Monday, May 25, 2009


Awkward Thoughts on Memorial Day

Yesterday in church I was very uncomfortable. Because it was Memorial Day weekend, and because I am in a pretty conservative area (replete with McCain-Palin and "Nobama" bumper stickers), it was not surprising when the pastor took several minutes to talk about military veterans. I am truly not trying to rile up those who think it entirely appropriate to shower praise on people who fought in various wars, but even so I think it is a very dangerous custom we have in this country.

The first thing that struck me as very odd was the video they showed after the "praise and worship" (i.e. the music in the opening) was over. It had a picture of a fluttering American flag and the words scrolled on the screen to tell us that since 1775, some 1.3 million American soldiers had made the ultimate sacrifice for...(pause)...freedom.

But hang on a second. That number includes the military deaths from both sides of the Civil War (or the War Between the States as many prefer to call it). If you want to say 1.3 million Americans made the ultimate sacrifice because they all thought they were fighting for freedom, OK that's more sensible. But it really doesn't make sense to me, to say that both sides of the Civil War were in fact fighting for freedom. When I was in college and had a bunch of free time, I think I dreamed up some scenarios in which you could have two sides of a huge war both be objectively "in the right." But that clearly wasn't what happened in the United States from 1861-1865. You can argue easily enough that both sides were wrong in a given war (or the Civil War in particular), but it's very hard to say both sides were right.

Then the true awkwardness began. The pastor started by asking if anyone in the congregation had served in the war in Afghanistan or Iraq, and a few guys stood up and everyone of course started clapping. But I couldn't do it, because (a) I was reminded that contrary to the pastor's usage and plain common sense, we technically are not "at war" with anybody right now, nor have we been since 1945, and (b) the official reason given for the invasion of Iraq turned out to be, at best, a gigantic string of mistakes, and at worst, outright lies by our political leaders.

I am not going to hold it against an 18-year-old who signed up for the Army and then doesn't desert his buddies even when (in my opinion) it becomes clear that the institution he is serving is being led either by fools or liars. In fact, alongside with Iraqi civilians who have been killed, I think young American soldiers are among the biggest victims of the deception by our political elite regarding Iraq. Yet even so, I'm not going to clap for the people who participated in a struggle of which Pat Tillman commented, "This war is so f---ing illegal." (I am not here getting into the distinction between Afghanistan and Iraq.)

Those who know me personally, know that I am the furthest thing from confrontational. I was not trying to "make a statement" by refraining from applauding, and in fact I did my best to be "looking around" at all the people standing up so that at worst it would simply look as if I were lazy or spacey. And I must admit that I finally did break down and start clapping when the pastor got to World War II, and one or two real old timers slowly stood up. But for those guys, most of us were clapping just because hey, good job for making it out to church and standing up on your own power! (Also, at least a United States base--not part of the actual country, mind you--was attacked before millions of Americans started killing and dying in World War II.)

It is no coincidence that we have all been trained since birth to pay the utmost homage to people who died while carrying out the government's orders to kill other human beings. Yes, ultimately it is the politicians who decide whether to deploy US forces in a truly defensive way, or whether to instead implement what is, for all intents and purposes, a global American empire. The politicians will never relinquish that tool on their own, unless the American public stops blessing it with cheers and tears, and unless millions of young American men (and now women) stop volunteering to kill for the government.

One last point in this Memorial Day essay: Look at the relative amounts of military expenditures by various world powers. Isn't it just possible that, in addition to the thousand-and-one other things about which you know perfectly well that the politicians have lied to you, that they are lying too about the purpose of the American war machine? You know full well that the government squanders hundreds of billions annually on education and social programs, and it doesn't even achieve its ostensible goals with such profligacy. When 19 guys with box cutters can take down the Twin Towers and hit the Pentagon, at what point do Americans stop reflexively "supporting the troops"?

Military Expenditures, 2007

Well done, Bob. A nice combination of clarity and sensitivity.

Your comments fit nicely with the clip Lew Rockwell has up from "The Americanization of Emily"

BTW I wasn't sure and had to look it up, but that is an early James Garner in that clip.

Rather than complain about "church services" which are actually designed for Man to feel good about himself (none dare call it worship), perhaps you should return to the Faith of your fathers.

And, by the way, that would not be the protestantized "celebration" known as the Novus Ordo.

Go assist at the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass....the sacred liturgy.

It would require a bit of meekness and humility (two virtues in short supply these days), but you might surprise yourself.

I am perfectly willing to be convinced that I'm going to hell by my choice of church services. If you want to point to Bible passages that establish this, I will treat it seriously (as it is the most serious of issues).
If in some smothering dreams you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil's sick of sin;

If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,

My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie; Dulce et Decorum est
Pro patria mori.
Bob, one of the better things you have written. Thanks.
A nice thing about being in a church that is pacifist by tradition (if not in recent fact) is that we generally don't make as big a deal of Memorial Day as some churches I've been in.

I believe our worship leader just said "Happy Memorial Day weekend" at the start of the service, and that was that. (Naturally, it's odd to call Memorial Day weekend "happy", given the suggested significance.) But, that and the red, white, and blue bouquet on the altar table were the extent of the "celebration".

But, I've definitely been in services that felt like they were worshipping DC more than God, and I always find them to be somewhat offensive.
"Look at the relative amounts of military expenditures by various world powers" Is there really any true military power except for the US? Hence the bill.

I had my own uncomfortable, in-your-face Memorial Day "sermon" coming back to California from St. Louis on American Airlines yesterday. There was an Army woman in uniform sitting in 1st class and as the plane was preparing to land at LAX, the pilot made no less than 3 announcements, each about 30 secs long, over the intercom about how proud he was of her and other "service" men and women, how we should all thank them for "keeping our country safe" and yadda, yadda, yadda.

A lot of people don't see that as a political thing at all so they, like the pilot, might never stop and question whether it's proper to lambast paying customers with unwanted political opinions. I think the hero-worship of people in uniform in this country is so intense that even many people against the wars and war in general take it for granted that people in uniform are "serving" everyone else and are noble by nature.

Another problem is the fact that the pilot is likely ex-military himself. It seems natural to him that people from the military are noble servants because he convinced himself of it a long time ago as well.

Who would dare stop him and point out that his announcements were, in that case, quite self-serving!
This makes me appreciative that my pastor didn't even mention that it's Memorial Day weekend. He's always shown a lot of restraint in commenting on politics, saying that to do so would detract from his primary job, which is to show people their need for Christ.
"I am perfectly willing to be convinced that I'm going to hell by my choice of church services."

Who said anything about going to hell? Hmmm, a bit sensitive are we? (And begs for a paraphrase of Beckett: methinks thou doth protest a bit much.)

"If you want to point to Bible passages that establish this, I will treat it seriously (as it is the most serious of issues)."

Ah, the old "Point to the Bible or I won't treat it seriously" retort.

The unresolvable problem of Protestantism: authority. It is unresolvable in no small part because the Protestant view of Scripture is unscriptural.

You might read the books of Sheldon Vanauken, a pagan who converted to Christianity under the tutelage of CS Lewis, and converted to Catholicism late in life. Beautifully written books.

Or those of Thomas Howard, a highly respected Evangelical pastor who, prior to his conversion to Catholicism (which cost him his job), wrote a plea for a more liturgical Evangelicalism.

There are many others.

I realize, of course, that once a man has become his only authority, it is almost impossible to accept any authority outside of his own brilliant intellect. But even the angels (with perfect intellects, according to Augustine) fell.

Meekness and humility, Robert, like unto Him.

The Faith of your fathers calls.

"Thou hast made us for Thyself, and our heart is restless till it rest in Thee." - St. Augustine
Anon wrote:

Who said anything about going to hell?
The last Anonymous poster who was urging me to become Catholic. I figured you were the same guy. Feel free to use a name to avoid such confusion in the future.

Ah, the old "Point to the Bible or I won't treat it seriously" retort.
Sorry but I'm not taking you seriously at this point. We both believe the Bible is the inspired Word of God, don't we? So why would you write something like the above?

I can point to very specific and explicit things that Jesus and Paul wrote in the Bible, to explain the Protestant view of salvation.

There are some Catholic sacraments--like confession--that also have Biblical roots; I agree to that.

But as far as "we Catholics are right and you Protestants are wrong," I don't see it right now.

The best thing you've written since I started reading your blog. If only the talking heads on cable news would have the courage to echo your sentiments.

I applaud you.
New to blogging, so I will be brief and to the point. Gentlemen, denominations are man-made & not God-inspired. But most importantly, Jesus did die for "all" of our sins. It is up to us to accept this gift, then to "witness" about the gift and its availability, and never deny it. There are some things in the Bible that none of us are smart enough to explain, so don't try. Ask for God's wisdom and use it.
Anon (you know who you are),

You wrote the following regarding protestantism : "It is unresolvable in no small part because the Protestant view of Scripture is unscriptural."

This seems highly contradictory on its face: perhaps this is because the fundamental tenant of protestantism (Sola Scriptura) is to allow scripture to be the final arbitrator. For instance, 2 Tim 3:16-17 "All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness; that the man of God may be adequate, equipped for every good work.”

The view that scripture in "insufficient" simply undermines the authority, and therefore the power of the Roman Catholic Church.

What's the scriptural basis for a belief in Purgatory? Praying to Saints? (a practice rebuked on in Hebrews 1) or the veneration of Mary? Of course you could just stipulate (since you are not adherent to Sola Scriptura) that these are elements justified by the church's authority. However, it seems entirely convenient to take a position that scripture is insufficient to justify authority by which one can maintain one's authority. And then you try to use the argument that the protestant view of scripture (adhering to it) isn't scriptural? This is like listening to Krugman on Christianity.
Bob, well said.

We are tribal creatures at our core, so well will always be subject to manipulation by our leaders regarding purported threats (not just ragheads, but gays, enviro-fascists, etc.).

And since we need and nourish our group identities, sometime we find we have to "grin and bear" pandering that resonates, and that we don`t have a chance to stand up to.

At least you did the right thing in writing this.
Your closing statement regarding "19 men and some box cutters" has a simple disconnect in logic.

If the military had been responsible for airport security on 9/11, then that disconnect would disappear.
This is a very interesting post with some perspectives I'd never considered before.

One thing I've always tried to keep in mind is that Memorial Day is simply about remembering the fallen, not judging the circumstances under which they fell. So, for example, we can remember all the fallen from the Civil War, not just the ones from 'our' side (the 'right' side, of course).

I just think it's about remembering the fallens' lost potential, recognizing they each were doing what they thought in their hearts needed to be done. The fact that some may have been erroneous or misled (definitely frailties of the human condition) needn't be an obstacle to simply remembering their sacrifices.

That said, I agree that clapping and cheering is out of place. Moments of silent reflection seem much more appropriate.
Great post Bob, your honesty is refreshing. I was glad our pastor didn't say anything like that, although the picture of a soldier saluting the flag on the front of bulletin did make me uncomfortable.
Could you imagine the members of the early church cheering for the Roman soldiers at their meetings? It seems so out of place to have this kind of thing at a church service.

I think it's great how you pointed out that the soldiers, themselves, are victims. This is very true, especially for the soldiers of WWII and Vietnam, when the draft forced to serve against their will.

"If the military had been responsible for airport security on 9/11, then that disconnect would disappear."

Just like the SEC eliminates massive securities fraud, and the Fed, OCC and FDIC make our banking system stable?
Every church I've been in uses Memorial Day as a recruitment tool for the Army/Navy/Air Force/Marines.

I admit to having been in a fairly narrow cross section of churches. For most of my life this recruitment didn't bother me as it should have. However, it bothers me now.

Any suggestions on how to object without being objectionable would be appreciated. The 'do you hate your country? What are you, a commie?' people aren't real subtle and I tend to not respond quite as wisely as I should.

See you in Ft Worth.

I don't know that it makes sense to argue on the spot. Maybe sending a note to your pastor mentioning that you--and possibly others--thought it was inappropriate.

Yeah I'll see you this weekend!
Bob, your experience underlines what I always try to explain to naive people who, when talking about the Third Reich, make inane comments such as "but why did nobody say anything?"

If we are reluctant to stand up for our beliefs in situations as unthreatening as the one you describe, how likely is it that we will be willing to stand up for what is right when the stakes are much greater?

I would like to argue that the very habit of regular church-going and habitual in the rituals us to predisposes becoming fellow-travelers.

Similar predispositions are created by the regular attendance of competitive sporting events such as hockey, soccer, or football (track and field events are very different in this regard, as one does not cheer for "our team".)

Maybe one of the key habits we have to develop is to consciously resist the participation in ritualistic and scripted events that require active pretenses of unanimity.

I am not picking on you specifically for attending church, but I really mean all such regular group events. The deliberate creation of group identities through ritual of any kind by ther very nature undermine the ability to maintain full moral and intellectual independence.
"Sorry but I'm not taking you seriously at this point. We both believe the Bible is the inspired Word of God, don't we?"

Bob, you're begging the question with these responses. Once you declare, "Sola scriptura," you're already a Protestant. The whole issue is over whether each person's interpretation of scripture that is to be supreme, or the authority the Church claims from apostolic succession.
"the ability to maintain full moral and intellectual independence."

Since no one has ever had or ever could have such an ability, no great loss, hey?

I don't think I'm begging the question with that quotation. If Anon comes back and says, "Bob in this passage Jesus makes Peter the rock of the church, and that's why the Pope today has authority," then I can say, "I don't think that's what Jesus meant by that."

And then you can say, "Now Bob you are begging the question. The Church says that is what Jesus meant, and they should know, since the Pope is Christ's vicar."

But Anon didn't even try. He just laughed and said, "Oh great, here we go, you expect me to justify my views on Christianity by pointing to the recordings of His life."
Gene, while there may be no perfect circles in nature, we do recognize the difference between a pretty good approximation of a circle, and a very oblong oval.

We may not ever achieve full moral and intellectual independence, but I think most of us are capable of recognizing those who frequently resist group pressure from those who are habitual fellow travellers.

Just because a perfect circle is not possible does not mean that if you would like to have something round you would be happy with something square.

And so it is with free minds: we may never have them, but when we want individuals with guts, we are not therefore satisified with spineless cowards.

It does not matter so much where we are at the moment, it matters which direction we are going.
"The deliberate creation of group identities through ritual of any kind by ther very nature undermine the ability to maintain full moral and intellectual independence."

James, I agree with you here in
principle. Religion is a tar baby that ties people into groups and reduces their individual independence. But religions may make possible broader societies that extend past tribal boundaries, even while they may set the stage for larger conflicts between societies with competing "truths".

"We may not ever achieve full moral and intellectual independence, but I think most of us are capable of recognizing those who frequently resist group pressure from those who are habitual fellow travellers."

Yes, but this begs the question of whether "full moral and intellectual independence" actually makes sense as personal goal.

We are tribal beasts by nature/Creation - shall we strive to be as independent, aloof and alienated as possible?
Yes, TokyoTom, check out Geertz on humans as inherently social beings, for whom the goal of "complete intellectual independence" would result in "unworkable monstrosities with very few useful instincts, fewer recognizable sentiments, and no intellect: mental basket cases." (The Interpretation of Cultures)
Gene, thanks for the reference to Geertz; I`ll have to look himk up.

But as one of God`s "frozen people" let me note that, speaking strictly for myself, alienation may leave one "with very few useful instincts, [and] fewer recognizable sentiments", but still able to string sentences together

Thus, while intellectual basket cases may be the extreme, social basket cases are more prevalent.

Japan has grown a whole generation of "otaku" and nerds who, preferring more predictable rewards from computer games to complex reality, fit this pattern.
Yes, you can put together sentences -- and you rely on the whole tradition of English language usage in order to do so! (By the way, it's The Interpretation of Cultures I was quoting from.)
"you rely on the whole tradition of English language usage"

Well, that`s high praise, Gene, but about all I claim is a vague awareness that there IS such a tradition, the contours and depths of which I can never hope to plumb.

But speaking of string words together, Danny S and I were wondering if we could expect to see some further thoughts from you regarding objective moral reality.
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