by Rev. Racquel Ray
Assoc. Minister of Congregational Life
I am not a pacifist. Try as I might to change myself through prayer, worship, contemplation, study, and reflection, I still believe in the value of confrontation and defense when needed. I am not one to ‘turn the other cheek’. I am more of a New England sports fan in the ‘mess around and find out category’. That is to say, I won’t seek out conflict but, if conflict finds me or a loved one or a congregation member or a community member I will engage in the defense of the vulnerable. Every time.
As a nation, we will observe Memorial Day this weekend. Memorial Day is a day of honor and remembrance for those who died in service to this country and those who are counted as Missing in Action. Veterans Day is in honor of those who have served in Military service. Armed Forces Day is for those who are still serving in uniform. Memorial Day is also a time to remember and honor those Veterans who have died in the past year.
Yesterday, I attended the Veterans Administration’s annual Memorial Service at the VA Hospital Chapel. I was reminded of the sacrifices of our local Veteran population and their loved ones and caregivers. I attended to remember George Bolton. Chaplain Rev. Rotunda East read the Roll Call of the deceased, including George. Attendees were invited to come forward as the names were read, light a candle in remembrance, and receive a carnation. I received three carnations. One was for Rose Marie, one was for a friend, and one was for me in memory of my family military service members who have died.
I have several loved ones interred in National Cemeteries across this country. My father-in-law is in Riverside, CA. My father is in Arlington National Cemetery. My grandparents are in Exeter. I have ten family member Veterans in the last two generations and each generation before has at least one.
When Chaplain East read the Roll Call, she reminded the congregation that the tradition of the Roll Call goes back hundreds of years. At each military formation the names of those present are read and each member responds ‘present’ or ‘here’. When Roll Call is read on the battlefield, there is silence following the names of those lost in battle. The silence for the deceased is profoundly visceral; sad, somber, sobering, and memorializing. And, as TAPS is played and the memorial flag is folded and presented in a military funeral, that feeling is re-lived in my body, mind, and spirit each time.
War is hell. There is no question that we would all rather have peace. And many of us in the Christian context have spent our lives trying to attain and maintain peace. And the fact is that war, violence, and conflict remain.
There are those among us who truly are pacifists. Some can truly follow Jesus’s mandate from Matthew 5:38-40, “You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also. And if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well.” I admire this greatly.
However, I believe in the Thomistic ‘Just War’ morality, and that Christian service calls us to defend the vulnerable. Jesus also calls us to altruistic service. The praxis of altruism is seen in Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross. John 3:16 is often quoted to illustrate the argument for God’s love. And Matthew 20:8 informs us that Jesus “did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many”. I am often reminded on Memorial Day and Veteran’s Day of John 15:13 “Greater love has no one than this, than to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” A true altruist will also do the same for their enemies.
Volumes have been written about war and peace. The balance between the two is global and timeless. And that is not an issue I will solve in my lifetime. I can only say that for me, in my Spirit, the Christian mandate to serve even to the point of sacrifice informs my call.
This Memorial Day, remember those who have died in service to this country. Remember the loved ones who are still with us. Remember the Veterans among us who witnessed the hell of war, losing friends, innocence, and peace. And remember that as long as this world still has conflict some of us will be in harm’s way in response to our call to serve, support, and defend the most vulnerable among us. As 1 John 3:16 states, “By this we know love, because He laid down His life for us. And we also ought to lay down our lives for the brethren”.