On Being a Pacifist on Memorial Day

I have always struggled with this national holiday. As a day intended to honor our warriors, it feels to me as a day when war is honored as well and I can’t help but recoil.

I read two things this morning. The first is a section from the book, Grounded, by Diane Butler and the second an article in Parabola magazine, “Healing the Wounds of War” by Edward Tick. Butler wrote about the universal principle that we call the Golden Rule, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” She shared the same principle through the voices of various religions and through some of our contemporary spiritual leaders including Karen Armstrong, the Dalai Lama, and Deepak Chopra. Edward Tick wrote about how native people around the world deal with warriors including how they prepare for war and help them heal after battle.

I sit here this morning of Memorial Day 2017 trying to reconcile these two ideas – the Golden Rule and the actions of our warriors. It occurs to me that war is what happens when nations fail to apply the Golden Rule in the world. In this respect, warriors are those who are sent to clean up the ravages of bad decision making. Karma that is not their own falls upon them to deal with. It sickens me to realize that in order to prepare a person for the battle field, we have to dehumanize the enemy. This is part of the problem, I suspect, with PTSD. The delayed awareness that the enemies who died in battle were human beings like one’s own self, family members, and neighbors. Such a deception! I somehow feel responsible for it as a citizen of a warring country. In order to send someone to fight for me, I have to temporarily deceive them.

The native cultures that Tick writes about face the reality head on. Through ritual both before and after battle, a warrior is helped to make amends for harm done to another human being. This is what the Truth and Reconciliation Commission hearings in South Africa was about. A practice the Xhosa people call Ukubula is actually “a confessional telling of what you have done before the community. The community’s role is to ‘tolerate the pain of listening, no matter how difficult. The community carries the burden and pain of what happened and the warrior is forgiven and healed from private suffering.’ The commission highlights the critical role the community plays in listening and witnessing horrors without judgment and welcoming the trauma survivor back into the community.” It must be recognized that this healing and welcoming back was done to all warriors on both sides of the war. It was not just a washing of guilt but a healing of brokenness, a reconciling of the factions of the community that fought one another.

I have always wondered about the honoring of warriors among our native people. There is something different I can feel when I have attended pow-wows that always begin with an honors ceremony and the typical Memorial Day or Veteran’s Day parade. I think it is this: the native people recognize the wounds of the warrior at a deeper level. They recognize the truth of what has been asked of the warriors by the whole nation. Through ritual they enter with them the process of reconciliation, of repairing the damage done, not just to the warriors but to the enemy as well.

This is what is missing, I believe. We have asked human beings, our neighbors and friends, to do our dirty  work. We blame the “enemy’, but the failures that lead to war are ours. It is our elected leaders, the ones chosen, that make the decisions that lead us into war. I say “our failures” because we, as citizens, endorse the lifestyle that is being supported by warring. We live it every day – all of us. We fail to ask questions about how the goods we use are acquired and whether in their acquisition harm is caused to our foreign neighbors. In other words, our own failure to follow the golden rule or hold our leaders to this standard. Consciously or not, we send our warriors to defend causes that sometimes strike us as weak after the fact. We can’t really support them unless we share the truth that we all send them and we must all enter the rituals and actions to honor their sacrifice and to heal them and ourselves.


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