And Moses said to the people, Remember this day, on which you came out from Egypt, out of
the house of bondage; for by strength of hand the Lord brought you out from this place.
Memorial Day is designed specifically for us to remember those who have served in our
military forces, and especially those who have died in this service. It is well that we do
so, but there is a fine line to tread. We must not let an appreciation for selfless
courage slip over into a glorification of war, or let a revulsion against war discolor our
recognition of heroism. Sometimes the worst of circumstances do call forth the best in us.
In one of his "Letters from America," Alistair Cooke reflected on the public turmoil over
the Viet Nam war. A reporter had made his way into a jungle clearing and interviewed a
couple of American soldiers, getting very candid expressions of their states of mind.
This sent him to his bookshelf, to review a book written about the Battle of Flanders in
World War I. The book reported over 200,000 British casualties, and marveled that in the
face of this, morale remained high. The officers were living up to the highest military
traditions, and the soldiers in the trenches were the sturdy Cockneys who couldn't wait to
get at the Kaiser.
Five years or so later, another book was published, called Now It Can Be Told. This
disclosed that there were over 300,000 casualties. It gave a vivid picture of what it was
like to spend a night in the trenches with the corpses of your comrades, and for the first
time outlined the rising tide of desertions and executions. The Viet Nam war was the first
time in history that the general public got a glimpse of war as the soldier sees it, not
as the public relations arm of the military would portray it. Cooke saw this as an epochal
change. He might have quoted the poet William Cowper: ". . . war's a game which were their
subjects wise Kings would not play at." He did quote General Sherman: "War is hell."
Someday, I trust, a generation will look back on these times and wonder at our moral
standards. The voices of moral rectitude have been loud in condemnation of nudity, but
strangely muted in regard to violence, with a presidential candidate borrowing the aura of
Clint Eastwood in order to appeal to the popular will. Granted that sexual
irresponsibility is a major problem, it is still arguable that shooting people is at least
as objectionable as taking off one's clothes. When Mrs. Brady saw what a bullet had done
to her husband's body, it took a great deal of the romance out of firearms.
Only as we face such realities squarely can we make Memorial Day worthwhile. If our view
of those we remember is of white knights sallying forth on white chargers, then we are not
remembering real people. If our view of the wars they fought is the romanticized one of
popular legend, then we have no idea of what they experienced. We are talking about people
who for the most part were reluctant to be where they were, and who had every right to be
so. No one in his right mind looks for the fear and the tedium and the pain that are
characteristic of war. If we would make Memorial Day a day of memory, we might begin by
thinking of the most warlike days we have had.
Divine Providence 251 says this in brief compass, and takes it a step further:
It is not of divine providence that wars take place, because they are inseparable from
acts of murder, looting, cruelty, and other monstrous evils which are diametrically
opposed to Christian charity. Still, they have to be permitted because our life's love . .
. has become of such a nature that it wants to rule over others, ultimately over everyone,
and to possess the wealth of the world--eventually to possess everyone. . . . unless these
evils were allowed to break out, we would not see them. This would mean that we would not
admit their existence, and could not be brought to resist them. This is why they cannot be
prevented by any acts of providence, for if they were, they would stay shut in, and like
the diseases we call cancer and gangrene, would devour everything alive and human.
This section goes on to talk about the many wars in Scripture as symbolic of our inner
evils, and then adds,
The same things are portrayed by the wars of our own times, wherever they occur. In fact,
everything that happens in the natural world corresponds to spiritual events in the
spiritual world, and all spiritual events involve the church.
The implications of this are extensive. What it is saying is that the ugliness of war is
not just something out there, in Bosnia, say, but something in here as well. War is a
picture of our own need to be in control. We would dearly like to justify that need, to
paint it in the noble colors of responsibility and competence and self esteem. We welcome
the romanticized portrayals of war because we want to see our own ego-bolstering efforts
Make no mistake--there is a lot of good news about us. I suspect we spend a good deal of
our time in relative self-forgetfulness, doing things that are basically worthwhile.
These are useful times, times of consolidation, so to speak, but they are not times of
change. The times of change come when we face something in us that needs changing,
recognize its character, and "as if of ourselves" resist it. It is at such times that we
may be tempted to rationalize, to put the mask of honor on the face of selfishness.
There is a brief statement in Arcana Coelestia (¶ 1690) that puts our need in extreme
form. It is primarily a statement about the Lord's glorification, but it winds up with a
rather staggering assumption. It says,
. . . the Lord's whole life in the world, from earliest childhood, was a constant
temptation-trial and a constant victory, the last being when he prayed for his enemies on
the cross, praying therefore for all people in all corners of the globe . . . .
It assumes that "all people in all corners of the globe" are in some respect at least the
Lord's enemies, and I would take it as an urgent reminder to take very seriously indeed
the principle that there is something in me and in everyone I meet which bears that
This may bring us, finally, to our text. It is set in Egypt, at the moment of deliverance.
"And Moses said to the people, `Remember this day, on which you came out from Egypt, out
of the house of bondage; for by strength of hand the Lord brought you out from this
place." As we search for the perfect target for our gratitude on Memorial Day, we are
pressed toward the realization that any virtue we claim as our own is tainted by that
claim. What we are looking for are evidences that the Lord is at work in human lives; and
as soon as we start looking, the evidence is all around us.
It has been suggested that if we want stories of heroism, we should simply read the
obituary columns, so I chose one at random. There was a Marshfield priest with an interest
in the education of inner-city children. There was a woman whom the British honored for
her work in shipping food parcels overseas during World War II. There was a psychologist
and minister with a lively interest in music and years of campus ministry. There were a
gold club manager, a woman who founded an Italian American Citizens Auxiliary, the owner
of a Boston company, a veteran and longtime firefighter captain, a veteran and machinist,
two homemakers, a librarian, a film director, and a brush maker. The firefighter might
have had his name in the news fairly often because a fire is the kind of disaster that
makes the news. A few of the others might have had a mention or two, but for the most part
these are not "news worthy"] individuals. In all probability, though, they represent the
majority of people in our region, people who have led good, constructive lives.
Again, we must not romanticize. These were human beings with their virtues and their
flaws, and obituaries do not normally mention the flaws. What we can at least glimpse,
though, is the amount of good that is done every day by ordinary people. What we are told
by our theology is that this is the Lord's doing, and this is the most important lesson
life has to teach us. Remember this day, Israel was told, not because of Moses' leadership
or the people's obedience, but because of the Lord's act of deliverance. By the same
token, remember the veteran not as the hero of the silver screen but as one treasured and
guided and gifted by our creator.
We may well use Memorial Day to pray that wars will cease, that our children or our
children's children will not face what past generations have faced. The message in our
theology is very clear, that wars will cease only when they are unnecessary. There will
not be a war that ends wars. As long as we refuse to face our own "love of dominion," our
own need to be in control, it will remain pent up until it explodes in open violence.
Robert MacAfee Brown once advised Sunday School teachers not to break up fights in their
classes. After all, he said, if they don't learn how to fight in Sunday School, how are
they going to know how to fight in church when they grow up?
We may wince, but it is a wince of recognition. If there is to be an answer to Lincoln's
prayer "that these dead shall not have died in vain," we must start right where we are.
Our prayers to this end are hollow unless we do. War is hell, whether in the Balkans or in
our hearts. It involves "monstrous evils which are diametrically opposed to Christian
charity." We remember those who have served with gratitude and with grief, grateful for
the gifts that the trials of war called forth, and repentant for our own participation in
the denial that is the seed bed of open violence.