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May 24, 2009: “The Myth of Memorial Day; Preaching Peace in a Time of War”

A Samurai warrior of Japan requested an audience with a famous Zen teacher, or Roshi, to learn about Heaven and Hell. The warrior finally was allowed to appear before the Roshi and asked again to learn of Heaven and Hell. The teacher, with great contempt in his voice, said: “Samurai warriors are too stupid to understand anything, they are good for nothing. You look especially stupid and your old raggedy sword could probably not cut fruit. Samurai are dirt!”

  The warrior could not bear the insult to his great tradition or to himself, and in a great rage pulled his sword to cut off the head of the insulting teacher. “You shall die for your insults!”, he cried and rushed toward the teacher who folded his hands and said: “Thus open the gates of Hell.”

 Immediately the Samurai understood what the teacher had done and dropped to his knees, saying humbly,” O great master, I realize now what hell is, and apologize humbly for my actions.”

 The Roshi responded: “Thus open the gates of Heaven.”
     …..At the end of the talk someone from the audience asked the Dalai Lama,
“Why didn’t you fight back against the Chinese?”
The Dalai Lama looked down, swung his feet just a bit, then looked back up at us and said with a gentle smile,
“Well, war is obsolete, you know.”
 Then, after a few moments, his face grave, he said, “Of course the mind can rationalize fighting back, but the heart… the heart would never understand.
Then you would be divided in yourself, the heart and the mind, and the war would be inside of you.”

 ” War is hell.” So said a famous general, and who better to know. Well, perhaps the low-ranking soldiers who do most of the fighting and even more of the dying know even better that war is hell, yet how many more wars will it take, to paraphrase Bob Dylan, until the world realizes that too many people have died?

 When I was a child, growing up in a small town in New Hampshire, in the 50’s and early 60’s, it seemed like everyone in town would gather at the war memorial in the center of town for Memorial day ceremonies. We school children would always have a part, having rehearsed in school our lines of patriotic glorification often originating from the Bible. There would be patriotic and religious songs sung and prayers by the local minister and perhaps by a teacher or government official. Memorial Day is an example of what sociologist, Robert Bellah has called ” civil religion” , where government adapts a kind of generic religiosity that often refers to God and Country as somehow connected to our government- secular political leaders and their actions, especially in wartime. We could as easily call it the American mythology which we are always helping to shape, always helping to co-create., especially on Memorial Day and perhaps the Forth of July- two sacred civil religious patriotic days which always seem to blend religion and state in what I want to call a troublesome way, a away that I believe we must outgrow to become more universal.

 Those were the days in the 50’s and 60’s that school, religion (usually of the Protestant persuasion), and government all seemed to blend together in “civil religion.” Was Memorial Day a religious or secular holiday? No one asked that question then. After all it was around that time, in the 1950’s, when we added the words “under God” to our daily school ritual of “Pledging Allegiance to the Flag.” The great General Eisenhower was President and the Korean War was just over. I loved to play army, cowboys, and perhaps the unconscious reason I went to serve a church in San Antonio, is that Walt Disney introduced me to the great hero, Davy Crocket, giving his life bravely at the Alamo. Yet who remembers the speech Eisenhower made in a 1953 when he , cautioned against the military industrial complex; he had lived through the horror of W.W.II and as a military man cautioned is against building up too much military: ?Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed. This world in arms is not spending money alone. It is spending the sweat of its laborers, the genius of its scientists, the hopes of its children. This is not a way of life at all in any true sense. Under the clouds of war, it is humanity hanging on a cross of iron.?

 I have always wondered why the losing country never automatically became atheists after proof that their God had lost. Or at least started looking for another God. And if you will excuse me for sounding like Andy Rooney, have you ever wondered why God needs human soldiers to do the dirty work? Why not just thunderbolt the enemy? If God is on our side why do we need such a big defense budget? Better still, if God is on our side, why don’t we just request that God do a few miracles and convince the whole world to end all wars?

 Perhaps the mythology of war is so ingrained in our bones that we need to have an enemy, especially an enemy with a different God or God-concept. Memorial Day has many myths associated with it, and I use the word “myth” not in the connotation as another word for untruth, fallacy, a made up story, even a lie, in the context of mythology as Joseph Campbell has, in the ancient religio-historical belief stories and tales of early humans, as in Greek and Roman Mythology, but also in the Judeo-Christian mythology. The Gods and Goddesses of Greek mythology, for instance, were once believed in as real, indeed Socrates was sentenced to death because the authorities thought he was teaching atheism to the young by questioning the literalness of belief in the Gods and Goddesses.

 Should not Memorial day have a dual purpose, to not only honor and remember those brave boys and girls, women and men who gave their lives defending our country and for a cause that they believed in based on a long mythology of war, but also a day of mourning for those who died on the other side who also believed, no doubt, that they were defending their country and what they believed in? Could Memorial Day be a time to glorify peace for a change? To pledge that we will put as much time, effort, and money into peace and justice as we do into the defense department?

 It is, unfortunately, the “strangest dream” to think the world would ever agree to put an end to war. Yet in religion and mythology a time of world peace may often be seen as an ideal to work towards, or as time to come when Peace will rule. Often, it seems, peace is seen as possible only in the next life. One wonders if the world could be convinced to give up the mythology or belief that there is another life after this one, after death, whether we could begin to take this life more seriously and sacredly, and begin to wage peace as intently as we now wage war. If there were no warrior heaven and death was viewed as the end of existence, would war retain its glory? Or indeed, if warriors were not rewarded, but punished in hell, would war and its warriors retain the glory?

 But, the pragmatists among us will ask, is it realistic to think that the leopard can change its spots? Even if America decided to be peaceful, what about other countries? Is not some sort of world police force at least necessary? Isn’t it naive to think that the world can ever live in peace? How can you refute or change mythology and/or religion; indeed, how can you change human nature?

 Perhaps Memorial Day could be a time to examine these questions and to search for answers in examining the root cause of wars, instead of blaming them on human nature, especially when we are so often speaking of is Male nature. I think we men especially need to examine our warrior side which leads to both domestic and national violence. Memorial Day can become a glorification and encouragement of that violence. Is that what we, both men and women, want?

In his book, Credo, Rev. William Sloane Coffin, well known UCC the peace activist minister, once pastor of the famous progressive Riverside Church in NYC wrote:

“Historian Will Durant estimated that in all of human history only 29 years can be described as free of war. And of all centuries, the one just past set records for bloodletting… It is consoling, of course, to view ourselves as models of rectitude and even more so as to misunderstanding of models of rectitude. But simple honesty compels us to see that we are as other nations are. The trouble with saying, “The only thing that the other side understands is force,” is that you have to behave as if the only thing you understand is force?”.

 When will we learn that there is no such thing as a war to end all wars? Could we begin to teach that on Memorial Day while still paying respect to those who have died in the service of their country? Could not the vast resources of our military industrial complex be utilized in a quest for world peace and justice, beginning in our own country where abject poverty and discrimination abounds?

 I believe we can do something about changing the myth of memorial day. Let us then create a day of memory for peace and justice throughout all the world; let us not just visualize world peace but memorialize and work towards it. Let us honor those who have died, but honor peace as well on Memorial day, and ask our leaders for a real “new world order” of peace and justice for all. While in religion, there is always a part that emphasizes war, there is another part that calls for peace. Let our religion stand for the sacredness and meaning of this life and realize that there is no enemy called “them”; there is only “us”.

 From Dictionary of UU’s: (On April 1, 1917, in “A Statement to My People on the Eve of War,” Unitarian minister, John Haynes Holmes, pronounced war an “open and utter violation of Christianity.” He wrote: “If war is right, then Christianity is wrong, false, a lie. If Christianity is right, then war is wrong, false, a lie.” The next day President Woodrow Wilson requested from Congress a declaration of war on Germany. That evening the board of the Church of the Messiah met to respond to Holmes’s pacifist avowal. Though only one member agreed with his position, the board determined that the issue at stake was the freedom of their pulpit. They unanimously supported Holmes’s freedom to preach as he felt called. Holmes was fortunate. Among the 15 active Unitarian pacifist ministers, only 6 remained in their pulpits when the War ended.

 Retired UU minister, Donald Harrington, said about his predecessor, John Hayes Holmes, at the The Community Church of New York (2001);

  I have said many times that I believe John Haynes Holmes was the greatest all-around minister of religion of the 20th Century: pacifist, orator, churchman, social service organizer, racial and social justice pioneer, pastor, adult educator, political participant and leader, poet and philosopher, all at once!

 Holmes may have been best known for his stalwart pacifism and early recognition of the greatness of Mahatma Gandhi. It was in 1921, when Gandhi was almost unknown, that Holmes preached a sermon entitled “The Greatest Man Alive in the World Today” – not Wilson, Lloyd George, Lenin, Stalin, not Trotsky; not Clemenceau, Churchill or Tolstoy, but Mohandas K. Gandhi of India, the apostle of non-violence!?

 Think about what Gandhi accomplished through nonviolence, without war, though certainly wars have been fought since and still!

 In an article, “Why Peace Begins With You: Seven spiritual practices for bringing peace into your life and the world around you,” the Indian physician and inspirational writer, Deepak Chopra, says: “The approach of personal transformation is the idea of the future for ending war. It depends on the only advantage that people of peace have over war makers: sheer numbers. If enough people in the world transformed themselves into peacemakers, war could end. The leading idea here is critical mass. It took a critical mass of human beings to embrace electricity and fossil fuels, to teach evolution and adopt every major religion. When the time is right and enough people participate, critical mass can change the world. Can it end war”

 There is precedent to believe that it might. The ancient Indian ideal of Ahimsa, or non-violence, gave Gandhi his guiding principle of reverence for life. In every spiritual tradition it is believed that peace must exist in one’s heart before it can exist in the outer world. Personal transformation deserves a chance.?

 “Be the change you want to see,” someone has said. So there are all kinds of examples of this. The Peace Pole Project was founded in 1955 in Japan by Masahisa Goi, who dedicated his life to the service and betterment of humanity. Goi, a poet, writer and philosopher was so moved by the devastation caused by the second world war that he founded the World Peace Prayer Society, now located in New York City. It is accepted as a non-governmental organization in affiliation with the Department of Public Information of the United Nations. A peace pole stands in the lobby of the UN building today.

 Nearly 250,000 peace poles have been planted in 180 countries around the world and dedicated as monuments to peace. Located on all continents and in every country you can think of from the pyramids at El Giza in Egypt to the magnetic North Pole in Canada. They are promoting the healing of conflict is places like Sarajevo and the Allenby Bridge between Israel and Jordan. One can be found at Confucious burial site in Taiwan; Gorky Park, Russia; Atomic Bomb Dome in Hiroshima, Japan; Findhorn, Scotland; Iraq and at the First Unitarian Universalist Church, San Antonio.

 When a community plants a peace pole we celebrate this season of non-violence of Martin Luther King, Jr. It is right that we celebrate here, the religious home of Henry David Thoreau, whose writings on Civil Disobedience has influenced millions through Gandhi and King. This peace pole it links with people all over the world who planted their poles with the same spirit of peace.

 So we have a peace pole outside here; let us celebrate it by marking it as such plainly and in large bold letters so newcomers know what that peace of wood in the ground out front stands for!

 We dedicated our Peace Pole 2005 at First Unitarian Universalist Church in San Antonio, TX, home of the Alamo as well as 5 military Bases. We were supposed to have the grandson of gandhi Arun Gandhi dedicate it, but at the last minute he was unable to attend; it was all part of peace week of which we were a part with a few active churches.

 On memorial day, let us honor those who gave their lives for their country, let us honor the brave veterans, and those who dedicate their lives to our defense, to those who are currently serving in the military, especially those on active duty in Afghanistan, and Iraq. But let us examine the myths of memorial day to see if we are not encouraging war rather than working for peace, which after all, seems to me should be at the heart of memorial day-no more war, no more soldiers dying- on any battlefields.

 Imagine if Memorial Day became a time to glorify Peace instead of parades of military might and battle ribbons and bugles and drums and sabers and guns. I’ll have to admit, it seems impossible, yet I think of Martin Luther King and Gandhi, and what a profound influence they had on peace and change, so I’m not going to give up either. I’m going to continue to preach peace on the holiday that glorifies war and continue to talk about the myth of memorial day, because I believe that peace is possible, but only if we are willing to work for it., willing to share with one another what we have, and realize that we are all in this together, all in one lifeboat and if one end, even if it is the other end is sinking, pretty soon, we will all be feeling wet..

Amen, Peace,Love, Shalom,Assalaamu Alaikum , Blessed Be,Namaste, Abrazo a Todos,Vaya con su Dios