|Arlington National Cemetery|
they shall beat their swords into plowshares,
and their spears into pruning hooks;
nation shall not lift up sword against nation,
neither shall they learn war any more.
When I was a little boy we had a Memorial Day tradition of going to the cemetery to put flowers on the graves of relatives. One time, we stopped for gas on the way home, and my dad went inside to talk with the guys who ran the station, while my sister and I waited in the car with my mother.
I asked Mom about the flags we had seen at many of the graves and she told me that the flags marked the burial places of veterans. I asked if they had all died in the Second World War, and she said, no, some had died in other wars. But the flags did not mean that they had been killed in a war; the flags marked the graves of all veterans. It meant that they had served in the military.
Then we talked about those who had died in the war and she told me that when a family lost a son they would put a flag in the window (I know there is a tradition of stars, but I think she talked about flags). Mom had been in high school during the war, and she was visibly moved by the memory.
“That must have been very sad for their mothers,” I said, seeing her emotion. “Yes,” she said, with tears in her eyes, “some families had more than one flag.”
“I wish I had been alive then,” I said. “I wish I had been in the war. I would have killed all those Japanese and Germans who made those mothers so sad!”
I was trying to cheer her up, and I could tell she knew that I meant well. She was quiet for a moment and they she said softly, “You know, Billy, Japanese and German soldiers had mothers, too.”
And I said, “Don’t say that. I don’t want to think about that!”
If we really think about it, it is almost unbearable. But as Christians, it is precisely what we ought to think about.
Mom’s thoughts come back to me every Memorial Day.
My other Memorial Day memory is of singing Julia Ward Howe’s epic, “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.” She wrote it with the goal of inspiring the Union troops, blending biblical apocalypticism with patriotic militarism, she set it to what had originally been a tune used in Methodist camp meetings.
At the time, the music provided the tune for the melancholy, “John Brown’s Body” and Howe wanted to use it for something more inspiring. The result is stirring and encouraging.
And if you think about it, it is also deeply troubling.
Lest there be any doubt about her belief in the righteousness of the Union cause, the third verse sets it forth with brutal honesty:
I have read a fiery Gospel
writ in burnished rows of steel,
"As ye deal with My contemners
so with you My grace shall deal,"
Let the Hero born of woman
crush the serpent with His heel,
Since God is marching on
The "Hero" is the Union soldier, but the heel that crushes the Confederate soldier (aka "the serpent") belongs to God. Not surprisingly, that verse is omitted from our United Methodist Hymnal.
She is best known for that hymn, but she was also an abolitionist and a suffragist, and she was one of the founders of what we now call “Mother’s Day.”
Although she never wavered in her affirmation of the cause for which the Civil War was fought, she was appalled by the human cost.
In response to the carnage she had seen in the Civil War, she called for a Mother’s Day of Peace, in which the women of the world would declare a common interest in nurturing and protecting life. Her Mother’s Day Proclamation of 1870, presented that bold vision:
Arise then ... women of this day!
Arise, all women who have hearts!
Whether your baptism be of water or of tears!
"We will not have questions answered
by irrelevant agencies,
Our husbands will not come to us,
reeking with carnage,
For caresses and applause.
Our sons shall not be taken from us to unlearn
All that we have been able to teach them
of charity, mercy and patience.
We, the women of one country,
Will be too tender of those of another country
To allow our sons to be trained to injure theirs."
As men have often forsaken the plow and the anvil
at the summons of war,
Let women now leave all that may be left of home
for a great and earnest day of counsel.
Let them meet first, as women,
to bewail and commemorate the dead.
Let them then solemnly take counsel
with each other
as to the means
whereby the great human family
can live in peace,
Each learning after his own time,
the sacred impress,
Not of Caesar, but of God.
Thank you for reading. Your thoughts and comments are always welcome. Please feel free to share on social media as you wish.
*This post includes material originally published on this blog in 2010.