At veterans’ cemeteries across the country on Monday, a lone bugler will stand erect and sound taps. At Beverly and Finn’s Point National Cemeteries in New Jersey — and at hundreds more hallowed resting places in every state — crowds will gather in tribute to the men and women who gave their lives in service to the United States.
Though Memorial Day binds us together to honor our nation’s war dead, it also generates ambivalence — a nervous undertone that their sacrifices were made in the course of wars that have divided our country over the last half century. For some people, then, this holiday can be a tough proposition: Support the players, even if you denounce the cause.
That’s a stance that many Unitarian Universalists publicly support but which some may privately struggle with. In a religion whose Sixth Principle is a “goal of world community with peace, liberty, and justice for all,” a pacifist strain makes such talk a very, very fine line to walk.
You can sense this delicacy in the diversity of how UU congregations approached the topic of Memorial Day on Sunday.
In New Jersey, students in religious education classes at Baptistown’s First UU Fellowship of Hunterdon County visited a local cemetery to search for veterans and to make rubbings of headstones. Those who attended the service at the First Unitarian Society of Plainfield participated in a mourner’s Kaddish, a ritual with roots in the Jewish tradition intended to promote communal healing. In Ohio, the First Unitarian Church of Cincinnati made a decidedly more antiviolence statement; congregants voiced the names of loved ones who died in conflict — as well as the lives of others who have worked for peace.
A UU military chaplain speaks
Perhaps the most thought-provoking Memorial Day sermon in New Jersey on Sunday was “Red, White, and UU,” where Rev. Cynthia Kane was scheduled to speak at the Unitarian Universalist Ocean County Congregation, in Toms River.
Kane is a rarity in Unitarian Universalism: she’s a Navy chaplain, one of about 550 UUs serving in the U.S. military, according to one count. In a UU World article several years ago, Kane said that her work in uniform is no different than it was before she joined the service. “My job is to affirm and to promote the integrity of the individual and then counsel them to conscience,” she said.
In the article, Kane recounted how she reconciled her own ambivalence that many UUs may feel about the work of the military. Reflecting on military strategist Karl von Clausewitz’s declaration that war is a fact of life because it is “a continuation of politics by other means,” Kane told interviewer Neil Shister she came to realize that “To do the work of peace, I must understand the making of war.”
Unitarian Universalism is not officially a pacifist institution; in the past 20 years, two UUs have served as Secretary of Defense (William Perry and Bill Cohen — the latter, a former Republican senator from Maine — both of whom served under Democratic President Bill Clinton). But the opposition to war openly expressed in most UU congregations creates a tension that Shister described as very real for UUs in military service.
“One soldier said he seeks church as a refuge,” Shister quoted a Norfolk, Va., minister as saying. Norfolk is home to the largest Naval base in the United States, and his church was the spiritual home for more than 20 active servicemen. “But as he walks through the door, somebody flips him a leaflet about the peace march that afternoon.”
The right of conscience
For UUs, Quakers, Mennonites, and others whose faiths envision a day when the purpose of a military is to support peaceful operations rather than make war, squaring this belief with an unwavering support for our military personnel and the sacrifices they make may ultimately be found in UU’s Fifth Principle: “The right of conscience and the use of the democratic process within our congregations and in society at large.”
Dave Thut — a UU, an Iraq veteran, and a self-described pacifist — explained the idea last fall on the UU Military Ministry blog. Thut reminded us that our military is in civilian democratic control, and we elect a commander in chief who interprets our will. Thus, he wrote, “We must elect leaders who make war rare. … We must be as committed to holding up our side of that bargain as the soldiers, marines, sailors and airmen who serve us are to upholding theirs. They deserve nothing less.”
This weekend, take time out from your barbecues, shore trips, and (ugh!) Memorial Day furniture sales to remember what this holiday really is: a day to unify us in gratitude for the selfless acts of others. Then, exercise the freedoms they preserved in any way your conscience directs. The two acts are not mutually exclusive.
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