Wednesday, November 11, 2020

A reflection on Veterans Day

 2 Samuel 23:13‑17:

13 During harvest time, three of the thirty chief men came down to David at the cave of Adullam, while a band of Philistines was encamped in the Valley of Rephaim. 14 At that time David was in the stronghold, and the Philistine garrison was at Bethlehem. 15 David longed for water and said, "Oh, that someone would get me a drink of water from the well near the gate of Bethlehem!" 

16 So the three mighty men broke through the Philistine lines, drew water from the well near the gate of Bethlehem and carried it back to David. But he refused to drink it; instead, he poured it out before the LORD.

17  "Far be it from me, O LORD, to do this!" he said. "Is it not the blood of men who went at the risk of their lives?" And David would not drink it. Such were the exploits of the three mighty men.

With our country still at war it is appropriate, I think, to recognize the veterans of our country. I realize that this may seem a little self-serving since I am a veteran myself, but I hope you will trust me that this isn’t for me. As a Cold Warrior, my service was not especially demanding compared to the men and women who served in the hot wars of Vietnam, Korea, World War Two or the wars since 9/11. They are whom I have in mind.

To honor our veterans is not to glorify war. Certainly, no combat veteran would ever glorify war. After the Civil War, General William T. Sherman became disgusted at the rhetoric of glory being used to describe the war’s campaigns. In a graduation speech at the Michigan Military Academy in 1879, Sherman said, “War is at best barbarism. Its glory is all moonshine. It is only those who have neither fired a shot nor heard the shrieks and groans of the wounded who cry aloud for blood, more vengeance, more desolation. War is hell!” 

Despite war’s cruelty, there are many admirable features found among men and women in wartime. The battlefield is a place of many emotions. There is fear and anger. There is resignation and determination. There is hope and despair. The chief emotion at work on the battlefield is an unlikely one. It is love. In the desolation of the battlefield, love abides. Warriors love their country but don't talk about it much. Besides, when flies the angry iron, they fight for their buddies. A soldier who fought in Iraq wrote,

I've found the hard way that war is not glamorous. You quickly lose the idea of being a man fighting for his country when you have to carry your comrade who has been wounded in a gun fight. ... It's not about fighting for the flag, it's about fighting for my life and fighting for my buddies’ lives. These men I am lucky enough to serve with, I have become so attached to it's like they are my brothers.

A Marine major in Iraq wrote of a young corporal, a squad leader, who, during the invasion of Iraq was wounded by an enemy grenade. This Marine refused evacuation and continued to guide his squad until he passed out from loss of blood. 

Recovering at a hospital in Germany, he convinced his doctors to release him, “borrowed” a camouflage uniform from a Navy corpsman, called his wife and told her that he wasn’t coming home because his Marines were depending on him, and then talked his way onto an Air Force transport back to Iraq. He had the “golden ticket.” He was headed home as a war hero with medals to prove it, but he just couldn’t bear to let his Marines down, so he schemed and connived ... and got himself back into the fight. There are those who will call that kind of response foolish. Then may God grant that I be such a fool. You may question the wisdom of that Marine, but he’s the kind of man you want on your side when the chips are down.

Jesus said there is no greater love than to lay down your life for your friends. It is a love known well by veterans. Many veterans still grieve for buddies long dead. I knew well a very elderly gentleman who was a stretcher bearer in World War II. He still has bad dreams of wounded men dying as he is carrying them to an aid station.

During seminary I read of a World War I veteran named Cadet Shirer. He was a medic assigned to a U.S. hospital caring for wounded soldiers in France. “One case I never forgot,” he said.

When me and the nurse passed him, he’d say, ‘Sister, can’t you help me?’ He was burnt, blinded in both eyes. . . . He’d had chlorine gas. The nurse said, ‘Take care of this man, he’s going to die.’ I worked with him and I worked with him. I think his suffering controlled my whole life. Later I picked up Stars and Stripes and learned he didn’t die. Was I happy! His name was Stanislaus Nagursky. Would you believe a man could take so much interest in another man that he’d remember a name like that for 79 years? I still see him in my sleep at times. I still see him in my sleep.

Mingled with grief for friends who died there is sometimes a feeling of guilt at being alive. The battlefield is not an equal-opportunity destroyer. It often seems entirely fickle. An artillery shell explodes overhead and all around you are struck down, but you suffer not even a scratch. You see a plane hit by antiaircraft fire and fold up in flames just ahead, but your plane escapes. James Jones, wounded at Guadalcanal and author of the classic World War Two novel, The Thin Red Line, wrote that the greatest psychological problem among combat troops was not the threat of death but the shock of remaining alive. Some veterans also carry with them the particular burden of having killed other human beings, which war permits but somehow does not justify.

Second Samuel relates that David was thirsty and homesick and didn’t watch his mouth. David said, "Oh, that someone would get me a drink of water from the well near the gate of Bethlehem!" Three of his veteran campaigners overheard him and took great risks in enemy territory to bring back water from Bethlehem to David. But David poured it on the ground, refusing to drink it. "Far be it from me, O Lord, to do this!" he said. "Is it not the blood of men who went at the risk of their lives?" And David would not drink it.

Americans are free because of the risks of mighty ones who brought them the cup of freedom at great risk. Do we drink from the cup without considering it was bought with the blood of many who gave or risked their lives for it? Far be it from us, O Lord, to do such a thing!

Probably every veteran has experienced a moment when the imponderable awfulness of what soldiers do makes them stop and give cry to the deepest-rooted hope for a better world, populated with better people. Soldiers pray for God to come near when the fog of battle closes in. They see only dimly that out of blood and death there can come a brotherly world. They are alert for signs that the kingdom of God could break in even among ruins and horror.

And the kingdom does break in, without regard to nation or cause. On the morning of June 6, 1944, Franz Mueller, a German soldier, and six of his comrades found themselves in the middle of a division of American paratroopers. They stumbled across two American soldiers attending to a third, who was dying from wounds. Franz spoke English and he told the Americans he was taking them prisoner. But the dying American couldn’t be moved so everyone sat down and waited for him to die. 

Shortly, the two American soldiers knelt beside their friend and began to pray the Lord’s Prayer. After a moment, Franz knelt and joined in. Another German soldier who spoke English joined in, too. The other five Germans didn’t speak English, but they recognized the rhythm of the prayer, so they prayed in German. For this small moment in the midst of war, God’s kingdom broke in: nine soldiers of two enemy armies, suspending their politics and nationality, praying together—four in English, five in German.

Ernest Gordon was a prisoner of war in a Japanese camp. He wrote of a train trip he and his fellows made while in the hands of the Japanese. At a stop in Burma, a train of Japanese wounded pulled alongside.

“They were in a shocking state,” Gordon related. “I have never seen men filthier. Uniforms were encrusted with blood, mud and excrement. Their wounds crawled with maggots. The wounded looked at us forlornly as they sat waiting for death. They had been discarded as expendable, the refuse of war. These were our enemy."

Without a word most of the officers in my section unbuckled their packs, took out part of their rations and a rag or two, and with their water canteens in their hands, went over to the Japanese train. Our guards tried to prevent us, but we ignored them and knelt down by the enemy to give water and food, to clean and bind their wounds. Grateful cries of "Arigato" (thank you) followed us when we left.

I regarded my comrades with wonder. Eighteen months ago they would have readily destroyed [the Japanese]. Now these same officers were dressing the enemy’s wounds.

We had experienced a moment of grace, there in the bloodstained railway cars. God had broken through the barriers of our prejudice and had given us the will to obey his command, "Thou shalt love."

Paul wrote to the Corinthians, “God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting our sins against us. And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation” (2 Cor 5:19). This is the hope and faith we have in Christ when faced with the mournful mutter of the battlefield: that in Christ we can be reconciled with each other and with all peoples.

We all have a personal vision of heaven. Here is mine. When the end of the age has come and Christ has put everything under his feet, the dead shall be raised. And all of us who have borne arms and weapons, whether American, German, Japanese, Korean, Chinese, Vietnamese, Panamanian, Afghan or Iraqi, we will all meet again. We will not meet in battle, but at the foot of the Prince of Peace. 

Cadet Shirer will find Stanislaus Nagursky and they will have a wonderful reunion. My father-in-law will embrace the men who died on his stretcher and will no longer have to grieve for them. The men who died in the next foxhole or airplane will greet us, smiling. 

And we will find the people whom we have shot or stabbed or clubbed or bombed. We will see them face to face and we will say, “In Christ’s name, forgive me!” And they will reply with elation, “In the name of Christ, you are forgiven!”

That day has not yet come. Let us pray it comes quickly. Until then may the Lord watch over those who are serving now, to make them instruments of justice, enablers of peace, and finally to see them safely home.

Sunday, November 1, 2020

Election and Unity - a reflection on this Tuesday

 English statesman Edmund Burke observed that America is the only nation ever to be founded upon an idea. The American idea, and ideal, is that there really can be a country where all persons are “created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” and that the purpose of government is to secure these rights, deriving its just powers from the consent of the governed.  

History reveals that across time and the globe, disputes over succession of power have usually been settled by mobs or armies in the streets, ending with one of the contenders dead or fled. Even in civilized England, three sitting kings were murdered by their successors and one was deposed by Parliament, which then beheaded him. But in America, where there are at least 250 million guns in private hands, there is no such history of violence over elections. Perhaps it is because we may change administrations but not governments. Elections here don’t bring violence, at worst they bring . . . lawyers. Through the lens of history, our domestic political predicament is unusually peaceful.

America’s founders realized that the people of a democracy would inevitably divide into factions, setting the people in opposition to one another. For that reason, the founders mistrusted direct democracy. “Democracies,” James Madison wrote in Federalist 10, “have ever been spectacles of turbulence and contention; have ever been found incompatible with personal security or the rights of property; and have in general been as short in their lives as they have been violent in their deaths.” The founders feared the tyranny of a democratic majority almost as much the tyranny of a monarchy. The script of Mel Gibson’s blockbuster movie, The Patriot, reflected this fear when Mel Gibson’s character expressed doubts about the revolution by asking a colonial assembly, “Will you tell me why I should trade one tyrant three thousand miles away for three thousand tyrants one mile away?”

Hence the founders rejected direct democracy. In fact, wrote historian Fred Barbash,

“Democracy, as we think of it, wasn’t a serious option. Democracy was an alien notion; the word itself was rarely used in the debates of that time. The real power, they believed, resided in the House of Representatives, elected by popular vote.”

(As an aside, the founders appear to have assumed that presidential elections would be decided by the House more often than not. “It will rarely happen that the majority of the whole votes will fall on any one candidate,” said George Mason of Virginia.)

There is the famous anecdote of Benjamin Franklin leaving the Constitutional Convention and being asked by a woman on the sidewalk what government she would have. “A republic,” he answered, “if you can keep it.” Of course, a republic will have factions, too, but is much less subject to their ill effects. It would be nice to say that the founders thought that high-falutin ideals like truth, justice and morality would protect national unity, but they weren’t so naive. They knew high ideals could be easily perverted for tyranny’s purposes. The unity of the nation may be rooted in the ideals of the government but can be preserved only in the form of the government. So the founders made the nation a republic, which is the main reason we have the electoral college rather than direct election.

A republic, as defined by the founders, is a government which derives all its powers from the people and is administered by persons holding their offices for a limited period. Essential to a republic is that elected officials come from all segments of society and not from a small proportion, or a favored class. Furthermore, every tenure of office must be conditional in some way, either by limiting terms by law or by enabling removal by law.

Factionalism cannot be eliminated from society. “The latent causes of faction are sown in the nature of man,” Madison wrote, because differing interests always have divided humankind “into parties . . . and rendered them much more disposed to . . . oppress each other than to co-operate for their common good,” an observation proven every four years. Madison observed that the tendency toward disunity was so deeply rooted in human nature that the most violent conflicts have been kindled for the most frivolous reasons.

Madison thought it folly “to say that enlightened statesmen will be able to adjust these clashing interests, and render them all subservient to the public good. Enlightened statesmen will not always be at the helm.” Furthermore, politicians necessarily deal with matters immediately at hand and rarely take a long view of things.

Now, here is the reason I’ve gone through this civics lesson, for the Founders left a bombshell for church people. John Adams wrote, “We have no government armed with power capable of contending with human passions unbridled with morality and religion. Our constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.”

In other words, the founders understood that the protections of constitutional liberty depended on the morality and religious conviction of the people. Yet while morality and religion were necessary for liberty, they cannot guarantee liberty, because, wrote Madison, “Neither moral nor religious motives can be relied on” to control factionalism and discord. After all, a sense of morality and religion do not even prevent “the violence of individuals.” In civil affairs, the moral and religious senses restrain factions less and less as factions get bigger. Thus, individually moral and religious men and women inflamed and united by acrimonious passion become a mob.

This is an important point. The present election has inflamed passions throughout the country, including to the violence that the Founders warned us. Neither candidate has made much in the campaigns of their religious convictions. It is just as well. America's Founders trusted neither religion nor its lack as a qualification of a candidate. While we may hope and pray that our national leaders will be guided by the highest ideals of moral and religious convictions, our nation’s founders warned us not to count on it, either for office seekers, office holders or voters. We must seek another source of unity for our nation, not to supplant morality and religion but to complement them.

Our continuing hope for national unity is that we re-unite around the flagpole of the ideals of the republican form of government the founders bequeathed us. We must re-educate ourselves in republican ideals (note the small "r") and how it inhibits the dangers of democracy. The Federalist Papers wax long and eloquent on the virtues of a republic, but I’ll not list them here.

A closing thought: James Madison wrote in The Federalist Papers Number 39 of “that honourable determination which animates every votary of freedom, to rest all our political experiments on the capacity of mankind for self-government."

The prosperity of American civilization does not rest upon the power of government to rule us, not even in the slightest. The future of our nation is founded by our ability and willingness to govern ourselves, to suppress the devils of our passions to let flower the better angels of our nature.

If we cannot continue to do that then truly our votes will not matter. 

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