Memorial Day and Healing Our Souls

Giving Away Our Wealth

Jesus spoke of sacrifice. For instance, as Stephen L. Carter reminds us in his book Civility, there was the time Jesus told the rich man that to get into heaven, he would have to give away all his belongings. As one might expect, the man could not bring himself to do so.

From this we learn that wealth can become an idol, distracting us from our true work which, according to Carter, is to love and serve the divine. We also learn about the importance of sacrifice. We’re encouraged to give up whatever gets in the way of union with the divine.

Lest we think that, because we aren’t wealthy, Jesus’s admonition doesn’t apply to us, Carter offers other examples of idolatrous cravings. A politician might need to give up “temporal power;’ a baseball player, his “superior batting average”; an activist, her “beloved political convictions.”

“The sacrifice,” Carter writes, “comes in yielding what we value most.” [1]

Empty shoes, one man's boot with a flower in it, representing the dead - in honor of memorial day and the veteran and our broken souls

The Sacrifice of Memorial Day

Joseph Campbell talked of that kind of sacrifice in a story that I shared a few weeks back.  He took part in a ritual that involved choosing seven things one could not live without, then symbolically giving them up. By sacrificing what they thought they could never release, they gained a stronger, more resilient grace. [2]

But Memorial Day isn’t about sacrificing the material and intellectual possessions we think we need, yet really don’t. It’s not about giving up our homes, our friends and family, or even our convictions. Memorial Day is about a different kind of sacrifice. It’s about risking our lives and our health for an ideal.

To Go to War

One such ideal is patriotism or tribalism. In her article, “Easy Chair: Facing the Furies,” Rebecca Solnit argues that governments stir up our anger by manufacturing or exaggerating threats. In this way, they convince us that our way of life is at stake and, therefore, “violence is necessary.” As Solnit writes, “the angriest people are often the most credulous.” [3] These angry and credulous citizens will thus lay down their lives for their country.

Not everyone needs to be stirred up by a government to enlist in the military. Some are motivated by a family sense of honor, an expectation held by generations of soldiers who have gone before. Others desire the thrill of excitement, long to feel important, or hope to make a difference in the world.

As Edward Tick puts it in War and the Soul, young soldiers still believe “that their wills, values, and small arms can stand as Excaliburs against evil.” [4] Young people often believe in enemies and think it’s possible to stamp out evil. Our culture’s stories and myths perpetuate such ideas.

Even so, war may seem less like a way to achieve glory than a way to get out of a bad situation. By becoming soldiers, some individuals escape a troubled home, a shattered neighborhood, an unfortunate life. Besides, when they enlist, few youth can comprehend the sacrifices they will end up making. We rarely go into adventures thinking we’ll end up battered, bruised, and broken.

Tribes and Tribalism

Yet many of us who stay behind know better. We stand by as others sacrifice themselves for us. What false idol allows us to do so? What conviction stands between us and the holy?

The answer is not simple. As individuals and as a society, we cling to many substitutes for God: money, power, glory, individualism, political and class identity, and tribalism. All these can lead to war. Perhaps tribalism is one of the worst offenders.

The use of the terms “tribe” and “tribalism” is controversial. David Wiley considers them “demeaning,” “confusing,” and “ambiguous.” He points out that the term “tribe” came into usage during the 19th century “to designate alien non-white peoples as inferior or less civilized.” [5]

While important to remember this, the term “tribalism” can be useful. In the United States today, for instance, commentators such as David Brooks and Michael Gerson worry that tribalism has eroded political dialogue. They identify it as a danger to the integrity of our democracy. It can also lead to war.

Tribalism and War

The tendency to promote divisions and vilify those who disagree with us is not new. Slavery, torture, and war have existed for millennia, among humans of all types. If we identify someone as being one of “us,” great; if not, we often try to destroy them.

Most of us take no pleasure in hurting others. Typically, circumstances must be extraordinary before we will murder someone. That’s why learning to be a warrior requires extraordinary measures. As Tick describes in his book, these include intimidation, humiliation, the loss of individual identity, and severe punishment. This dehumanization creates its own rage, but it is not enough to make us kill. That’s why soldiers are taught to see the enemy as less than human. [6]

It takes a lot to for us to take another life.

In spite of all this, most soldiers don’t lose their humanity. They don’t kill just to kill. They kill to save their own lives or the lives of their friends.

Fighting for Our Tribe

Indeed, most of us will sacrifice more to protect those we love than to protect ourselves. We will fight to save our family and our fellow soldiers. If we are taught to love our country, we will fight for that, as well. That’s why tribalism, that “us” and “them” thinking, makes war more likely. It also makes anti-immigration and racism more likely.

Yet those who fight to protect those they love may not think of themselves as violent or wrong. While working as a hospital chaplain, I spoke with a self-identified white supremacist. At one point, he asked me, “What’s wrong with taking care of your tribe?”

By that he meant, why shouldn’t he want Mexicans out of the United States? Why shouldn’t he support segregation? Why shouldn’t he promote the needs of his race over those of others?

To give him credit, he was asking those questions because he was honestly trying to figure it out. No one could expect him to stand by while his family was injured, yet how do we define injury? How do we define family, friend, and neighbor?

Taking Care of Our Neighbor

We Unitarian Universalists like to think we’re inclusive of everyone. We honor all religions, find inspiration in nature, the arts, and science. In theory, our friends and neighbors live all around the world, in every culture and every social strata. They are everyone.

In practice, however, we usually fall short. Whether we reject radical Republicans, conservative evangelicals, white supremacists, our president, the ultra-rich, loud mentally-ill individuals, or global-warming-deniers, we really do not include everyone in our circle. The truth is, we are as human as anyone else, and although we might be a little better than some at honoring, accepting, and even valuing people who are different from us, we still band into communities of people who look like us and with whom we are comfortable.

Right now, we’re enthusiastic about welcoming immigrants and people of color, and we’ve done a pretty good job of incorporating the queer community into our churches, but I still don’t see most of us welcoming the homeless, the indigent, the uneducated, the confused, the smelly, the conservative. In some of our communities, we still ostracize the veteran. That may be because we think of veterans as patriotic, and we’re not big on patriotism. It may also be because some veterans have killed, and we don’t approve of killing.

The Tragedy of Killing

Indeed, having killed another human can be the hardest part of fighting in a war. Not all soldiers do kill, of course, though some kill many times. Those who do kill, even if the murder is sanctioned by war and law, often end up with a crack in their soul. It is as if they were being attacked by Furies.

According to Greek mythology, the Furies are goddesses of the underworld, deities of vengeance who mercilessly hound the wicked. Tick calls them “the powers of psychological and spiritual torture we feel after surviving war and killing.” [7] For some veterans, these vengeful deities attack them and never go away.

This may be the warrior’s greatest sacrifice. The soldier risks his or her soul to satisfy the lusts of the powerful, soothe the fears of the populace, and help us all maintain our illusion of strength and invulnerability and innocence. Veterans are our scapegoats. They hold our shame. Tick suggests that what we call Post-traumatic Stress Disorder “may be the moral defeat of our nation internalized in its veterans.” [8] Murder may destroy the souls of those who commit the deed, but it also destroys the souls of those who sanction it.

Can we welcome the wounded veteran into our tribe? Can we honor the sacrifice they have made?

Our False Idol

If we cannot, I suspect that will be because we tend to think of ourselves as holy, as the ones who love, as the ones who resist violence. Yes, there is reason to censure those whose narrow love leads to fear, spite, externalized shame, and misplaced blame. It’s important to acknowledge that some people are truly scary, vengeful, and outright dangerous. Sometimes we do need to protect ourselves.

Yet all of these people, even the awful ones, are our neighbors. We are called to love them, and even to support them. It’s easy to love and support the veteran who suffers because she cares so much about what she has done, and surely we can love those who, like the white supremacist I talked with, long to do what’s right. But how do you love someone who has no emotions, who only befriends you who so he can destroy you? I’m not sure, though however it’s done, we need to do it from a distance.

Accepting the Gray

So maybe we don’t need to welcome everyone into our churches and our homes. But we still have convictions that get in the way of our reaching out to those who suffer, of loving our neighbor, of our own healing. Those convictions are our false idols. We seem to think we are the moral arbiters of the world, that our cause is the just one, and that other causes are ill-informed at best and abusive at worst.

Not that I think morality is relative. There is good, and there is bad, but there’s also a lot of messy gray space in between. Too often, we think we can separate the gray into its component parts. A little humility can sometimes be a good thing.

Humble Enough to Learn

How can we be more humble? Since Monday is Memorial Day, perhaps we can start by focusing on the ways we have contributed to the suffering of the struggling veteran. Not all those we honor on this day are dead in body; some are dead in soul. How can we create a culture of healing?

This is complicated. I am not suggesting we start a therapy program for veterans or offer them music classes or grief groups, though this might not be a terrible thing, depending on how we set about it. I am suggesting that we be honest about our prejudices and our assumptions, that we recognize the difference between curiosity and availability, and that we not pretend that our experiences make us experts. In our effort to do good, we can easily alienate those we want to help.

Perhaps the humility we need to is to realize that we may not be the ones who can listen to the veteran’s story and him feel more whole. That may not lie within our capacity, or it may not be our task in this moment. Perhaps what the aching and soul-starved veteran needs from us is simply to accept her as one of the community, not as a token or a representative. Besides, not every veteran comes back from war broken and empty and cold.

Healing the Soul of the Veteran and Our Own

Broken or not, each veteran is ultimately responsible for her own healing. Of course, there must be places for her to find help, yet unless she reaches out and does the hard work, no amount of help will matter. We, too, must do the work of healing our own souls.

What will that take?

Tick lists what he has learned the veteran needs for healing. First, he needs a safe place to share his story. Then she needs to make sense out of non-sense and find a way to reclaim her morality. He must be honest with himself and face the difficult truths. We all need to listen with open hearts and to face up to the reality of war, but we also need to acknowledge the noble, honorable, and life-affirming traditions of the warrior spirit. Tick suggests the veteran make reparations, perform service, and engage in sacred rituals. We can do that, too.

The goal, Tick writes, “is to grow the soul large enough, to help it become wise and strong enough, so that it can surround the dominating wound we call trauma.” [9]

Not only the veteran benefits from this; so do we. Most of us have traumas that need healing. Most of us have wounded souls. If we can sacrifice our need to see ourselves as whole and together, perhaps we can reach out for our own healing. Perhaps we can help heal one another. Then, perhaps, if we have sacrificed our false idols, we will be able to do our true work, which is to love and serve the divine, whatever we understand the divine to be.

In faith and fondness,



  1. From Carter, Stephen L., Civility: Manners, Morals, and the Etiquette of Democracy, New York: Basic, 1998, 107.
  2. Campbell, Joseph, “Reflections on the Art of Living,” God in All Worlds: An Anthology of Contemporary Spiritual Writing, ed. Lucinda Vardey, New York: Vintage, 1995, 214-215.
  3. From Solnit, Rebecca, “Easy Chair: Facing the Furies,” Harper Magazine, May 2017, 4-8, 5.
  4. Tick, Edward, War and the Soul: Healing Our Nation’s Veterans from Post-traumatic Stress Disorder, Wheaton, IL: Quest Books, 2005, 78.
  5. Wiley, David, “Using ‘Tribe’ and ‘Tribalism’ Categories to Misunderstand African Societies,’ African Studies Center, Michigan State University, 2013,, accessed 5/26/18.
  6. Tick 86-87.
  7. Ibid 276.
  8. Ibid 276.
  9. Ibid 286.
Photo by Mika on Unsplash
Copyright © 2018 Barbara E. Stevens