Memorial Day and Remembrance
On Memorial Day, we remember. We remember war, death, and those we love. We remember the importance of community and country, the warmth of family and hearth. That which we are willing to fight for, we remember on this day.
Soldiers may hope they are fighting for freedom. After all, they say that liberty is the foundation of our country. It’s what the Statue of Liberty stands for; it’s part of her name. On a bronze plaque inside the statue is the poem, “Colossus,” written by Emma Lazarus. It contains the well-known words: “Give us your tired, your poor,/ Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.” 
Why should “huddled masses” come to the United States seeking freedom if freedom is not something we offer?
Freedom, however, is relative. Recent political changes have limited the freedom of women and journalists, for example, yet we are still more free than, say, the Chinese who are tracked by facial recognition technology and imprisoned for protesting government policies. But that doesn’t mean that we should be complacent. If we are willing to kill people in another country to protect the freedom of the Western world, or at least if we claim that’s why we’re there, then should we not be willing to protect the personal and communal liberties in our own nation when we can see them eroding bit by bit every day?
The Return of the Patriarchy
Take abortion rights. There is a place for arguing that abortion ends a life and is therefore, if not unquestionably wrong, at least a bad choice among two or more bad choices. Abortion is painful and sad for everyone concerned. Yet the Draconian anti-abortion laws being voted into effect in Southern states are less about protecting vulnerable children and more about punishing women for demanding independence and empowerment and for daring to control over their own bodies.
In her opinion article, “Anti-Abortion and Pro-Trump Are Two Sides of the Same Coin,” Jamelle Bouie notes that Trump’s campaign promise to “make America great again” wasn’t about jobs and farms. It was about bringing back repressive tradition and patriarchal hierarchies. Trump became a champion for the white man whose power had begun to slip. He promised to return us to a “golden age” that never existed in the first place, a world in which men are men, especially if they’re white and wealthy, and in which everyone else must follow their rules. 
This is the freedom of the few at the expense of everyone else. It is not the freedom the Statue of Liberty stands for, nor is it the freedom Memorial Day celebrates.
That we are in this place should not be surprising. Given our country’s history, it’s hard to see how we can escape the return of a dictatorship that insists women, minorities, and children must be controlled. After all, the Puritans were determined to spread their vision of reality to everyone they encountered. They believed they were “God’s chosen people,” come to America to save the heathens from their sins.  This self-identity still festers in our hearts today. Our self-righteousness has made us sick. It taints our communities and leads us into war.
So what do we about it?
I would like to think there’s some global answer, that entire communities and countries could be healed of their insanity with one touch of a wand or one command from their gods. Instead, the movement toward democracy that seemed to be sweeping through the world is now threatened by nationalist movements everywhere. The pendulum is swinging hard. It’s a discouraging time to be a liberal.
Since no wholesale transformation of world governments seems likely any time soon, we need to look elsewhere. We need to look at transforming our own hearts.
Peace in the Heart
Lao Tzu, the founder of Taoism, taught that if there is to be peace among the nations, there must be peace in each person’s heart. In the end, how we treat one another as a country is up to each one of us, for we as individuals make up a neighborhood, and we make up a nation. Either we treat one another as friends or we don’t. Either we learn to love one another or we get lost in anger. If we can learn to love, and if we spread our message effectively enough, we may one day find that our neighbors’ hearts have grown in love, as well.
Last week I wrote about Fred Rogers and his caring for every child in his audience. This week I will be playing his song, “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” at our morning church service. In this song, Rogers says that he wants you to be his neighbor. Literally.
“Please won’t you be my neighbor?” he asks.
It sounds as if he wants to be a neighbor with everyone who hears his song.
It’s a great sentiment, and if you define neighborliness as honoring the inherent worth of every person, treating one another with respect, encouraging hope and healing, providing nurture and succor, sure, we should be everyone’s neighbor. Everyone deserves such compassion.
Protecting Our Own
If, however, you define neighborliness as living next door to someone, I’m pretty sure I don’t want to be everyone’s neighbor. Some people lie, cheat, rape, and betray their friends. Others are loud, crass, and stink up the place with chemicals or garbage. I don’t want that near me. I want to feel safe and comfortable, with my children protected.
As I walked past the golf course the other day, I stopped to watch a hawk drift to the grass in front of a pond. As it hopped toward the water to drank, a shrieking crow dive-bombed it. Over and over the crow swooped, streaking past near the raptor’s head. In that moment, the hawk seemed like the underdog, the one who deserved my sympathy. I supposed hawks get used to being harassed, but I can’t imagine it’s pleasant. Besides, it’s not as if the hawk can help what it is. How else can the creature survive but by hunting those who are weaker than he? Yet who would want a neighbor who might, at any moment, crash into her home and steal away her baby? Not everyone is welcome.
Yet not everyone who looks to us like a hawk is our enemy. In sports, for instance, we root for one team against another. Last week, the Portland Trail Blazers lost three games out of three. My husband, who growled in frustration through their third failure, nonetheless expressed appreciation for the other team’s strategy. Even our enemies are human, and sometimes they’re pretty decent.
Threats that Don’t Materialize
Like hawks and crows, we can get lost in a desperate battle to save our families from everything that might possibly hurt them. Often the threats we fear most never materialize. The people we vilify turn out not to be the dangerous ones. It’s so easy for charismatic leaders to convince us that an enemy lies outside us, that immigrants or women or blacks or Muslims are the problem. Then, in exchange for an illusion of safety, we let those leaders dismantle freedoms we take for granted. At such a time as this, we may find our children are threatened for real.
Memorial Day is a day to remember those who fought for human rights, dignity, and liberty. It’s a day to remember we must be diligent and courageous. We must join the battle to live as neighbors. Our democracy is imperfect. It has been so ever since the Puritans, as humanly flawed as the rest of us, forced their way onto a land they had no right to claim. Sometimes the arc of our laws leans toward justice. These days, it seems, it is leaning more toward totalitarianism.
Roger Cohen, in an opinion column for The New York Times, speaks of “insidious domination through the evisceration of independent checks and balances.”  In other words, as fervent right-wing governments around the world take over the police, media, and court systems, their capacity to dominate and control others overwhelms the capacity of rational thinkers to stop them. Our sound bites just aren’t as appealing. For instance, as Cohen points out, the European Union brought peace and stability to the West. He calls it a “miracle.” Yet, he adds, “no miracle ever marketed itself so badly.” 
A Memorial to a World Without War
How we speak the truth in a climate of obfuscation and lies is important. Marketing matters. Finding our voice matters. How do we spread love in a time when love is seen as weakness? I don’t have the answers, but I do know that if we get caught up in the battle, we will lose. We will become the ones we fear.
I don’t have to be friends with those who live on my block, yet I can learn to co-exist. I don’t have to like people to love them or welcome them into community. As Fred Rogers told us over and over again, we are neighbors. We can learn to be glad to have one another living nearby, standing at our side.
If we fail in this, our democracy will also fail. It’s a scary time, but it’s not the end of times. There is something in our country, and in our world, worth defending. On this Memorial Day, let’s remember that. And let’s remember that the best way to defend liberty is to defend peace. We do that by creating peace within our own hearts, our own families, our own neighborhoods. If we do, we may yet see peace in our world. Then Memorial Day will no longer be about war.
In faith and fondness,
- Lazarus, Emma, 1883, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_New_Colossus.
- Bouie, Jamelle, “Anti-Abortion and Pro-Trump Are Two Sides of the Same Coin,” Opinion, The New York Times, May 21, 2019, A22.
- Vowell, Sarah, The Wordy Shipmates, New York: Riverhead Books, 2008, 35.
- Cohen, Roger, “Steve Bannon Is a Fan of Italy’s Donald Trump,” Sunday Review, The New York Times, May 19, 2019, 1 and 4, 4.
Copyright © 2019 Barbara E. Stevens All Rights Reserved