“On Memorial Day, we honor those who have borne conflict’s greatest cost, mourn where the wounds of war are fresh, and pray for a just, lasting peace. The American fabric is stitched with the stories of sons and daughters who gave their lives in service to the country they loved.” – Barack Obama
Two days ago, Barack Obama spoke these words in a public prayer for peace, offered as part of the Memorial Day weekend events. Around this time of year, as someone who has grown up a pacifist and lived into these beliefs on behalf of nonviolence more and more each year, I begin to feel uncomfortable. Summer is a time for patriotic holidays. It begins with Memorial Day, travels on to the 4th of July, and ends with Veteran’s Day in the fall. And, like most employees in the United States, I receive a vacation day in honor of Memorial Day and the 4th of July, even though I work for a church organization.
It’s tempting sometimes to simply ignore the broader significance of these days and to treat it as a fun vacation time, or pleasant days to get together with friends and family to barbecue. But the older I’ve gotten, the harder it is to ignore all of the rhetoric that swirls around these days. Memorial Day especially is a day to commemorate all that has been lost in war and combat.
I have no desire to belittle the sacrifices that individuals have made or to cheapen people’s deaths. I know that, just as I faithfully choose to follow the path of nonviolence, many others have made an equally faithful decision to participate in war. But I do wish that this was a choice that people did not have to make.
On the same day that President Obama offered this prayer for peace, the news that I was listening to also featured discussions on continued civilian and peacekeeper troop deaths in Afghanistan; on the new threats that Iran may be posing and possible military actions that the U.S is considering; and reports from Syria, where protestors on behalf of democracy have been met with violent crackdowns again and again.
Prayers for peace are great. But prayers for peace must be coupled with action on behalf of change in order to be meaningful. Prayers for peace ring hollow without changes in our foreign policy that humanize and respect the personhood of people all across the world: in Iraq, Iran, Syria and beyond. Frankly, prayers for peace even ring hollow without changes in our own domestic policies that allow people to earn living wages, and to have access to education, healthcare and good social services. These broken systems, coupled with a nation’s strong sense of honor, make military service one of the most viable, and potentially costly, paths to success for a certain sector of people.
In his book, War Is a Force that Gives Us Meaning, Chris Hedges writes, “Every society, ethnic group or religion nurtures certain myths, often centered around the creation of the nation or the movement itself. These myths lie unseen beneath the surface, waiting for the moment to rise ascendent, to define and glorify followers or members in times of crisis. National myths…are stoked by the entertainment industry, in school lessons, stories, and quasi-historical ballads, preached in mosques [and churches], or championed in absurd historical dramas that are always wildly popular during war…National myths ignite a collective amnesia in war. They give past generations a nobility and greatness they never possessed.”
So today, on Memorial Day, I don’t want to simply forget. We should remember and mourn. We should mourn the lives that have been lost of all sides of conflict: in this year and in past years. We should remember and name the pain and grief that always accompanies war. We should not forget that even so-called clear cut conflicts like World War II, often pointed to as the ultimate litmus test for pacifism (“Well, what you would have done about Hitler?”), were not pleasant. Although I’m sure many celebrated when Hitler was killed, just as many celebrated last year when Osama bin Laden was assassinated, World War II was a time of devastating loss. And this terrible conflict was in fact fueled by previous conflicts and punishments meted out against Germany at the end of World War I. Violence begets more violence.
And we should indeed pray for peace today. But we should also be ready to act, and to build our own national narratives that tell a new story. Today I will also re-commit myself to remembering loss and to acting on behalf of peace: by advocating for foreign policy that I support, by examining the ways my own habits of consumption and consumerism are complicit with corrupt systems, by looking at the ways I use and share resources, and by building healthy inter-personal relationships that are not conflict-free, but that foster open and honest communication. Just as pacifism should not be about judgment, it also should not be about passivity.
Wage peace with your breath.
Breathe in firemen and rubble,
breathe out whole buildings and flocks of red wing blackbirds.
Breathe in terrorists
and breathe out sleeping children and freshly mown fields.
Breathe in confusion and breathe out maple trees.
Breathe in the fallen and breathe out lifelong friendships intact.
Wage peace with your listening: hearing sirens, pray loud.
Remember your tools: flower seeds, clothes pins, clean rivers.
Play music, memorize the words for thank you in three languages.
Learn to knit, and make a hat.
Think of chaos as dancing raspberries,
as the outbreath of beauty
or the gesture of fish.
Swim for the other side.
Never has the world seemed so fresh and precious:
Have a cup of tea and rejoice.
Act as if armistice has already arrived.
How are you marking this Memorial Day?