Memorial Day Sermon
May 27, 2018
Rev. Reebee Girash
The Eliot Church of Newton, UCC
Deuteronomy 10:12-13, 17-21
12 So now, O Israel, what does the Lord your God require of you? Only to fear the Lord your God, to walk in all his ways, to love him, to serve the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul, 13and to keep the commandments of the Lord your God and his decrees that I am commanding you today, for your own well-being.
17For the Lord your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great God, mighty and awesome, who is not partial and takes no bribe, 18who executes justice for the orphan and the widow, and who loves the strangers, providing them with food and clothing. 19You shall also love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt. 20You shall fear the Lord your God; him alone you shall worship; to him you shall hold fast, and by his name you shall swear. 21He is your praise; he is your God, who has done for you these great and awesome things that your own eyes have seen.
12 So then, brothers and sisters, we are debtors, not to the flesh, to live according to the flesh— 13for if you live according to the flesh, you will die; but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live. 14For all who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God. 15For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received a spirit of adoption. When we cry, ‘Abba! Father!’ 16it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God,17and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ—if, in fact, we suffer with him so that we may also be glorified with him.
On this Trinity Sunday, I offer you a three point sermon:
I walk the paths of a local college campus quite often, around the track, then uphill, past the chapel, downhill, past the student center, up the steps at the very corner of campus. As I ascend the stairs, I ponder the engraved granite markers:
To honor the men and women of this campus / who served their country with unselfishness in time of war / this memorial was built by their classmates and their friends / in grateful appreciation. 1929. Reconstructed 2015. (1)
Up the stairs. The Spanish American War. Up the stairs. World War I. Up the stairs. World War II. Up the stairs. The Korea War. Up the stairs. The Vietnam War. Up the stairs, to the top: Together on one marker: The Gulf War, 1990-1991. Post 9/11 Conflicts, 2001 -….
Post 9/11 Conflicts, 2001 – …
We have been in a state of armed conflict since 2001. On this campus they chose to engrave a permanent marker with no end date for armed conflict, implicitly acknowledging we are in a state of endless war.
The number of military and department of defense members who have died in these conflicts:
6959 (as of May 21) (2)
I listen to NPR. Occasionally I hear a piece about the conflicts in Yemen, Afghanistan, Somalia, Iraq, Syria but they do not stay in my consciousness. (3) I do not personally know a soldier serving overseas. I don’t know who are veterans are here at Eliot, other than Doug Stuart. I don’t know who we’ve lost in war.
I suspect I am in the majority. Casualties of war – the lives of beloved human beings lost to armed conflict – are far removed from our daily lives, here in Newton.
It was different, I think, in previous generations. My folks (I was raised by my grandparents) spoke much more frequently of friends lost in World War II. My cousin sent me with a commission when my class visited DC: to touch the names of our relatives (multiple relatives) on the Vietnam Veteran’s Memorial.
The numbers bear out this modern disconnect. In World War II, 12% of the US population served. In Vietnam, nearly 10%. (4) Right now, 0.4% of the population of the US is active duty military. (5)
That doesn’t mean that fewer people are dying in armed conflict these days. 7,000 service members have died in these 17 years. That is not the 58,000 who died in Vietnam but it’s a huge number. A thousand more have lost limbs. The number of civilians killed in this ongoing war may be over one million although their names are not always carefully recorded. (6)
There are disproportionately more people of color on active duty, disproportionately more from rural areas, and from southern states. (7) No wonder I don’t know anyone who’s serving.
In the words of local pastor Day McAllister,
I am…aware that a disproportionate number of the soldiers, that are on the front lines of our Wars, have always been the poor, the undereducated, and members of Communities of Color. There is a way to hold firm to our commitment of peace, while acknowledging the often invisible sacrifices within our communities. I pray for the day when the words of Isaiah 2:4 will be the reality of our lives: “God will mediate between nations and will settle international disputes. They will hammer their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation will no longer fight against nation, nor train for war anymore.” (8)
On this Memorial Day, I want to remember the fallen. To know the names of these beloved children of God who have died serving overseas.
In 2018, here are just a few of their names:
And others (9)
This morning I also want to make some connections.
It is easy to feel distanced from those who serve, how we are caring for our active duty and veterans, and from the decisions that lead our country into armed conflict. Yet we need to know, need to make the connections.
If I think this is all far removed from me, I have only to look toward the way my tax dollars are used. The largest portion of our taxes are used on health care. The second largest, nearly a quarter, are spent on Defense – the Pentagon and the military. (10) Education? 4%. I could go on.
But I want to make one more connection. What is it like to serve? Well, active duty does not always provide a living wage. Thousands of military service members use food stamps. There is a food pantry for service members at Camp Pendleton – run by a nearby church. One in four children at DOD schools qualifies for free lunch. (11) Risk your life for your country and you might not be able to pack a lunch for your kids. Even with that emphasis on military spending, our service members are at risk of poverty themselves. And poverty extends to our veterans: 1.5 million live in poverty. (12) 27% of veterans of the current wars are food insecure. (13)
Let me say it plainly. Economically, our country prioritizes military spending over almost anything else we do – prioritizes war-waging over ending poverty, protecting our environment, or educating our children. Our military-focused economy is a key cause of poverty and economic injustice in the United States.
The words of Dr. King in his sermon at Riverside Church in 1967 still ring true: “There is nothing, except a tragic death wish, to prevent us from reordering our priorities, so that the pursuit of peace will take precedence over the pursuit of war.”
In that same sermon, he said: “A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual doom.”
The very basis of militarism, I would say, is xenophobia and greed. As near as I can tell, the two ideas that undergird a war-focused economy are these: our country must be protected from all others, our people must be protected from all others. The rest of the world is dangerous; we are superior. Xenophobia supports greed: there is a lot of money and power to be made from the war economy.
Contrast this with Deuteronomy’s instructions to the Israelites:
17For the Lord your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great God, mighty and awesome, who is not partial (loves every one of her children)
and takes no bribe, (is not caught up in consolidating wealth and power) 18who executes justice for the orphan and the widow (even those from Guatemala) , and who loves the strangers (even those from Yemen), providing them with food and clothing (as opposed to deporting them or shooting them or calling them animals).
19You shall also love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.
20You shall fear the Lord your God; him alone you shall worship; to him you shall hold fast, and by his name you shall swear.
It may shock you to learn that I am not a pacifist. There are wars in our history that in the end I would term just. I used to preach on just war theory as the middle way between war and pacifism, war restricted to a just cause, with right intent, as a last resource and with proportionate actions. But as I am learning that just war theory only seems to kick in on the brink of violent conflict. I am increasingly compelled by the middle way between just war theory and pacifism: Just Peace theory, which involves proactive, positive, nonviolent, and strategic peace making. It not only seeks to prevent war but to create right relationships. It makes no profit in war. (14) It is a way of thinking and acting in the world embraced by many churches, by many veterans, by many social justice activists.
I don’t know that just peace theory is the magical answer. But I do know that when armed conflict seems inevitable and war seems endless, we have to question our theories of war and peace. We have to try another way.
We have, since 9/11, been asked to unite behind one common national security agenda. Those who have questioned the direction of our military actions or the militarization of domestic police forces have had their patriotism questioned.
This is our economy, this is our country, and it is not unpatriotic to question endless war. I would say on this Memorial Day weekend it is the height of patriotism to hold our leaders’ decisions to the highest possible moral and ethical standard, because that standard prioritizes human life over profit – people from our country and people from every other. That highest possible moral standard prioritizes solving the problems of poverty, racism and xenophobia over the needs of the war economy.
Dr. Barber, earlier this month, said this:
“ I come to this with no hatred for our country, but with a prayerful commitment to join with those who love her enough to be the real kind of patriots that dare to tell her the truth….Overcommitment to militarism and war will drive us down into the graveyard of life; it can create a situation in which we do not know our name or purpose, and when every decision is driven by the military industrial complex rather than what is right.” (15)
Even as we support our troops and our veterans, even as we remember the fallen, we must also connect the war economy to poverty and xenophobia. We worship a God who lifts up the poor and the oppressed, the widow and the orphan, the stranger and the sojourner. We who worship God should have the wisdom to do the same.
Let me close with the
Benedictine World Peace Prayer
Lead me from death to life, From falsehood to truth Lead me from despair to hope,From fear to trust Lead me from hate to love, From war to peace
Let peace fill our heart, our world, our universe. Amen. (16)
1Text adapted slightly from Tufts University Veteran’s Memorial.
8 In an email to First Church Somerville, UCC members and friends, May 24, 2018