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First Parish Universalist Church
790 Washington Street, P. O. Box 284, Stoughton, Massachusetts 02072 
(781) 344-6800
Worship: 10:30 AM
Children's Chapel:  10:30 AM
Church School: 10:45 AM
 

Of War and Peace

Rev. Jeffrey Symynkywicz, May 28, 2006


As someone who can trace half of my lineage (on my dear mother’s side) 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. And spontaneously, it seems—because it was the right thing to do-- because these mothers, wives, sisters would want 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 reconciliation—toward putting the great Civil War which our nation had just lived through behind them. It would be a process which would take generations. (I’m not sure it’s completed, even now, in some ways.) But those women knew that they had to begin, 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”:

As I sit in twilight late alone by the flickering oak-flame,
Musing on long-pass'd war-scenes--of the countless buried unknown soldiers,
Of the vacant names, as unindented air's and sea's--the unreturn'd,…

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, and only a sick mind or an addled soul glorifies war. I’ve just finished reading E. L. Doctorow’s novel about the Civil War, The March, from which I shared a short excerpt with you earlier. The simple point this book brought home to me in its vividness was this: War is no fun for the “winners”, either; the “good guys” don’t have it any easier in warfare than those we disagree with do. War is hell—for everyone involved. “Nothing was worse in war than the grief of mothers.” The worst destruction of war may well be what it does to our souls.

We all know that. There’s not one of us who would not wish that the scourge of war could be 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, and a new age of peaceful realtions between all countries was at hand.

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

Human relating 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 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 fence 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, practically speaking, we can’t fence them off. We need each other if we are simply to survive in this world.

That means there’s going to be an inevitable amount of stepping on toes—of transgressing boundaries—and of saying “I’m sorry.” (I’ve always thought that that line from the 1970 schlock best seller, Love Story—“Love means never having to say you’re sorry.”—was just about the most inane line in the history of English literature. Love—in all its forms—means constantly having to say “I’m sorry.” It means having to say: “The pain I caused you now hurts me, too. I apologize. Let’s begin again.”

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.

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!” And 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. I think in some ways, though, that 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. 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, I think, it is necessary to confront evil directly, even violently.

But in spite of the fact that I wouldn’t call myself a pacifist, my faith continues to cry out to me—almost in desperation at time, perhaps—that just as the human spirit is more powerful than any force which can be mustered against it, so 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 Mouth. 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. 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. As a Vietnam veteran named Alex in South Carolina has said, when we stand up for peace and justice, then “Every day is Memorial Day.”

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 live out models for 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 live the world in new ways.

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

We must mend
what has been torn apart,
make justice imaginable again,
in a world so obviously unjust,
give happiness once more
to people poisoned by the misery of the century.
Naturally, it is a superhuman task.
But superhuman is a term for tasks
that take a long time
to accomplish,
that’s all.

It is a difficult task, and it will never be done perfectly; but there are nonetheless numerous 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.”

It is to kindling those glimmers of humanity (and divinity) in one another that we are called in this life. How do we do it? 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.


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 with meaning. What that meaning is—what it will be—depends on us.

One morning in the summer of 1999, Elizabeth and I drove into the German Hinterland to visit Bermersheim, a little village where St. Hildegard had been born 900 years before. It wasn’t easy, but we finally found the little village, and the little church, where they say, the great Oracle of the Rhine had been brought, the youngest of 10 children, to be baptized.

Just behind the church are vineyards, and nestled before the vineyards, there is a small graveyard, one of the best-maintained and cared-for graveyards I have ever seen. Waiting for the woman to come and bring the key to open the church to let us in, we wandered among the headstones; they were all lovely examples of expert masonry.

At the back of the cemetery, in the very shadow of the unbounded vineyards, there was a slightly larger monument, of granite I think. Over it hung a stone canopy, and the words on it read (in German, of course), “We remember our dead.” There were two tablets: one marked “1914-1919”; the other “1939-1945”; on each were listed several score of names.

These were men who had been killed in Germany’s wars of the past century. Wars in which Germany had been, certainly, the aggressor. Wars in which Germany had been our nation’s bitter enemy.

At first, I felt a little angry, or at least defensive, at seeing these names remembered here, as though as heroes. But then, I realized that these men were not being idolized and hailed as soldiers of Kaiser or Fuhrer. They were simply being remembered, as sons and husbands and brothers and neighbors, There seemed an awful lot of names for a village so small.

So, as the warm sun shone down upon us, and as an endless blue sky rose above us, and as small birds sang, and as the sweet scent of grapevine freshened the air, I saw how right it is to remember those we love. For our lives are bound with theirs in an indivisible garment of destiny. The field of memory and the field of hope, together, form an indivisible human landscape, a sacred realm of time and space we all share together.

From the flowing river of their memory may there arise the wonderful and life-giving fountain of our hope.


 

 

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