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"Off to War": The Romance and the Reality"

A sermon based upon Joel 3:9-10 and Micah 4:1-4

Tomorrow is Memorial Day: a national holiday in which schools are closed, banks are closed, in order that we can take the time to hold in tender love the memory of those soldiers and sailors, Marines, Coast Guard, and Air Force members, who have lost their lives in Iraq & Afghanistan, in Somalia & Serbia, in Kosovo and Vietnam, Panama & Grenada --those are the wars during my lifetime --as well as those who lost their lives in battles in Europe and in the Pacific, in both of the World Wars of the last Century, and in the Korean Conflict. For their service & their sacrifice, we are grateful. Dear God, bless them.

The Memorial Day holiday actually originated during the Civil War, when regions (North & South) mourned their losses and celebrated their particular military heroes. In 1911, President Wilson consolidated and nationalized those regional remembrances to a single day: Decoration Day, a time to go to the cemeteries and freshen up the memorial stones. The names of fallen Civil War soldiers are the oldest ones in Alpena’s Little Flanders Field, where tomorrow’s Memorial Day ceremony will take place at 11 o’clock in the morning.

The point is: for the past 107 years, this weekend has been set aside from "business as usual" (not as a reason to have a mattress sale, or a car dealer’s spring blow-out), but to recognize--across all social groups and all branches of the military --one common theme: the sacrifice of American lives in war.

Those wars were fought (we have been told) in the pursuit of liberty, democracy, human rights, & the self-determination of nations far from the American continent. So, we take this holiday to say "Thank you" to our service personnel… who gave not only their time & talents, but gave their very lives in service to America’s global goals. (!)

When I was in the Army, I felt that to wear the same uniform --in service to the same values, as those who had died in past wars--was indeed an honor. Regardless of the character of the person who wore it, we lower enlisted folks were told that we saluted the uniform! But all of us, whether civilian or military veteran, owe a debt of gratitude to those who died in battle to maintain our liberty and standard of life. Memorial Day says that we remember them, and we appreciate even now the sacrifices they made on our behalf! We commend them again and anew to the eternal care of God.

Tomorrow, if you have the day off of school or off of work --or if you see in the newspaper a "Memorial Day special" sales event--pause for a moment, and say a prayer of thanks for the past 242years of American independence, and beyond that--remember the "unsung"heroes, the ordinary American military members serving in some of the most remote locations on earth .(Even if we don’t really know why they have been deployed there, nor have any coherent & consistent rationale for when they will come home, those military forces are obeying orders.)

Too many of them have sacrificed their lives in wars old and new --in places far flung, like Iwo Jima, and very close at hand, such as Gettysburg--and, frankly, our homeland is less robust because of those losses. Back when this congregation in Alpena was brand new, the American Civil War broke out and some of those soldiers’ names are inscribed on the white crosses at Little Flanders Field.

The Union Army lost some 360,000 soldiers in the American Civil War and the Confederacy lost another 260,000. That’s 620,000 people who died in that traumatic era here on American soil; our own citizens killing one another. Gruesome!

We hope that our government leaders today will not be so flippant, fast & loose in sending Americans into far-flung wars for no good purpose. I mean: American troops have been fighting, killing, & dying in Afghanistan for seventeen years already, and we ask: what for? There’s been a return of American troops to Iraq and an escalation of fighting in Syria, not to mention saber-rattling toward Russia and supporting proxy wars against Iran.

I’m sure you have been told that the First World War was called "the War to End All Wars".(Wishful thinking 100 years ago!) More than 20 million people died in that bloody European chaos, including 116,000 Americans, sent overseas.

The poppies still grow in Flanders Fieldin Belgium, and in the Ardennes, and the other battlesites/gravesites where tens of thousands of American, British, Canadian, Australian & New Zealand foot-soldiers are buried. Patty & I visited the Flanders Field Museum in Ypers, Belgium, back in November 2001 --shortly before Veterans Day --and saw the thousands of poppies in wreathes made by English schoolchildren to honor their war dead. The names of the dead are etched in marble walls, arches, gateways to the city. The museum itself is interactive and very moving. It makes real the "hell" that war is.

Some of you may have served in the Second World War and saw fighting first-hand, some of you I know served in the Korean War, and a few in Vietnam. I don’t have to describe war to those of you who have been there, done that.

Robin Meyers, the Minister of the Mayflower Congregational Church in Oklahoma City, who lost members and friends in the bombing of the Murrah Federal Building, writes these words:

"If the whole, terrible, wretched truth could be known about the Iraq War–in one blinding, bloody moment like looking into the sun without blinking –anyone with a conscience would turn away and vomit. …

"The sadness would be joined with righteous indignation, because it is impossible to love the world and not hate what destroys it! For every fallen soldier, for every dark-eyed Iraqi girl and boy, for every wailing mother wandering in the carnage of the latest bombing, the only truly religious response to … war is rage." ("Why the Christian Right is Wrong: A Minister’s Manifesto for Taking Back your Faith, Your Flag, Your Future", San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2006, pg. 13) Rev. Meyerssays: "Christians don’t start wars, they try to stop them."

It is our prayer that all our military personnel will come home safely, out of harm’s way! But until that day, we take this Memorial Day Sunday to send a special prayer to the men and women who even now are missing priceless moments in the lives of their families in order that we ordinary Americans can enjoy blessed freedom and peace at home. God bless them, and help us to bring them home… alive.

Let me introduce you to another author --Chris Hedges --2002 Pulitzer Prize winning foreign correspondent for the New York Times, who wrote the book "War is a Force that Gives Us Meaning" (New York: Public Affairs, 2002). He says: "It has been nearly twenty years since I graduated from Harvard Divinity School and left Cambridge to cover the war in El Salvador. This book is not only the result of my work in various war zones, but is a product of the education I received, especially in English literature at Colgate University and Christian theology at Harvard University." (page196)

Chris Hedges offers a citation from William Shakespeare (Coriolanus, Act 4, scene5): "Let me have a war, say I:It exceeds peace as far as day does night. It’s spritely, waking, audible, full of vent! Peace is a very apoplexy, lethargy, mull’d,

deaf, sleepy, insensible…"Yes, the romance of war entices us with the allure of heroism.

The prophet Joel, who was quoted last Sunday in Peter’s Pentecost

sermon –the one who said that "in the last days, the Lord would pour out God’s Spirit on the people" –also said these words: "Proclaim this among the nations: Prepare war! Stir up the mighty men! Beat your plowshares into swords, and your pruning hooks into spears! Let the weak say: ‘I am a warrior!’" These words are not as familiar as Micah’s reversal of that order, but they speak to one side of the human propensity to desire war.

John Rutter wrote an anthem ("Soldier Boy," 1985), based on an old English poem in which a fair maiden sees a handsome young soldier, in his coat so fine, and asks "Where are you going to?" The young man replies: "I am riding off to war, where the mighty cannons roar! Where the golden bugles shine! Oh, lady fair: be mine." She promises she will wait for him; she’ll wait until the leaves are green again, when the lilacs bloom again, when there is an end to war–for then he will come once more. But, alas, there is no end to war.

Even the "war to end all wars" --that great tragic European conflict that killed more than 116,000 Americans and brought Western Civilization to the brink of destruction --was only the FIRST of two world wars. Thirty years later, an other horrible war laid waste vast areas from London, England, to Moscow and all parts in between, all across North Africa, and involved even the most developed nations & remotest islands of the Pacific…more than 405,000 Americans died in WorldWar II…and here we are 73 years later still counting new wars.

58,209 Americans were killed in the Vietnam War… 54,246 in the Korean Conflict… 4,497 American soldiers, sailors, & Marines died in Iraq between 2003-2011. Thus far the War in Afghanistan has killed 2,216 Americans (and 20,000 wounded).

Chris Hedges writes: "The images of war handed to us, even when they are graphic [such as the opening 20 minutes of Steven Spielberg’s "Saving Private Ryan"], leave out one essential element of war –fear.

"There is, until the actual moment of confrontation, no cost to imagining glory. The visual and audio effects of films, the battlefield descriptions in books, make the experience appear real. In fact, the experience is sterile. We are safe. We do not smell rotting flesh, hear the cries of agony, or see before us blood and entrails seeping out of bodies. We view, from a distance, the rush, the excitement, but feel none of the gut-wrenching anxiety and humiliation that comes with mortal danger. It takes the experience of fear and the chaos of battle … to wake us up, to make us realize that we are not who we imagined we were…

"The prospect of war is exciting. Many young men, schooled in the notion that war is the ultimate definition of manhood--that only in war will they be tested and proven, that they can discover their worth as human beings in battle--willingly join the great enterprise. The admiration of the crowd, the high-blown rhetoric, the chance to achieve the glory of the previous generation, the ideal of nobility beckon us forward. And people, ironically, enjoy righteous indignation and an object upon which to unleash their anger." (unquote… ibid.,83-84) That’s what I call the"romance" of war.

It was the hope of the League of Nations after the First world war, and then again in establishing the United Nations after the Second world war, that diplomacy would win out over war as a means of foreign policy and international persuasion.

Even as America was ramping up to launch the attack on Iraq, hundreds of thousands of people were in the streets every weekend, saying: "No more war. Not in My Name! Give peace a chance."But it seemed that no one in authority was listening!

Christians across the world (and across recent centuries) have condemned the senseless slaughter of innocents that every war incurs. The Christian population as a whole has lifted its holy hands to heaven in passionate prayers for peace. But it seems we have done precious little to achieve it.

Oh, sure, we are convinced that "war is hell" and we want no part in it. We’ve long felt that there’s something wrong (economically suicidal) when the governments of the world spend hundreds of billions of dollars every year to threaten to KILL the life given to this planet by our Creator God, as a deterrent to forcibly "keep the peace"… there’s something horribly wrong when Taliban or Palestinian mothers and brothers dance for joy in the streets following a devastating bomb blast… something horribly wrong when we realize that there are at every moment more than three million displaced refugees on the road and twice that many huddled in refugee camps…or when we consider that one out of every five American children goes to bed hungry. Our priorities are askew, and we know it!

Nevertheless, in times of peace, our politicians insist that we must build up our strength for the next inevitable attack. Semper Fidelis, Ever Vigilant. "Compassion"is like a luxury we offer to our friends, if we think they deserve it. (!) We listen to a text like Micah’s when we are in church, but back out there in the real world, we think that tenderness is weakness; it’s inappropriate & irrelevant when the enemy is at the gate! When the war drums rattle, we give up our childish notions of depending on divine providence, and decide we’re going to take control! We make things happen. We go on our crusade against the forces of evil. "I am riding off to war, where the mighty cannons roar!" (Yeah!)

I think we need to take seriously the moral dimensionin every action we take…especially one that relies upon violence. The theories of a "just war" cannot be dispensed with because it’s "our" war.The only antidote to ward off the heady rush that war promises to be –"spritely, waking, audible, full of vent!" as Shakespeare put it –and the indiscriminate use of force (according to Chris Hedges) is "humility and, ultimately, compassion. Reinhold Niebuhr aptly reminded us that we must all act and then ask for forgiveness.[His]book is not a call for (pacifist) inaction. It is a call for repentance." (ibid., pg. 17)

The failure of our efforts in Vietnam humbled America for a generation (just as I was coming of age here in Alpena). We were purged of a dangerous hubris: the belief that our firepower, our manpower, and our latest form of military technology could silence every enemy. That failure forced America to introspection:to reflect upon the limits of war as a means of diplomacy and to reconsider using violence as a form of communication. Coming to grips with that war, through the years of Presidents Jerry Ford and Jimmy Carter (who were the two commanders-in-chiefI served under in my four years in the Army), offered us a chance to gain new understanding. I think that America became a better country because of our humility & self-examination.

But that message is slipping away from us.Using talk of war as a "negotiating" ploy (one of the "deals" on the table)and increasing the Pentagon budget higher than the generals had even asked for, indicates that the "romance"of being seen as a world-class warrioris ascendant, while the destructive reality of war is downplayed. The prophet Joel’s sentiment ("Prepare war; stir up the mighty men!") seems to be gaining support and voice in America, while the prophet Micah’s call (to "beat your swords [back] into plowshares and your spears into pruning hooks") seems soft, utopian, unrealistic.

Frankly, I’m on Micah’s side, not Joel’s. But you’ll have to choose for yourself.

May your Memorial Day be peaceful…and meaningful.


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