed up with patriotism and martial pride and lately, white Christian nationalism has been added to the mix. Memorial Day parades mix flags, floats and fire engines with the military on full display in their gorgeous uniforms and weapons as they march to the local cemetery where a 21-gun salute follows prayers by the clergy. To say “thank you for your service” to those who go as our proxies into battle doesn’t have much credibility until we unite in identifying the true enemy--war itself.
Now it is 2021. Memorial Days will have to feel different after the Covid memorial for the 400,000 deceased at that point led by President Biden on Inauguration Eve, a quiet, solemn affair. Pres Biden and VP Harris set a wonderful example for us today.
The Greeks had The Iliad, a sustained diatribe against the cruelty and arbitrariness of war. And so do we, too, and maybe we should be reading selections of it aloud at our Memorial Day events. Compare the Iliad in its great length and depth with President Lincoln’s address at the Gettysburg Cemetery in 1863. Ironically, we have no Homeric epic to memorialize the war dead, just this short speech of 272 words that could have been written on the back of an envelope but epical in its impact.
No, America never produced a literary epic for our Civil War like the Iliad. But our national poet, Walt Whitman, who produced his epic “Song of Myself” in 1850, did visit the Union hospitals in Washington D.C. in 1863, looking for his brother who was wounded in the war and where he signed on as a nurse and wrote many poems, collected in a volume titled, “Drum-Taps”, that documented his experience-- Bearing the bandages, water and sponge, Straight and swift to my wounded I go, Where they lie on the ground, after the battle brought in; Where their priceless blood reddens the grass, the ground; Or to the rows of the hospital tent, or under the roof’d Hospital; To the long rows of cots, up and down, each side, I return; To each and all, one after another, I draw near—not one do I miss; An attendant follows, holding a tray—he carries a refuse pail, Soon to be fill’d with clotted rags and blood, emptied, and fill’d again.
I onward go, I stop, With hinged knees and steady hand, to dress wounds; I am firm with each—the pangs are sharp, yet unavoid- able; One turns to me his appealing eyes—(poor boy! I never knew you, Yet I think I could not refuse this moment to die for you, if that would save you.)
On, on I go—(open, doors of time! open, hospital doors!)
The crush’d head I dress, (poor crazed hand, tear not the bandage away;) The neck of the cavalry-man, with the bullet through and through, I examine; Hard the breathing rattles, quite glazed already the eye, yet life struggles hard; (Come, sweet death! be persuaded, O beautiful death! In mercy come quickly.)
From the stump of the arm, the amputated hand, I undo the clotted lint, remove the slough, wash off the matter and blood; Back on his pillow the soldier bends, with curv’d neck, and side-falling head; His eyes are closed, his face is pale, he dares not look on the bloody stump, And has not yet looked on it.
I dress a wound in the side, deep, deep; But a day or two more—for see, the frame all wasted and sinking, And the yellow-blue countenance see.
I dress the perforated shoulder, the foot with the bul- let wound, Cleanse the one with a gnawing and putrid gangrene, so sickening, so offensive, While the attendant stands behind aside me, holding the tray and pail.
I am faithful, I do not give out; The fractur’d thigh, the knee, the wound in the abdo- men, These and more I dress with impassive hand—(yet deep in my breast a fire, a burning flame.)
Ceremonies in military cemeteries often gather at The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. It symbolizes an unidentified soldier (from WWI). All the other gravesites at Arlington have full identification--we know their names, dates, and ranks. But, we don’t know what these youths would have become were it not for war. They too are, in another way, unknown soldiers to us. The change of Armistice Day to Veterans’ Day in effect trades the sacrifice of those buried youth for the survivors of war.
Most memorials have to be borne in private--like that of Whitman’s, the grief of widows and orphans. We can’t bear so much pain in public. It has to be dressed up. Then we forget when the time comes again. However, the conscientious objectors try to remind us. The protestors try. The draft dodgers, so-called, in their way, do too. Bob Dylan tried in his way to undress war’s realities.
In our gospel today, Christ gives us permission to find the joy in life and permission to cry the tears if we can find them on Memorial Day 2021. Christ’s church has the obligation not to fall into the role of those who wouldn’t dance and wouldn't mourn. We can lead by example when the prayer we lift tomorrow is a prayer of confession and contrition. Bob Dylan gave us one such prayer, where is ours? We didn’t know it at the time, but the protest songs were memorials in advance. Shouldn’t we lead the nation’s change of perspective and make war the enemy? What we all have in common is grief at our human lot. An appropriate action, after confession and contrition, would be an act of repentance, to ensure that war’s survivors are cared for--through the Veterans’ Administration or through the Veterans’ Homeless Shelters. What used to be called the “walking wounded” we appreciate better now to be suffering PTSD.
The tragedy of power is that we have it to use it or not use it. Either way, the result is tragic. When Chamberlain refused to challenge Hitler, it was tragic; and when Churchill did, it was tragic, too. Maybe war is just the inevitable price we have to pay being human?
We are about to leave the longest war in American history, if we can actually go through with it. When will they ever learn, when will we ever learn--that war is the enemy?