Memorial Day

Memorial Day is right around the corner, and in my small New England town it will be celebrated with a very traditional parade down the middle of Main Street. We will go to it as a family, arriving an hour or so ahead of time at the home of friends who live smack in the middle of the parade route. Each year they host pretty much everyone they know to a huge pot-luck brunch, and when we’ve all eaten our fill and begin to hear the brass band in the distance, we amble out to the front lawn with our folding chairs and wait for the first glimpse of our fellow townsfolk who “march” in the parade (“amble” is more like it).

When my kids were little, this was one of the big thrills of the year, right up there with Christmas and Halloween. The parade has all of the elements that sound so hokey it’s hard to believe they exist, and yet they will be repeated in just this way in thousands of towns across the country, and each one will make the eyes of little children go wide with wonder. There will be people on horseback and elected officials riding in old jalopies (for no apparent reason — nostalgia?). There will be makeshift floats representing groups like the Gardening Club, the Cooperative Nursery and the Girl Scouts, as well as both the Democratic and Republican Town Committees. There will be marching bands from each of the public schools in our two-town system, and we will smile bravely through the sour notes and sincerity of the younger kids and applaud with genuine enthusiasm as the skill set improves with age.

And of course, there will be soldiers. Our town always has a fife and drum group as the first whiff of military remembrance. They march in replica Civil War uniforms and play vigorous old marching tunes from that era. A little later come the veterans of World War II — a sparser group every year — and Korea and Vietnam. Then there will be a few active duty soldiers in current-day uniform, looking sternly ahead as they march (no ambling here); their duty at the end of the parade will be to fire off three rounds of blanks to honor the dead from all of our various wars. And somewhere in the course of this parade, the Air Force will make an appearance as they apparently do at towns all over the country. We’ll hear the jets coming from far off and everyone will look up as they streak past us high in the sky and then –hold your breath, here they come! — loop back around and roar above our Main Street low enough to make the ground shudder beneath our feet.

At the end of the parade the mayor (who we call the First Selectman, though this year it’s a woman) will give a speech about veterans and sacrifice, freedom and its cost. The soldiers will fire their guns in tribute, a prayer will be said by one of the local priests or ministers, and the haunting sound of Taps will come floating from a trumpet on the other side of the Town Green.

I have always been ambivalent about this celebration of Memorial Day. As a parent of young ones, I loved seeing my children’s breathless excitement at every single element of the parade. As a neighbor and friend I am moved by the small town feel of this celebration, the easy companionship of people who in some cases have shared this event through generations. I bask in the mix of sincerity and humor, of self-conscious goofiness and home-town pride. I feel cradled in community because of this little time-out from busy regular lives, to just sit along the Main Street of our town and chat while we watch our kids get a little older each year.

It’s as a citizen and a peace activist that I run into trouble. I feel sorrow and regret for our dead soldiers from every bloody war, and deep respect for the men and women who have donned the uniform to serve their country. But at the Memorial Day parade, it always seems as though these feelings get conflated with support for war: the war in Iraq, the war in Afghanistan, the “war on terrorism”. When the jets fly over us and make the earth tremble, it’s the destructive power of their bombs that is really being celebrated. When the soldiers walk past us and we applaud them, how would anyone watching us know that it is not the war they are fighting that we support?

Since the start of our war in Iraq, I have come to the parade with a peace banner. So far, I have been the only one every year, though I know many of my neighbors also oppose this war. Somehow it seems to be seen as a sign of disrespect, this gentle piece of rainbow silk with the single word “PEACE” emblazoned on it. I will feel conspicuous holding it, among the little sea of miniature American flags in everyone else’s hands. I know it will make some people uneasy and others downright incensed. But I can’t bring myself to go to the parade without it. Memorial Day is supposed to be about remembering the fallen soldiers of past wars. How dare we forget the ones who are falling each day, in a war made of lies and greed?

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Torture, Again

The first time I ever addressed the issue of torture from the pulpit was February 29, 2004 (www.usnh.org, click on sermons and scroll to the date). This was actually a month or two before torture at American hands became front-page news because of Abu Ghraib. But those awful photos and the brief uproar they caused were only the loudest part of the story. There was plenty to go on before that, if any of us wanted to pay attention. It was clear that with at least a wink and a nod, and often through direct orders, torture had become an accepted part of the American way of war.

Now here we are more than four years later, and I still don’t understand why there has never been a real public reaction. Is it pure fantasy to think that at some point in our history, Americans would have been shocked and furious to learn that our government tortured in our name? Is it beyond us to envision an America in which a government would actually be brought down by such a thing?

Not that I believe that we were ever a nation – or had a government – composed of saints. Our track record on human rights has been at odds with our self-image ever since our ancestors landed on soil that was inconveniently occupied by others. But there was surely a time in the not-so-distant past when a government that defended its right to torture prisoners would have been met by loud and sustained public outrage.

Now it seems the outrage has been replaced by mere uneasiness, and even this is not universal. A year ago, the Pew Research Center reported that when asked if torture can be justified “to gain key information”, only 29% of Americans said “never”. 12% actually said “often” (who are these people??), and the rest were in between. These figures are disheartening, to say the least. I can only make sense of them by believing that they reflect not an endorsement of torture but our own collective fearfulness. Fear causes people to do some pretty terrible things. Fear causes people to look the other way even when they know something unspeakable is being done in their name.

People of faith should not be looking the other way. If fear and the yearning to feel safe lead the public at large to accept the unacceptable, maybe we respond by challenging and expanding the notion of what it means to be “safe”. The old biblical question put it this way: What does it profit you if you gain everything, but lose your own soul?

There are lots of arguments against torture: that it is not effective and results most of the time in bad information; that it will always include the innocent as well as the guilty, simply because of human fallibility; and that its use loses America much credibility in the world’s eyes. But religious people should also be wiling to argue that it is morally wrong, and that it damages our own selves, our own souls. Because torture is morally wrong – like rape, murder and genocide – it should never be accepted as “necessary”.

NRCAT (the National Religious Campaign Against Torture) has declared June “Torture Awareness Month”, and congregations of every faith all across the country will display banners that simply say, “Torture is Wrong” or “Torture is a Moral Issue”. I am glad my own congregation will be among them. It is such a strange thing to find ourselves doing — can you imagine having to proclaim “rape is wrong”, or “child abuse is wrong”? But in these strange times, it falls to religious people to do what we can to spread the word. Torture is wrong. Period. Get your congregation to put up a banner.