"Give them not Hell, but

Hope and Courage."

Thursday, May 30, 2013

Of War and Peace (Sunday, May 26, 2013)

           As someone who can trace half of my lineage to the Old South, I have always felt a special poignancy in the story of the origins of Memorial Day (or, Decoration Day, as it used to be called generally). According to the most common story, one day in late April, not too many years after the Civil War ended, a group of Southern women in Columbus, Mississippi, were laying flowers on the graves of the Confederate soldiers in their town. Among the 1500 Confederate graves, there were also the graves of 100 Union soldiers who had been killed near there, but whose bodies had never been identified or claimed. Spontaneously, it seems—because it was the right thing to do-- because these mothers, wives, sisters would have wanted their sons, husbands, brothers to be treated in this way—they decided to lay flowers on the graves of the Northern soldiers, as well.

It was as though these simple women were taking the first, tentative steps toward putting the great Civil War which our nation had just lived through behind them. It would be a process which would take generations. But those women knew that they had to begin somewhere, if the nation’s wounds (and their own wounds for that matter) were ever to be healed. So, they piled high the japonicas, and jasmine, and magnolias on Northern and Southern graves alike, and lived out the words of Walt Whitman’s “Twilight Song”:

You million unwrit names all, all--you dark bequest from all the war,
A special verse for you--a flash of duty long neglected--your mystic roll strangely gather'd here,
Each name recall'd by me from out the darkness and death's ashes,
Henceforth to be, deep, deep within my heart recording, for many future year,
Your mystic roll entire of unknown names, of North or South,
Embalm'd with love in this twilight song.

To re-member is to re-join; it is to reconnect; to bind up again that which has been severed. When we re-member we begin the process of making ourselves whole once again. We rejoin ourselves to the land of the living and the Spirit of Life.

War is hell for everyone involved, and there’s not one of us who would not wish to see the scourge of war banished from the pages of human history. It’s even been tried. About a decade after the end of the “Great War” – as the First World War was then known—leaders of dozens of the world’s nations met in Paris on August 27, 1928, and affixed their signatures to the “Pact of Paris”, usually known as the Kellogg-Briand Pact, after the two diplomats from the United States and France who drafted it. This treaty solemnly declared that war was henceforth “illegal” as a tool of international relations, and provided for “the renunciation of war as an instrument of national policy."

War will be no more, the diplomats commanded; a new age of peace was at hand.

Within three years (by 1931), Japan had invaded Manchuria. Within five years, Hitler was in power in Germany. Within seven years, Italy invaded Ethiopia. Just a decade after the Pact had been signed, a second, so much more destructive world war had begun.

So much for the declarations of the diplomats. So much for wishing away the scourge of war.

History is a complicated thing, and all the wishful thinking and lyrical pacifism and mere words on paper are not going to remake the map of the world, or remake the human psyche. We may be bound in a mystic body of Oneness, as many of us deeply believe; we may be but drops of rain in a great cosmic sea. But knowing where my raindrop ends and yours begins may well be neigh impossible at times, and is always a constant struggle.

It might be tempting to wall off this world into neatly divided parcels of “yours” and “mine”—to erect an impenetrable security fence around those who are “different” than we are; who are inconvenient to us; who challenge us, and challenge our assumptions about what is “right” and “just” and “the way things ought to be”.

But now, in this world of ours more than ever, we understand that we just can’t fence off and isolate ourselves from people different than we are. The world has grown too small, too interconnected-- and too dangerous.

That means there’s going to be an inevitable amount of stepping on toes—of transgressing boundaries. That means, if we are ever to have hope for the future, there will inevitably be a need for confession, and forgiveness, and reconciliation.

Asking forgiveness of another—and daring to forgive another—is like piling flowers on the graves of our former enemies. It is a profound acknowledgement of our deeper, shared humanity. Not to forgive—not to seek reconciliation—is to imprison ourselves in our rage, our grief, and our despair. It is to snuff out the light of our humanity, and suffer future generations to be bound by our sins and failures.

A Tibetan Buddhist story talks about two monks who meet each again after being imprisoned for many years, and tortured by their captors. “Have you forgiven them yet?” the first monk asks the other. “No!” the other replies. “I will never forgive them for what they did to me. Never! Never!” So the first answers: “Well, I guess they still have you in prison then, don’t they?” Or, as an old Middle Eastern proverb reminds us: “If you seek revenge, then dig two graves: one for your enemy, and other for yourself.”

Too often, we find ourselves mired in the same old cycle of revenge and retribution. “An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind,” Gandhi once said.

I am not a pacifist, even thought I have the deepest respect for those who are. But in all honesty, I think that, in some ways, pacifist absolutism (which says that violence is never justified as a matter of policy) is as much a form of disordered thinking as militarist absolutism (which says that violence should be our default reaction whenever we are challenged). Gandhi also once reminded us that sometimes, when the choice is between violence and cowardice, we must choose to fight. Sometimes, in my opinion, there are human creations so irrational and evil that they need to be confronted directly. I hate the thought of going to war (and I hate even more the thought of my children, or your children, going to war). But sometimes war is the price of confronting evil.

But in spite of that, the drumbeat of peace continues to sound in our hearts, and our deepest vision of peace can continue to guide our living.

“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called the children of God,” Jesus said in the Sermon on the Mount. The call to be peacemakers is found in all of the world’s holy scriptures: Jewish and Christian, Buddhist, Hindu, and Muslim. We approach closest to the Divine, closest to God, when we put aside the man-made weapons of war, and take up the soul-inspired tools of peace. We are human; we are not gods. We will not always realize the full potential that dwells in our souls. We do make war upon one another; at times, perhaps unavoidably, at times perhaps even justly. But let our faith proclaim that we can make peace as well!

It seems to me, this is the best way to remember those who have died in times of war: not by glorifying war, but by counting honestly its cost; not by glossing over its evil, but by facing honestly its harsh and painful and haunting memories.

As Archibald MacLeish reminds us:

[The young dead soldiers] 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.

The true memorial to our fallen heroes will arise in building the world of peace and freedom of which they dreamed. We do this neither by surrendering our values, nor by capitulating in the face of tyranny, nor by retreating back into isolation. We do it by seeking to be living models of reconciliation and new beginnings.

The human spirit is more powerful than the human-made hell of war because the human spirit is part and parcel of the indestructible spirit at the heart of the universe, the indestructible power of the Creation. We are limited only by the boundaries we place upon ourselves and upon our consciousness. My faith tells me that we can draw a new map of this world of ours—if we but dare to break free of the patterns of domination and control of the past, and see the world in new ways, and then learn to live the world in new ways.

This is not easy work. It takes more than wishful thinking, and baseless pieces of paper. It takes more than sermons. To choose to live a life based on non-violence in a world gone mad with violence tests the limits of our strength, and our patience, and our courage.

But even amid all of its violence and destruction and despair, human history also gives us so many shining examples of the human miracle of reconciliation.

For 27 years, Nelson Mandela was imprisoned by the apartheid government of South Africa on Robben Island, off the coast of Cape Town. As one writer has put it, “[Mandela] went into prison a young man and emerged an old man… If ever there was a person who should feel bitter, it was he. But he never expressed any bitterness. He never sought revenge.”

“I always knew that deep down in every human heart there is mercy and generosity,” Mandela wrote after his release. “No one is born hating another person because of the color of his skin… People must learn to hate, they can be taught to love… Even in the grimmest times in prison, when my comrades and I were pushed to our limits, I would see a glimmer of humanity in one of the guards, perhaps just for a second, but it was enough to reassure me and keep me going.”

We are called in this life to kindle those glimmers of humanity (and divinity) in one another. We do this by remembering our common Source, our common Oneness, and seeking to model that deeper unity in every aspect of our beings. As the great Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu said:

If there is to be peace in the world,
There must be peace in the nations.

If there is to be peace in the nations,
There must be peace in the cities.

If there is to be peace in the cities,
There must be peace between neighbors.

If there is to be peace between neighbors,
There must be peace in the home.

If there is to be peace in the home,
There must be peace in the heart.

          There is much truth in that little song that says, “Let there be peace on earth, and let it begin with me.”

Or, as Vaclav Havel put it: “The salvation of this human world lies nowhere else than in the human heart, in the human power to reflect, in human humility and in human responsibility."

The heart of Memorial Day lies in our hope that the sacrifices which others have made were not senseless or futile or devoid of meaning—but that they stood for something; that they were deep with meaning. What that meaning is—what it will be—now depends on us.

From the flowing river of our memory of them may there arise the wonderful and life-giving fountain of our hope for those who will come after us.

No comments:

Post a Comment