I have seen poverty. There was the young man sitting in only his underwear outside a hotel, his legs broken and twisted as a baby to ensure a life of begging. He could not walk. There was the simple wooden house built in the leach field just down from block homes. Furnished with a simple cookstove, a mattress, and a couple of chairs. The sights, sounds, and smells of poverty of those who live and work on landfills are with me and will not leave.
I have not seen war. I know people who have and only a few are willing to talk about it, and for good reason. Our nation, blessed with being a strategic island when it comes to conflict in today's world, has had no military conflict on its shores in living memory (with a few technical exceptions). But the history of Memorial Day, which became an official holiday near the end of the Vietnam War takes us back to days when the scars of war reached into every part of this land.
In 1868, just after the end of the Civil War, May 30 became known as Decoration Day and was marked as a day of remembrance for those who died in armed conflict. It was important to remember then to remind the nation of the terrible cost of picking up arms to settle disputes. We do not want to repeat that again.
Walt Whitman in his collection "Specimen Days and Collect" says of that conflict, "And everywhere among these countless graves -- everywhere in the many soldier Cemeteries of the Nation, (there are now, I believe, over seventy of them) -- as at the time in the vast trenches, the depositories of slain, Northern and Southern, after the great battles -- not only where the scathing trail passed those years, but radiating since in all the peaceful quarters of the land -- we see, and ages yet may see, on monuments and gravestones, singly or in masses, to thousands or tens of thousands, the significant word Unknown."
"(In some of the cemeteries nearly all the dead are unknown. At Salisbury, N. C., for instance, the known are only 85, while the unknown are 12,027, and 11,700 of these are buried in trenches. A national monument has been put up here, by order of Congress, to mark the spot -- but what visible, material monument can ever fittingly commemorate that spot ?)."
It was the Civil War that started us on the road to doing all we can to identify, name, and return all of those who gave their lives in war. But it is still the nature of war to dehumanize, demonize, and destroy people. And the terror is that it is not only the enemy that can be dehumanized and destroyed, but from a different angle, those whom we send to fight.
Hopefully we learn something from every war, although I am not so sure sometimes. We try to. After every conflict we say "never again" in some fashion. Most notably we said this after the Civil War, WWI, WWII, and Vietnam. We are still wrestling with Korea and the Sunni/Shiite/Oil/Nuclear thing. Memory of those who gave their lives is important for us to preserve our future.
Memorial Day is not for shopping, or water-skiing, or camping, or having a party. Although all those things will happen - all of which I have done and will do again. Memorial Day is a day to take some time to remember, but perhaps more importantly it is a day to remember in order to teach and to tell the stories of those who fought and died. It is a day to look for teaching moments for our children so that they will know what the day is about. One cannot remember what one never knew.
It is a day to say "thank you" to the families that have lost loved ones while deployed. Being remembered and thought of does not make the loss or pain go away, but when it is shared it is nearly always better than not.
I am a person of peace. I have been afforded the opportunity to speak and preach peace in safety by those who have stepped into the violence. I will continue to speak against war and violence, and I will continue to pray for the day when we no longer decide to settle differences by killing each other. I will also remember those who died and be thankful for them.
May God grant us rest and peace.
Sean Niestrath lives and ministers in Madisonville. You may contact him via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.