Some while back I was asked -and agreed-to officiate at a funeral for an elderly woman who was not a part of the church I serve. These arrangements can be a lot like a blind date: kind of awkward in the beginning and you just don’t know how it’s going to end up. I had not met any of her family until I sat down with a couple members to get some information that would help me make the service as personal as possible, given the circumstances. Not surprisingly, they spoke of the woman’s virtuous traits, kind behavior and shared a few endearing stories of the deceased.
I had been told that a few members of the family wanted to share some memories. After I finished offering a eulogy that included the pleasant tid-bits that had be provided to me, a daughter and a granddaughter got up to speak. Each of them talked of the love the woman had for her family and how she was an example and inspiration for them. It was all quite moving.
Then a scruffy looking guy in his late thirties stood to speak. He gazed at the grieving collection of people gathered in front of him and slowly said, “Ya’ll know me and you know I haven’t always done everything right in my life. But I say it like I see it. So let’s be honest here…Grandma wasn’t always that good. She had a fowl mouth. She told the nastiest jokes you ever heard. And it wasn’t beyond her to grab some guy’s ass. You know it’s true!”
Uncomfortable laughter broke out here and there in the crowd. But there were also angry, disapproving scowls. I had the distinct impression that the anger wasn’t because the man didn’t tell the truth… but because he did. He broke the unspoken rule of memorial services: only selective “memory” that honors the dead is welcome. Telling certain truths, some of them very important, don’t serve the purpose of the occasion which is not primarily about truth.
When we remember selectively, is it really memory that we foster or is it just some sort of propaganda? Theologian Miroslav Volf perceptively wrote, “To remember something incorrectly is, in an important sense, not to remember at all…What we don’t ‘remember’ truthfully, we aren’t remembering but imagining” (The End of Memory: Remembering Rightly in a Broken World, pp. 47, 48).
As Memorial Day is celebrated, is memory really what is encouraged or is it just an exercise in imagining? In other words, can we tell the truth on Memorial Day? While some truth is given voice on this solemn occasion, there are other important truths that are distorted in the telling or pushed from memory altogether. This is the case, not just in community Memorial Day services, but in churches that allow a Memorial Day focus to be introduced into worship. While I find the inclusion of this nationalist holiday in worship a wholly inappropriate, theologically unjustifiable practice, I find it doubly disturbing that from what I have seen churches do little to introduce much needed truth to the occasion.
In his classic study of Memorial Day, sociologist W. Lloyd Warner wrote, “Memorial Day is a cult of the dead which organizes and integrates the various faiths and national and class groups into a sacred unity….The rites [of Memorial Day] show …particular honor to those who were killed in battle ‘fighting for their country.’ The death of a soldier in battle is believed to be a ‘voluntary sacrifice’ by him on the altar of his country” (American Life: Dream and Reality, pp. 8, 33). Remembering the dead, including those who died in war, is a worthwhile activity. Likewise, it is appropriate to recognize and honor sacrifice.
However, too often on Memorial Day, rather than remembering individuals who tragically died in battle, an idealized version of the war dead is presented. The dead are indiscriminately described as “heroes.” Sweeping claims are made about the reason for their deaths: they died to “protect our freedom.” And in particular in churches we are told they died for the freedom of religion, the freedom to worship.
We are told soldiers “sacrificed themselves, ” though they were actually sacrificed by politicians who sent them to war. And in churches scriptures are quoted to leave the impression they died as martyrs for their faith: “those who lose their life for my sake will find it” (Matthew 16:25). Further, the deaths of soldiers in battle –while engaged in the violent effort to kill others- are compared to the death of the nonviolent Jesus and scripture is misappropriated to make the point: “Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends” (John 15:13).
Right remembering of the dead is a moral undertaking. It shows respect for the departed and displays sympathy for family members and friends left behind. But untruthful memorials serve other purposes, sometimes masking truth and glorifying that which should not be glorified. I think there are some questions we should ask as Memorial Day approaches.
(1) Can we remember without attributing reasons for war that aren’t in fact the real reasons? To celebrate Memorial Day by claiming soldiers died that we might be free is misleading. The real causes behind most wars have had little to do with protecting freedom of speech or assembly or worship. Major General Smedley Butler, USMC , declared, “Beautiful ideals were painted for our boys who were sent out to die.… No one mentioned to them, as they marched away, that their going and their dying would mean huge war profits.” Can we remember in a way that doesn’t falsify the causes of war, justify national self-righteousness, or turn Memorial Day into a recruiting tool to entice the young to enter the armed forces?
(2) Can we remember the innocent victims of war, even as we remember those who died while fighting? The majority of people who die in wars are not combatants. It is certainly not the case that sufficient care is taken by the military to avoid civilian deaths or that investigations of the deaths of the innocent are always undertaken. For those who believe otherwise, I highly recommend the viewing of the critically acclaimed, Academy Award nominated documentary Dirty Wars. Far too many people have suffered at the hands of the American military who have engaged in no armed hostilities. Yet they are maimed and killed, often on ill-founded suspicions. Remembering these men, women, and children can help us remember rightly on Memorial Day.
(3) Can we remember without the “us versus them” factor that is inevitable when we honor “our” war dead? Memorial Day was formerly known as Decoration Day and it served as an occasion to commemorate the Union and Confederate soldiers who died in the Civil War. By including the war dead on both sides of the conflict, the day was used to affirm unity rather than reinforce division. The sacrifice of the soldiers was acknowledged but one side was not glorified over the other. Can we remember those who died in war without reinforcing nationalism? Perhaps if all who died on battlefields were commemorated on Memorial Day –and not just Americans- the occasion might foster something greater than national unity: a global unity rooted in an acknowledgment of the tragedy of war.
Those Americans who suffered and died in war ought to be remembered. The grave difficulties endured by of those who faced armed conflict and lost their lives should be recognized. The soldiers’ best intentions in allowing themselves to be put in harm’s way –regardless of the actual reasons for war- deserve to be honored. But in the process, war itself should not be honored, the reasons for war whitewashed, nor should the suffering and the deaths of others be ignored. Rather “putting away falsehood, let all of us speak the truth to our neighbor” (Ephesians 4:25).