Finding the cost of freedom...

Today I am thinking of the horror of war and the countless women and men who have learned to endure it even as they are transformed by it. I did not grow up in a military household. While most of the men on my mother's side of the family served their country in one branch of the Armed Services or another, not so with my father's people. He was a student with a young family during the Korean conflict and regularly spoke of his gratitude for his college deferment. So, while I grew up watching "The Big Picture" on most Saturday mornings before anyone else was stirring - to say nothing of my obsession with both "Combat" and "The Gallant Men" in the early 60s - I knew no one who had been touched by the realities of war first hand as a child.
Further, I ripened into adolescence as the Vietnam War grew in cultural and political prominence. Although it has become a cliche, it is also true to that this war came into our homes every night through the television. With six children to feed and an adult nursing home to run every evening, our clan would often gathered in front of the TV for supper. It was probably the one time in the day that my mother got a break. So along with our frozen fish sticks and succotash, there was also that little black screen every night keeping us glued to our chairs and focusing our attention. And while I could have done with less of "F Troop" or "Gilligan's Island," by 1967 I was addicted to Walter Cronkite and the CBS Evening News.

By the time I entered high school, there was a lively, two-pronged critique of what was being called American adventurism in Vietnam raging across the nation. The high road had been given shape and form by the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr who, in his 1967 speech "Beyond Vietnam" at the Riverside Church in NYC, articulated the moral implications of this war. In seven clear and increasingly critical points to his speech, Dr. King laid out an alternative to American foreign policy that too often sent her children to die at the behest of greed wrapped in lofty ideals.

We can no longer afford to worship the god of hate or bow before the altar of retaliation. The oceans of history are made turbulent by the ever-rising tides of hate. History is cluttered with the wreckage of nations and individuals that pursued this self-defeating path of hate. As Arnold Toynbee says: “Love is the ultimate force that makes for the saving choice of life and good against the damning choice of death and evil. Therefore the first hope in our inventory must be the hope that love is going to have the last word.” Unquote.

We are now faced with the fact, my friends, that tomorrow is today. We are confronted with the fierce urgency of now. In this unfolding conundrum of life and history, there is such a thing as being too late. Procrastination is still the thief of time. Life often leaves us standing bare, naked, and dejected with a lost opportunity. The tide in the affairs of men does not remain at flood—it ebbs. We may cry out desperately for time to pause in her passage, but time is adamant to every plea and rushes on. Over the bleached bones and jumbled residues of numerous civilizations are written the pathetic words, “Too late.” There is an invisible book of life that faithfully records our vigilance or our neglect. Omar Khayyam is right: “The moving finger writes, and having writ moves on.”

We still have a choice today: nonviolent coexistence or violent coannihilation. We must move past indecision to action. We must find new ways to speak for peace in Vietnam and justice throughout the developing world, a world that borders on our doors. If we do not act, we shall surely be dragged down the long, dark, and shameful corridors of time reserved for those who possess power without compassion, might without morality, and strength without sight. (see the whole speech @ http://mlk-kpp01.stanford.edu/index.php/ encyclopedia/ documentsentry/doc_beyond_vietnam/
  Variations on Dr. King's insights grew - and became increasingly barbed. There were voices of rage in the student movement as well as anti-colonial intellectuals from the international realm, but the Riverside speech represented the high water mark of moral critique against this war. 

The other prong of challenge that was stirring in these years was, of course, the youth culture. Heirs of the Beat Generation and the early idealism of the Kennedy's "Camelot" - with a dose of Herman Hesse, John Coltrane and the Marx Brothers added for good measure - young people all across America were experimenting with spiritual awakenings, sexual freedom and an aching desire to experience hope and meaning in body and soul. That our quest was naive and ill-formed has become all too obvious: the distance between the Human Be-In in San Francisco on January 14, 1967 and Meredith Hunter's murder at the Altamont Speedway on December 6, 1969 was less that two years. 

I knew something was going South even if I didn't know what it was: during the summer of love - 1967 - we were rocking and rolling with flowers in our hair singing "Don't you want somebody to love?" We would ride around town laughing and playing gigs like there was no tomorrow and no one worried about violence before heading off to the Fillmore East for a show. Earlier that summer I wandered around the West Village waiting for the Mothers of Invention's late show at the Garrick Theatre to open and I was in heaven. Less than two years later, however, heading into NYC felt more threatening - signs of drug abuse and violence were everywhere - and even the music had taken on a harsh tone. Grace was no longer singing much about "Saturday Afternoon" or "somebody to love" - now it was "up against the wall, mother fucker."
What I'm trying to say is that both the moral and cultural critique against the war in Vietnam intensified as I was growing up. And it became even more highly polarized while I was in college. So much so that for decades my path didn't consciously cross that of someone in the military until I was out of seminary in 1981 and ordained. We didn't do much around Memorial Day at First Church, Saginaw, MI. I don't know why but we didn't. By the time I had become pastor of Trinity United Church of Christ, Cleveland, OH, however, I was in regular conversation with vets. Many in that small working class church had been in WWII with more in Korea. And the longer I was there, the more Vietnam Vets I came to know and love. 

It was in Cleveland that I started to hear the stories from vets about what they had experienced in war. It took years to build enough trust for them to open up to me - after all I was a freakin-conscientious objector! But it happened - often in connection with my commitment to AA - and I give thanks to God that we were able to dismantle some of the fears and divisions that had grown between those who had fought and sacrificed and those of us who did not. My 10 years in Tucson gave me more experience with women and men who had seen the inside of war. And over the past 7 years in Pittsfield, I have deepened these connections slowly and patiently.

Today, on Memorial Day 2014, I find my heart weeping for those who gave their lives to protect and defend the United States. So often, our war dead served with the purest of motives. They genuinely knew what Jesus meant when he said, "Greater love has no man than this that he lay down his life for his friends." At the same time, too often their pure motives and courage have been exploited and manipulated. Both truths grieve me as a citizen and a beneficiary. As one old timer said to me, "Nobody has clean hands in this one."So while I give thanks today for these women and men as individuals at the same time I mourn what some of their deaths mean for America. 

We don't do mourning very well as a nation.  We tend to think of it as a sign of weakness. Besides there are more important things to attend to in a world as broken as our own. But without mourning, our wounds never mature in healing - they just scab over - and become a dull ache. What's more, without mourning, our spirits are never humbled and emptied so we never really have to wrestle with the moral ambiguities of our wars nor our complicity in those things we truly hate. America could use a season of grief and confession. We could stand to own our emptiness in faith, too. Because the truth of God is that when we become empty there is room for God to fill us up. 

This is a bittersweet national holiday.

Comments

Peter said…
Is that your dad ( or indeed you) leading t.he Peace March?

I think of the Israeli Defense Force which will one day have to look at its own bloody hands and face ifs own support of colonialism like our forces (Oka) and yours (Vietnam ).

May God have more mercy on us than we gave hitherto shown to one another.
RJ said…
Amen to that - yes that is me in high school - with the nickname "Col" given my peace proclivities.
Peter said…
But not a "Kentucky" one, eh? ;)

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