Monthly Archives: May 2012

Best Way to Honor Our Military Dead

Memorial Day began as a Decoration Day to remember fallen soldiers of the Civil War (1861-65). One of the earliest commemorations took place at Friendship Cemetery in Columbus, Mississippi. On April 25, 1866 the ladies of the town decided to decorate both Confederate and Union soldiers’ graves with garlands and bouquets of flowers. Yesterday I led worship at historic Middleburg Baptist Church in Middleburg, VA whose building was used as a hospital during the Civil War. In Sunday School the children went out into the ancient cemetery adjacent to the church and laid flowers on the soldiers’ graves, both US and Confederate.

The Civil War ended 147 years ago. Now we find ourselves in a conflict that has lasted twice as long. Over 1,500 US troops have died in hostile action in Afghanistan; more than 3,500 in Iraq. The numbers are higher if non-combat deaths and later suicides are included. Many more US troops lost their lives in other wars: Vietnam (47,424), Korea (33,686), World War II (291,557), World War I (53,402), Civil War (140,414 USA; 72,525 CSA), Mexican-American War (1,733), War of 1812 (2,260), and the Revolutionary War (8,000).

While I support our Memorial Day tradition, I believe the best way to honor our military dead is to make no more wars.

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Held in the Light

On November 2, 1965, Norman Morrison, 31-year-old devout Quaker, husband, and father of three, stood outside the Pentagon, poured kerosene over his body, and struck a match. He immolated himself to express his deep concern over the escalating war in Vietnam. Before taking his life in a spectacular way, he mailed his wife a farewell letter of explanation, which included a newspaper clipping about an eyewitness account of the bombing of a Vietnamese village by U.S. warplanes and the resulting deaths of innocent civilians. Norman Morrison’s story is told by his widow Anne Morrison Welsh in her 2008 memoir Held in the Light: Norman Morrison’s Sacrifice for Peace and His Family’s Journey of Healing. Like the act that inspired it, this book is both awful and awesome, haunting and inspiring.

What kind of a death was Morrison’s? Was it a senseless act of a deranged man? A beautiful and noble expression of sacrificial love? There’s a fine line between heroism and suicide. If a man jumps into a raging river to save a child and drowns, he is a hero. But what if he jumps in a river to save a dog? Or a rat? What if he jumps in the river to protest water pollution? Is he still a hero?

Self immolation is incomprehensible to us Westerners, but not to Easterners. The book quotes a letter to Martin Luther King, Jr. written by the Vietnamese Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hahn and published a few months before Morrison’s death: “The self-burning of Vietnamese Buddhist Monks in 1963 is somehow difficult for the Western Christian conscience to understand. The press often spoke of suicide, but in essence, it is not. What the monks said in the letters they left before burning themselves aimed only at alarming, at moving the heart of the oppressors, and at calling the attention of the world to the suffering endured then by the Vietnamese. To burn oneself by fire is to prove that what one is saying is of the utmost importance” (58). In another passage the book explains, “For the Vietnamese people, Norman had metaphorically put on the saffron robe of the Buddhist monk and spoken their language. They saw his sacrifice for peace as a great act of love for them. He became a folk hero of sorts, his name rendered in Vietnamese as Mo Ri Xon” (108). A North Vietnamese postage stamp bears his image, and a Hanoi street is named after him.

Years after Morrison’s death, many Vietnamese still recall where they were when the heard the news of Morrison’s death. One man had been a buffalo boy in a small, rural village where no one had access to a newspaper and only the headmaster of the school had a radio. The man recounted how “one day, the headmaster called us all together and told us about Morrison. Tears were streaming down his face. Of course, we all cried. I could not believe someone in another country would die for us” (131). It amazes me that an American so well known and beloved in another land can be so little known in his own.

I cannot condone what Morrison did, but neither can I condemn him. And I do not pretend to understand. I stand in awe and horror of a man who, as poet David Ferguson said, “spoke in a tongue of flame.”

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The Cost of Discipleship

This morning I read the following news on The Daily Office West website about a tragic shooting that took place at an Episcopal Church in Ellicott City, MD just 30 minutes from my home in Annapolis:

We must begin today with terrible news, which needs the prayers of the entire Church: the shooting on Thursday of the co-rector and parish secretary of St. Peter’s, Ellicott City, Maryland, apparently by a homeless man living nearby in the woods, a regular client of the parish food bank, who became belligerent in recent days and had to be told not to return. The Rev. Mary-Marguerite Kohn was severely injured and is not expected to live. The administrative assistant, Brenda Brewington, was killed at the scene. The shooter then took his own life. Please pray for their souls, the parish and diocese of Maryland – and make a thorough review of security measures at your church, especially for front-line personnel.

This horrible news reminded me of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s words: “When Christ calls a man, He bids him come and die” (The Cost of Discipleship). May those who died in this tragedy rest in peace.

It’s sad that in the richest nation in the world we have homeless people living in the woods, depending on a food bank for their daily bread. It’s sad that a church living the Gospel by feeding the hungry must suffer a tragic and senseless loss for their generosity. It’s sad that it has been years since I have volunteered at a food bank to help those who don’t have enough to eat. Maybe it’s about time I did.

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The Tiger’s Wife

In Teá Obreht’s first novel The Tiger’s Wife (Random House, 2011), the author weaves together multiple storylines set in the country of her birth, the former Yugoslavia, and stretching back from the present to the end of the Ottoman Empire. The principal narrator Natalia Steganovic is a doctor, who lives in an unnamed Balkan city with her mother, her grandmother, and her grandfather, who is also a doctor. She recalls childhood trips to the zoo with her grandfather, who always carried a copy of Kipling’s The Jungle Book in his breast pocket. He told her stories of an escaped tiger that menanced his village during World War II and was befriended by a nameless deaf-mute woman whom the town called the tiger’s wife. Natalia herself comes of age during the Balkan conflict of the 1990s, a war the author herself avoided because her family left Belgrade when she was seven and she grew up in the United States from age twelve. The theme of death and the ways people respond to it ties the book’s multiple stories together, including one about a deathless man named Gavron Gailé, based loosely on a character from Slavic folklore. Natalia’s grandfather wagers his precious Jungle Book on the man’s mortality but he does not drown after spending all night at the bottom of a lake with his feet chained to cement blocks. Such elements of magic realism remind me of Gabriel Garcia Márquez. Obreht’s limited personal experience with war, religion, and Balkan geography is obvious at times, but her masterful storytelling absolves her.

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