I don’t think I will ever forget it. I was serving a German immigrant church in NE Philadelphia. Most of the elderly who were left were women who had come over as indentured servants- most after WWI, but some after WWII.
One of my shut-ins was Berta Rube. Berta was about 90 then; she has long since passed away. I had problems understanding her; her accent was thick, and she tended to wander. She could never remember much of what happened in the week or the month since I had last seen her. So mainly what we did when I visited was to look at her photo albums, and she would remember the old times.
Every week, Berta talked about her baby brother. how bright, how kind, how loved he was. How he was the light of her family’s life. 90 years old, and he was still the one bright light in her heart. Little Franz. Oh, she loved her younger brother. But he died in the war- it was so sad. She still loved him, still mourned him. The dead have a way of living on inside us, you know. Just because he had died half a century before didn’t make him any less real for Berta.
And as we turned the pages of the photo album, her eyes brightened, and then softened. I had looked through this photo album at least 15 times before; I don’t know why I hadn’t noticed this one picture before. It was a beautiful, clear picture of a young man dressed in his military best- so proud, in his shining buttons, his bright brass… his swastika armband.
Little Franz was a Nazi SS officer. I went absolutely cold. That uniform, and those who wore it… Were wicked.. Were the incarnation of evil. Without even thinking, I knew he was the enemy.
He wasn’t somebody’s beloved son. He wasn’t my own parishioner’s baby brother, who after half a century was still loved, still mourned. No: All he was, and all he ever would be in my eyes, was the enemy.
And this year is the 72nd anniversary of the end of WWII. D-Day had happened right about this time 73 years ago. June 6, 1944. I read of how American soldiers- beloved brothers, sons and fathers- were told as they paused terrified before the beaches of Normandy: “you will either die in the water, or you will die fighting on the beach. Choose.” Most of the men died fighting on the beach.
Memorial Day. Which side do you remember? Which side do you mourn? It bothers me that this weekend has been made into a sales extravaganza by every store in America. Because something important is happening this weekend- at least, it could happen, if we allowed ourselves the grace of an hour at the cemetery, or in our photo albums, remembering…
…Remembering the pain of our loss. Remembering that war is hell, even when we think our cause is just. Remembering that using war as the first course of action, the pre-emptive course of action, will always means the loss of a mother’s son, or someone’s little brother.
Do you remember why we celebrate Memorial Day? It was May 5, 1868. 3 years earlier, we had fought the Civil War- the bloodiest war we have ever fought. A northern General- General John A. Logan- felt we needed to remember our fallen loved ones; the South agreed, but refused to do it on the same day as the North. And so Union and Confederate dead were honored on different days- as if they were not brothers; as if the grief was not universal.
Why the separation? Why the animosity? Because in the midst of our Civil War, war had changed. It happened right after the Battle of Antietam, Sept. 17, 1862, one of the bloodiest days in U.S. history. The 23,000 casualties that day prompted Pres. Abraham Lincoln to make the most momentous strategic decision of the war. He believed that saving the Union would require abandonment of the West Point code of Fair Fighting and, instead, pursue total war. Which means killing civilians, burning their farms, and killing their animals.
This strategy was so repulsive, so offensive, that it required its own justification. This justification was called “The Ideal Of Freedom.” And Christians on both sides of the war took up this ideal with ferocity.
In sermons, editorials, letters and speeches, Christian pastors urged the armies to slaughter each other without restraint or remorse. The fallen soldiers became martyrs; battlefields became altars; flags became sacraments; Northerners became holy warriors, and Southerners became God’s Chosen People.
Both the United States of America and the Confederate States of America became redeemer nations, purified by blood sacrifice. And both sides insisted that their side’s cause was not only right, but righteous: the very will of God.
Of course, that was long ago, and has nothing to do with us today. For now, on Memorial Day, we do not remember history; we do not remember our fallen. We go shopping, or celebrate a three-day weekend.
But what if we were to remember- just for a moment? Remember that Memorial Day 106 years ago, on the 11th day… of the 11th month… of the 11th year… Nov. 11, 1911 when WWI… the War to End All Wars…was brought to an end…
And we cried, “Never again!” Never again… until the next time. And the next time. And the twentieth century became notable for one thing in history: it was the first century in the history of humankind when there was no single year of peace.
And now the 21st century: not a single year of peace. Wars of liberation, wars of religion. Wars of greed. Wars of defense. Cold wars. Bloody wars. And not wars which followed the West Point Code of Fair Fighting- but Total Wars. Where the massive civilian casualties are “justifiable collateral.”
John Adams, our nation’s second president, was a wise man. “War necessarily brings with it some virtues,” he wrote, “and great and heroic virtues, too. What horrid creatures we men are, that we cannot be virtuous without murdering one another?”
In the past 14 years since we became involved in Iraq, schools and public markets, families and mommies and babies and grandparents are all bombed. Justifiable collateral. We now kill with drones, unmanned bombs that our kids unleash from Virginia like video games. Whole villages destroyed. Whole cities bombed.
But every time we strike our enemies, they will try to strike back. For which of us, if our home, if our town is attacked, won’t try to defend ourselves, and “teach them a lesson they won’t forget.” It’s just human. But if the Marshall Plan of WWII taught us anything, it is that humility and concern will get us a lot farther than humiliation and control.
Gandhi wrote, “An eye for an eye, and the whole world goes blind.” But it is easy for us, in the throes of fear, to forget that. Hermann Goering, an incarnation of evil if ever there was one, was a very smart man. He wrote, “The people can always be brought to the bidding of the leaders. That is easy. Tell them they are being attacked, and denounce the pacifists for lack of patriotism and exposing the country to danger.” It works. It’s worked in every war we’ve ever fought. But how can we make the cycle end?
Abraham Lincoln, wrote: “The only way to defeat an enemy is to make him a friend.” And our Savior Jesus Christ, has taught us that we are to love our enemies. Pray for them. Pray that good things would happen to them and to their families- things which would dispel their fear, and take away their privation and need. Give them a future with hope. For this is our only hope for peace.
For every person killed in every war is, somewhere, a mother’s son. A father’s daughter. And Berta’s little brother Franz is mourned just as surely as your Uncle John. For as it has always been, the currency of war is the blood of our beloved.
An old rabbi once asked his students, “When is night over?” How can we determine the hour of dawn, when the night ends and the day begins?” “When from a distance you can distinguish between a dog and a sheep,” suggested one student. “No,” answered the rabbi. “When you can distinguish between a fig tree and a grapevine,” offered another student. “No,” answered the rabbi. “Tell us,” the students said. The rabbi answered, “When you look into the face of a human being and have enough light to recognize that person as your sister or brother, the dawn has come. Up until then it is night, and darkness is still with us.”
It is Memorial Day, dear friends. Let us remember. Let us light the candle and play Taps in remembrance. Let us go to the cemetery in remembrance. Let us go to the photo album, go to our memories, go to that place where we have loved, and mourn our loss.
And commit ourselves again to the way of Jesus, which alone brings life: The way of Jesus, who says, “Love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you.”
Through Jesus Christ, the Prince of Peace, the Light of the world, in whose dawning we see every mother’s son as our brother. Amen.
Resources: Christian Century, May 30, 2006; Upon The Altar of the Nation: A Moral History of the American Civil War by Harry Stout, reviewed by Grant Wacker, pp. 28-33)
Scripture for May 28, 2017- Memorial Day
Matthew 5:38-48 (Inclusive New Testament translation)
Jesus was teaching on a mountainside- the Sermon on the Mount. And this is what He taught:
You have heard that it was said, “An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth.” But I tell you, don’t take revenge on someone who wrongs you. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn and offer the other. If anyone wants to sue you for your shirt, give him your undershirt as well. And if one of the occupation troops forces you to carry his pack one mile, carry it two miles. Give to those who beg from you, and don’t turn your back on those who want to borrow from you. You have heard that it was said, “Love your neighbor- but hate your enemy.” But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you. This will prove that you are the children of God. For God makes the sun rise on the bad and the good alike; God’s rain falls on the just and the unjust. If you love those who love you, what merit is there in that? Don’t tax collectors do as much? And if you greet only your sisters and brothers, what is so praiseworthy about that? Don’t Gentiles do as much? Therefore be whole and complete, as your Father in heaven is Whole and Complete.
Friends, listen to what the Spirit would say to us today.