Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Sermon: "Memorial Day 2007" (Delivered 5-27-07)

From War is a Force that Gives Us Meaning by Christopher Hedges:
“War makes the world understandable, a black and white tableau of them and us. It suspends thought, especially self-critical thought. All bow before the supreme effort. We are one. Most of us willingly accept war as long as we can fold it into a belief system that paints the ensuing suffering as necessary for a higher good, for human beings seek not only happiness but also meaning. And tragically war is sometimes the most powerful way in human society to achieve meaning.

“But war is a god, as the ancient Greeks and Romans knew, and its worship demands human sacrifice. We urge young men [and women] to war, making the slaughter they are asked to carry out a rite of passage. And this rite has changed little over the centuries, centuries in which there has almost continuously been a war raging somewhere on the planet. The historian Will Durant calculated that there have only been twenty-nine years in all of human history during which a war was not underway somewhere. We call on the warrior to exemplify the qualities necessary to prosecute war – courage, loyalty, and self-sacrifice. The soldier, neglected and even shunned during peacetime, is suddenly held up as the exemplar of our highest ideals, the savior of the state. The soldier is often whom we want to become, although secretly many of us, including most soldiers, know that we can never match the ideal held out before us. And we all become like Nestor in The Iliad, reciting the litany of fallen heroes that went before to spur on a new generation. That the myths are lies, that those who went before us were no more able to match the ideal than we are, is carefully hidden from public view. The tension between those who know combat, and thus know the public lie, and those who propagate the myth, usually ends with the mythmakers working to silence the witnesses of war.”

Each January I do a service that is called “Question and Answer Sunday.” It consists of giving off-the-cuff answers to questions submitted on index cards. This past January I did manage to avoid an entire category of questions – questions about war and peace. I told myself that I avoided them because they were big serious questions and I worried they would overwhelm and make insignificant all the other good questions that were asked that morning. This was a rationalization. I avoided them because they were hard questions.

To give you just a sampling: one person asked whether Unitarian Universalists should support strict pacifism. Another asked, accusingly, how any religion or faith can possibly endorse any kind of armed conflict. And still another person pondered how it is can be that the majority of wars have religious underpinnings at the same time when all religions claim to stand for peace. I figured that Memorial Day would be an appropriate time to explore these questions and many more having to do with issues of war and faith.

Any attempt to speak about war in such broad sweeping terms is made problematic by how to balance the immediate with the universal. Memorial Day memorializes our country’s wars – Civil and Revolutionary, two World Wars, and wars from the halls of Montezuma to the shores of Tripoli. But, it is impossible to avoid that we are currently engaged in a war that, while fought bravely and honorably by thousands of servicemen and women, is also a war that many tend to equate with scandals having to do with yellow cake uranium and weapons of mass destruction, with Abu Ghraib and Walter Reed, with Halliburton and Bechtel and Blackwater, and with political battles over funding and exit strategies.

I simply cannot endeavor to speak about war and not, in the immediate context, name my sadness:

+ For the three-thousand, four hundred and fifty two US servicemen and –women who have died in Iraq in the past four years and two months (as of 5/27/07)…
+ For the three hundred and sixty eight who have died in Afghanistan
+ For their families, their mothers and fathers, wives and husbands, sons and daughters.
+ For all the injured, wounded, the physically and psychologically damaged and all the hardships this will cause for their lives, their families and their communities for years and years to come.
+ For the devastation experienced by the long-suffering peoples of Iraq and Afghanistan. All warfare, especially modern warfare, exacts a civilian toll significantly larger than the toll on enlisted persons. Our losses are small by comparison.

I also cannot fail to express my concern for what might be the most under-reported part of the Iraq War – that only roughly half of the US citizens currently in Iraq are members of the US military. The other half consists of contractors, including large battalions of private security forces. We cannot know for sure how many of them have perished; estimates say one-thousand or more. The presence of these large numbers of private contractors raises immense ethical questions. What oversight are they given and to whom do they answer? What happens when they return to the United States?

This morning I want to begin locally and then enlarge our scope in thinking about War’s meaning:

This past Thursday we hosted two high school students from Lawrence who presented their documentary film on military recruitment on high school campuses. Their film documented the sometimes aggressive recruitment tactics used in high schools as well as provisions in the No Child Left Behind Act that compromise student privacy. Their investigative film raised provocative questions, not the least of which is the practical feasibility and the ethics of maintaining an all-volunteer military. The fact that recruiters are more present on one campus in Lawrence than they are at another, or presumably that they are more active on campuses in the less affluent KCK school districts than in the more affluent Shawnee Mission and Blue Valley school districts belies the obvious fact that class and race privilege is alive and well in America.

Just as many of today’s politicians who embrace war were the ones who relied on their daddy’s money and influence to receive draft deferments so too do privileged youth today have a breadth of choices that does not compel military service. To be fair, it is a harmful stereotype that young people join the military because they do not have other options, but a study of military enlistment shows the one-third sign up to receive money for education, one-third for job training, and one-third for other reasons. [What Every Person Should Know About War, Chapter 1]

Even at the same time as I have written letters of support for conscientious-objector status for several young men in our church, part of me says that if we went back to days of the draft – and actually made it so you could not buy your way out of it or network your way out of it or Prince Harry your way out of it – then as a society we would be far less militant. Politicians might think twice before sending their children (or their lobbyist’s children) off to war.

In our wider denomination, Unitarian Universalist Association President, the Reverend Bill Sinkford, has been outspoken against the war even as his son serves in the military. And, in some local churches there have been various forms of participation in the peace movement just as there has been certain tension between those who oppose the war and those who believe that continued US military action in Iraq is warranted. Or rather, the tension is between those who desire that the church speak out loudly against the war, and those who don’t want anybody to feel unwelcomed. This tension is often perceived negatively – conflict avoidance is a normal quality in human beings after all – but we need not see it this way. Just as, at the end of day, a congregation ought to prefer a minister who speaks their mind over one willing to suppress their thoughts and be inauthentic in order to keep people happy, so to is a congregation where open dialogue exists preferable to one where people conceal themselves in order to make nobody the slightest bit uncomfortable. To put it simply, religion’s not supposed to make us comfortable all the time. Jesus came not to bring peace, but a sword.

To give you just a bit of perspective, Unitarian Universalism has had an interesting history in terms of its engagement with war. In the late eighteenth century, just as Unitarians were emerging from the liberal strain within Puritanism and articulating ideas about individual liberty, our country was beginning to fight for independence from the British. It was the Grandfather of the great Unitarian minister Theodore Parker who captained the militia of minutemen who fired the shot heard round the world at Lexington.

By the middle of the nineteenth century many Unitarians had protested against the war with Mexico, which they considered a war of imperialism and a war, they worried, would expand slavery, which many Unitarians opposed. Transcendentalist Adin Ballou published his call for “Christian Non-resistance.” And Henry David Thoreau not only went to the woods to live deliberately; he also went to jail for not paying his taxes as a protest against his government’s militarism.

In the second decade of the Twentieth Century, the pacifist John Haynes Holmes entered into a heated debate with William Howard Taft, then moderator of the American Unitarian Association, on the floor of its general meeting. Their debate was over US involvement in World War I. Later, the editor of the magazine of the American Unitarian Association (then called the Christian Register and now called the UU World) opined that to oppose the War was treason. The President of the American Unitarian Association, Samuel Atkins Eliot called on disloyal ministers to be dismissed, writing that “ministers addicted to pacifist principles cannot be permitted to plead a noble tradition of freedom of speech to justify or to mask sedition.” The board of the American Unitarian Association ruled in 1918 to deny financial aid to any church whose minister, “is not a willing, earnest, and outspoken supporter of the United States in a vigorous and resolute prosecution of the war.” My have times changed! [Source: this article.]

If I have my denominational history straight, it is correct to say that Unitarians and Universalists were supportive of World War II. They were encouraged, in no small part, by Unitarian theologian James Luther Adams who had traveled to Germany in the 1930’s to meet Paul Tillich and had seen first-hand the dangers of the rising tide of fascism and racist nationalism.

My colleague in Washington D.C., Rob Hardies writes that the “Unitarian tradition is not a pacifist tradition… [it has always] been squarely in what is called the ‘just war’ tradition – a tradition that recognizes that war is evil, but that sometimes history requires war if the reason be just and the choice for war be a last resort.” [as quoted in The Quest, the newsletter of the Church of the Larger Fellowship.] I would differ with him on this characterization. It is probably more accurate to say that we are a tradition that has encompassed a variety of different perspectives on war, a variety inclusive of strong pacifists, just war theorists, and perhaps a few who would see just war theory as too restrictive. It is probably more accurate to say that we are a tradition that, at its best, has not required all of us to think the same in order to be together. And, it is accurate to say that we are a tradition that does not stay silent about our beliefs, that has been willing to voice them, even when it strains the bonds of community. And hooray for that.

If we are going to state our opinions and voice our feelings, then let us engage in a free and responsible search for truth and meaning. Which leads me to two books I commend to you on the subject of war. They are both by Christopher Hedges, who earned a Master of Divinity degree from Harvard and worked as a war correspondent for many years. In his work, Hedges has “survived ambushes in Central America, imprisonment in the Sudan, and a beating by Saudi military police. Hedges saw children murdered for sport in Gaza and petty thugs elevated into war heroes in the Balkans.” His books include, What Every Person Should Know About War, a short, unadorned 120 book that examines various aspects of military life in a simple, direct question-and-answer format. If you know a person in their teens or early twenties, give them a copy of this book.

The other book by Hedges carries the interesting title, War is a Force that Gives Us Meaning. It is more philosophical and more startling, combining Hedges’ firsthand experience in warfare with insights from literature.

The book tries to make sense of the paradox that while war is a horrible thing, the world has managed to exist in a virtually non-stop state of war for virtually the entirety of history. Hedges’ thesis is that war is a powerful force, a force that perpetuates itself through the creating of myths, the development of nationalism, the destruction of culture, the hijacking of memory, and the confusion of love and death. Chaucer once said, “There is many a man that crieth ‘war! war!’ who knoweth full little what war amounteth.” To explain it a little less complicatedly, the reality of war is silenced by the myth of war. We would not tolerate the reality of war if only we knew it; but we are often moved to passionately celebrate the myth of war.

As Archibald MacLeish writes, “The Young dead soldiers do not speak. Nevertheless, they are heard in the still houses: who has not heard them? They say: our deaths are not ours; they are yours; they will mean what you make them. They say: Whether our lives and our deaths were for peace and a new hope or for nothing we cannot say; it is you who must say this. They say: We leave you our deaths. Give them their meaning. We were young, they say. We have died. Remember us.”

War is not the only force that gives us meaning. So are we called to make meaning out of life, and live bravely just as Unitarian Universalists have made meaning of war down through the ages. Just as Lawrence High School students work to make meaning of the world they live in. We too remember. We too create meaning.