It is Memorial Day in America—a time to grieve and honor those who have died in all America’s wars, including those who fought on both sides in our Civil War. Most accounts claim the day’s origin in an effort to honor those dead as well as those whose lives were gutted in body and spirit by war’s effects. So it is better a time for grief and lament than for vainglory and jingoistic militarism. This year it is overlain by grief and lament for the losses sustained in this pandemic, not only the loss in lives and treasure but the loss of faith that our institutions and leaders can meet the challenges thrust upon us. So we celebrate not only soldiers, but medical and sanitation workers, police and firefighters, truckers and grocery clerks—the everyday, essential sinews of our life together.
As I have been staying close to home in the regimen of elder care this pandemic requires, I have been translating into English an essay I wrote some fifteen years ago in German for a seminar and book on reconciliation and public life. It was an examination of and reflection on the Memorial in Washington DC to what we call the Vietnam War. Erected entirely with voluntary contributions, it was, in the words of Robert Doubek, one of its principal sponsors, “…conceived as a means to promote the healing and reconciliation of the country after the divisions caused by the war….” “The Memorial will make no political statement regarding the war or its conduct. It will transcend those issues. The hope is that the creation of the Memorial will begin a healing process.”
Like Memorial Day at its most poignant, it lifted up the individual lives of the fallen. Regardless of the motives and policies that drove America’s leaders to war, it grieved the loss of life that ripped at the fabric of existence for so many. But more than being a time of grief, as Scruggs and others hoped, it was to be one step in a greater purpose of laying the seeds for reconciliation.
And in that light I ask today, what if Memorial Day were renamed and re-imagined as Reconciliation Day? What if the lament for the lost was only the first step in the work of reconciliation, not merely among those who supported or opposed a war, such as that in Vietnam, but between those who died on all sides of a war—Russians and Americans, Germans and Japanese, Italians and French, British and Chinese? Rather than laying an American flag over the coffin of our losses, what if our eyes were drawn to see the rainbow of a new covenant within a wider world of all humanity? What if the cords of compassion for our own loss drew us wider, into a thick tapestry of common aspirations for a more just and peaceful world?
This is the kind of haunting melody that has often echoed quietly in the shadows of our laments, especially in the Armistice Day of 1918 that held out the hope for a world without war. But over and over again, the false hope of conducting a “war to end all wars” leads only to more war. And so we return to the graves each year.
In our memorialization of this pandemic, however, we are drawn to another way, the way of mutual service. It is the heroism of healing, of compassion, of mutual respect, of the longing for the dignity of each life lived and each death endured. It is simply the way of love. Nothing glamorous here. It is the daily lifeblood of human flourishing. It is so natural and yet so unnatural that we are always amazed when it bursts forth before us. Like flowers on a forgotten grave. Remember and be reconciled. That’s enough.