Saturday, May 24

The Bitter Taste of Memorial Day

Jasper Johns Flag (Moratorium), 1969
As a Quaker, I feel deeply conflicted and, more often than not, extremely upset by the prospect of Memorial Day.  You can start drafting me your hate mail after the jump.
     I will be clear from the get go, so you can't base your hate mail on this.  It's not that I'm ungrateful for the people who have served for the United States or thankless for those who have given their lives.  I mean no disrespect to those who have made major sacrifices for themselves and their families.  The thing is that I think it's sad.
     Most people don't know much about Quakers.  Quakerism is a faction of Chrisianity and there are in fact many splits within the Quaker faith itself.  The splits are similar to those in other faiths and largely revolve around progressive versus conservative ideas.  It's challenging to talk about Quakers as a group because they encompass a great many gamuts.   Let me tell you about my experience as a Quaker.  
     I'm a Quaker. I believe in God.  I believe not so much in Jesus Christ as the literal son of God, but as the man Jesus of Nazareth who, like all humans, was a child of God and did the work of God upon earth.  I believe that the light of God is in everyone and therefor no one is needed as an intermediary for God; I worship in silence at a meeting of Friends, not a church service.  I believe that all humans are created equal, which is why Quakers do not use titles and formalities; everyone is called by their first names to remind us of our equality.
     People who do know of Quakers often know of the tenet of pacifism.  Peace, at its most simplistic.  Part of the reason for this belief in Quakerism is because of the belief that the light of God is in everyone.  Any act of aggression or violence toward another person is an act of aggression or violence toward God.  Herein lies part of my struggle with Memorial Day.  Robert Lawrence Smith writes, "Nonviolence has always been the most paradoxical, counterintuitive, and optimistic of Quaker ideals.  Ever since Cain settled his conflict with Abel through premeditated murder, violence and the lust for dominance and revenge have been viewed as inevitable aspects of human relations."
     It's truly paradoxical, Smith later suggests that it is indeed challenging to oppose violence without the use of violence and threats.  Even when not engaged in military action, the military is a threat of dominance and revenge.  Another quote from Smith, "I was much younger and smaller, and they knew I'd been taught not to hit back, so they took fun in terrorizing me.  While I accepted nonviolence as the only possible response to their aggression, it struck me as a highly ineffective strategy."  Peace is a big picture idea and in small moments, it can seem highly ineffective.  Making threats or fighting back can be effective only in the short term.  When a punch or a threat is thrown back, it does not teach the person right or wrong; it teaches them not to bother you.  A child who uses threats to make the mean kids leave them alone isn't wrong; it can work.  The problem is that the mean kids are still mean.  Threats don't cure assholes of meanness-- they go bother someone else.  
     One (whether person, nation, or world) needs to actively strive toward peace.  Part of why Dennis Kucinich has always inspired me is because of his platform that if we are going to insist upon a Department of Defense, we should also insist upon a Department of Peace (and fund it just as handsomely).   Look at this chart:
There's a saying, "If you want peace, work for justice."  Here's an illustration of that.  Not perfect, of course, but countries with more social problems tend to have a higher rate of homicide.  A Department of Peace to work for justice and nonviolence is a brilliant idea.  It's not feasible for the world to continue along a path of violence, it's not sustainable. 
     It's not sustainable.  It comes at the cost of God, human beings, kindness, education, innovation, basic supplies.  Does it sustain something for some people?  Absolutely.  I know there are excellent arguments for defense and military service.  I can't dispute the premise of those arguments, but I can say that I think it's wrong.  Is it easier to throw trash out my car window than to keep it in my car, pick it out later, and drive my trash to the local dump? Yes.  Is throwing my trash out the car window the right thing to do? No.  The easier way is rarely the right way and we all deserve a sea change in how we are respected by political figures who continue to utilize a system of violence, a system of dominance and revenge.
     I don't think it's heroic to fight or die for your country-- I think it's sad.  I think it's unfair.  I think it's cheap.  Again, to reiterate, I don't think people who serve are cheap.  I'm saying that I think war and violence and threats and dominance are pitiful.  I believe that viewing and memorializing the deaths of people who have died for hundreds of years in service to their country as heroic is a necessary illusion to maintain the current political climate, not only for the United States, but globally.  I think it's disrespectful to try and sustain a vision of the world where dominance and revenge are expected at the cost of good people, intelligent people, creative people, kind people, mothers, fathers, friends, brothers, sisters, daughters, and sons.  We all deserve a world where we are safe and military action is not a viable way to do so for the future.
     Memorial Day reminds me of the failures of so many people, which have come at the cost of other good people and people who were loved.  (I say 'other good people' because I don't fault those who have made mistakes, either.)  It makes me angry to hold this up on a pedestal because I believe it's wrong.  How many lives could be different.  Not only children who would still have parents and parents who would still have children, but children who could have been born.  Ideas which could have been born.  Joy which could have been born.  What brilliance could have come from them?  Memorial Day makes me think about what good could have come without war.  Without force.  With light.  With peace.
     Quakers often use Queries to consider the proper path in action.  Queries are questions for people to ponder, with the guidance of God, to build a healthy heart in human practice.  I'll leave you with some from the New England Yearly Meeting of Friends:
- Do you uphold the right of all persons to justice and human dignity?
- Do you endeavor to create political, social, and economic institutions which will sustain and enrich the life of all?
- Do you "live in the virtue of that life and power that takes away the occasion of all wars"?
- Do you faithfully maintain Friends' testimony against military preparations and all participation in war, as inconsistent with the teachings and spirit of Christ?
- Do you take your part in the ministry of reconciliation between individuals, groups, and nations?  When discouraged, do you remember that Jesus said, "Peace is my parting gift to you, my own peace, such the world cannot give.  Set your troubled hearts at rest, and banish your fears"?