By Lex, on Mon – May 31, 2004
The text of my speech, for those who were curious. It will be given in church, so there are religious references – if such things offend you, I recommend you read elsewhere.
Wish me luck!
I’m honored to speak to you today, on this our celebration of Memorial Day, a day of remembrance that we have observed in one form or another and on different days for over 136 years, since shortly after the American Civil War. This is a day of national remembrance for those who have served our country so well, and who have all too often paid the ultimate sacrifice. And because of this I am honored not because you have asked me to speak, but because of whom you have asked me to represent: The cream of American youth that held the defense of our democracy in their hands as a sacred trust, and in the execution of that trust gave all that they had, or ever would have upon this earth.
The Episcopal Church has always had a history of providing her youth to the defense of their country. At my alma mater, the US Naval Academy, up until around 1920 you could attend any service you desired at the campus chapel, so long as it was Episcopalian. That was changed in later years of course, because the Naval Academy is an institution of the State, and our Constitution, which we in the military hold as a sacred document, mandates the separation of church and state. A document that we swear by God to support and defend, no doubt in honor of that separation. And so I stand before you in a somewhat bifurcated character, wearing the uniform of the State’s power but also in my private personality as a man of Christian faith. I am not discontent in this: I am reminded of the example of the great philosopher who first recognized and laid the foundation in western political thought for the separation of church and state: You may know of him.
Political opponents trying to trick him into an answer that would either betray his faith or trick him into mutiny against government asked this philosopher a question. He responded:
“Render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s, and render unto God that which is God’s.”
That from Gospel according to Mathew, who goes on to say: When (the Pharisees) heard this, they were amazed. So they left him and went away.”
For my own part, I doubt that I will amaze you today, so I hope that you stay with me, and bear with me a little longer.
Memorial Day is different things to different people. Oliver Wendell Holmes in his famous Memorial Day speech some 20 years after the Civil War said that, “stripped of the temporary associations which gives rise to it, it is now the moment when by common consent we pause to become conscious of our national life and to rejoice in it, to recall what our country has done for each of us, and to ask ourselves what we can do for the country in return.”
Memorial Day started out as an occasion to meet in church and pray together in the memory of those who gave that last full measure of devotion in that Civil War, it has, like many things in our society, evolved over time, and experienced ebbs and flows, as the forces of history move over us, and move on again, always to return. For some it is merely the beginning of the summer, and a counterpoint to Labor Day – a day of travel to the beaches, picnics and cookouts. For those who have lost loved ones in the service of our country, no special day of mourning or remembrance is required to feel their absence. For the rest of us, it is a chance to reflect on the meaning of sacrifice, a word that we as Christian folk should understand at least as well as anyone else, knowing how Christ’s sacrifice has redeemed us.
For many years Memorial Day had been a somewhat academic, almost formulaic observation, guarded chiefly by grizzled men in Veterans of Foreign War chapters. But today we are a nation at war, and now fresh names are daily being added to the lists of honored dead, and so it is with a somewhat heavier heart than in years past that we remind ourselves of those who risk all, and those who give all, to keep terror from our shores, to preserve our freedoms and our way of life. We are once again watching history move over us, and some of us indeed are making it.
When the Berlin Wall came down, Francis Fukuyama, the eminent professor of International Economics at Johns Hopkins famously stated that we had reached the end of history, but now we know that history has come back to us with a vengeance. There is a Chinese curse that goes, “may you live in interesting times.” And we do live in interesting times, but we are by no means accursed, but rather blessed, because we still have young men and women who will volunteer to serve for us and stand for us, and be faithful to us, yes even to the uttermost extremity in a time of war.
Carl von Clauswitz was a Prussian military philosopher in the early 19th century who wrote that warfare is an extension of politics by other means. While this may be true, I don’t intend to speak of warfare per se, and certainly don’t intend to go down the path of politics here in this sacred place. I will try not to speak too much of the war we are engaged in for two reasons– first because this day does not belong only to those who fight today, but also to all those who went before, who fought in their times of national trial. Secondly, I am here to speak of soldiers, and not war, its causes or its effects, because even while those inform the soldier’s service and the energy he brings to his mission, at the end of the day it is left to us in this democracy of ours to decide whether or not they shall fight, knowing full well that the fruits of freedom are all too often purchased with the soldier’s sacrifice. In this blessed land of freedom and democracy the solider chooses to serve, but it is we ourselves who choose for him to fight.
So I intend to speak of warriors, and I will collectively call them all soldiers, although they will think of themselves separately as soldiers, Sailors, airmen and Marines. I will speak of who they are, and why they serve and what that service means to us. And I mean to speak of their faith, because that is what we are here to share with them, and with each other.
So who are these men and women who serve for us, who fight and all too often die for us? They come from everywhere, and all parts of society. Perhaps it is enough to say that they are young. A.E. Houseman wrote a poem in remembrance of the Soldiers of the Great War, in which he said:
Here dead we lie
Because we did not choose
To live and shame the land
From which we sprung.
Life, to be sure,
Is nothing much to lose,
But young men think it is,
And we were young.
Why do they serve for us, these young people? There are as many different reasons as there are servicemen, but I think there are some commonalities, some recurrent themes: Money for college perhaps, a chance to see the world, or at least that part of it which is not in their hometown. Some seek an opportunity to test the content of their character. Adventure. A well-marked path to equitable advancement. And patriotism.
They would probably not acknowledge that last aloud, in front of their friends – it is not always popular to be a patriot it seems. Shortly after 9/11 a law was passed with the intent to allow our security and intelligence services to more readily share information, to prevent further attacks. Since then, it has broadly been attacked, often for no better reason it seems than its name: The Patriot Act.
Patriotism to be sure may be the last refuge of a scoundrel, but he does not have that space to himself alone – true patriots also share it with him, however grudgingly. Chiefly they are people who believe that the world their parents’ generation sacrificed for, and passed down to them in trust, is worth defending, even with their very lives. And I thank God for that belief.
It is truly said I think, that there are no atheists in a foxhole – when a potentially violent end is close to hand, we look for larger meaning to our lives. And if not all of them are Christians, or even religious, they nearly all believe in evil, and so they nearly all believe in good. And they have faith that what this country stands for in an all too often dangerous and darkening world is goodness. They have faith; they understand that in times of sore trial,
The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness does not overpower it.- John 1:5
They have faith in themselves, and in each other, because they have faith in you, their countrymen. This faith is simple – it is not complex. This faith has to do with trust – not for the average soldier the just war theories of Thomas Aquinas, nor for him the nuanced cocktail party discussions of inside the beltway elites – they trust the American people through their elected representatives in the various branches to do that thinking, and carry on that dialogue for them. They understand that participation in democracy through elections carries with it an explicit social contract to abide with the results, regardless of which party carries the day, and that declining to participate in the democratic process implies tacit acquiescence on the part of the apathetic to the consequences. They fight for us as though we were united behind them, because of their trust that we would not lightly hazard their lives, nor diminish their sacrifices. They fight for the soldier on their left and right, because he or she is the living manifestation of all of us. Because in a firefight, the man or woman next to them is all they know of America in that moment, and all they may ever know again.
We place an awful burden upon these young men and women – it was popular not too long ago to ask, “What would Jesus do?” And most of them know that whatever else might come, it is very unlikely that the Prince of Peace who counseled us to turn the other cheek, would take up arms against his country’s enemies. In doing so, we ask him not only to risk his own life, but also, potentially to take the lives of others, and this, they know at some visceral level, is wrong.
But also we know that there are many levels and gradations of evil, just as there are many levels and gradations of good. And while the ends may not always and everywhere justify the means, we also know that nothing worth having ever came cheaply. Our father’s generation, whom we finally memorialized this weekend at the Capitol mall, spent 400,000 American lives in the fight against fascism and totalitarianism, and gave to us this country, this beacon to humanity, this city on a hill. They gave it to us in trust for our children, in trust to the world’s children. And they did all of that in a country with less than half our population, and nothing remotely like our material resources. Truly, they were the “Greatest Generation.”
We may not know, right now, how long this struggle we are embarked upon may last. We may not be certain how many more will have to suffer, and if in the end the suffering is proportionate to the gain. All this is for history to decide.
But we know, right now, that we must not break faith with those who did not, would not break faith with us. They are only the latest members of a long and distinguished line of servicemen that were prepared to give that last, full measure of devotion for us, and for those they fight alongside. As my philosopher from earlier said,
“Greater love hath no man, than this, that a man may lay down his life for his friends.”
– John 15:13
There are all kinds of heroes. There are firefighters and police officers, oncology nurses and schoolteachers, and they should all have their own day of recognition, but it is not this day. Today we remember that all that we have, our freedoms, our lives, this wonderful country which was brought forth in sacrifice and renewed in toil and trial we owe to such as who would, if we ask them, spend their lives in its defense. We must honor and remember them. And we must also those they fought beside – by whose side they breathed their last and for whom they fought and died, in surrogate for the countrymen that sent them there. We must never, in a fit of pique or passion, allow those words to escape our lips that, “I support our troops, but…”
There was no “but” in their faith with us. No escape clauses, no qualifications.
A somber occasion then, this Memorial Day, but also a sadly joyous one. For if we must regret the bitterness and pain of sacrifice, we must celebrate the fact that there are those who love us enough, and trust us enough, and what we stand for, that they would lay down their lives for us. We must earn this.
We must earn this by remembering them and honoring their sacrifice.
We must earn this by keeping faith with their brothers and sisters who return from the fight, the broken and the whole.
We must earn this by keeping in our hearts their loved ones, for whom no Memorial Day celebration will ever be required to invoke their memories or sufficient to fill the holes left in their lives.
We must earn this by continuing to build that more perfect union, so that it may more nearly represent the ideals of truth and freedom and justice for which they gave their lives.
We must earn this.
And I’ll close now with two thoughts, if I may. First these words of remembrance, from a poem by Laurence Binyon:
They shall not grow old as we that are left behind grow old
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
In the going down of the sun and in the morning
We will remember them.
And finally with an abbreviated prayer, a soldier’s kind of prayer – there are some, both here at home, and overseas, who wince to hear Americans say or write, “God Bless America.” Why should God only bless America, they ask? They misunderstand, perhaps intentionally – we do not make a statement so much as offer up a prayer, a request, our fervent hope. And in the same words, with admirable brevity, we also acknowledge and offer up thanksgiving that God has already blessed us, in the abundant goodness of this land, and of the people the land has given birth to and those who have made a home here. And lastly but by no means leastly, we offer thanks for those who have fought and died to keep us free.
And so in thanks and hope, I pray: “God bless America.”