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Pacifism and Memorial Day

May 26, 2012

My views on Memorial Day changed because of one woman.

I have always held that patriotism and pacifism were not mutually exclusive. I have no problem flying my flag on Memorial Day or going ot the cemetery or other aspects of the holiday. However, there is not much military in my family: my father is not a veteran. My uncle is, but I haven’t had a relationship with him most of my life. Same with my Dad’s cousin: a former Marine but I have no relationship with him. My brother is an ex-Marine, be he eschewed his Marine experience when he got out.

So Memorial Day has not been a major military event to me. I’ve enjoyed the extra day off, the chance to get out in the garden and do other chores. I’ve always lived the parades and the picnics.

Until I met Margaret*. She lives where I work, a quiet, dignified woman. She’s an active volunteer and has remained physically active into her 90’s.

You should know that Timbercrest – where I work and where Margaret lives – is owned and operated by the Church of the Brethren, a pacifist denomination. Two-thirds of the people who live at Timbercrest are Brethren. Generally speaking, we don’t do much with the military holidays other than acknowledging them.

One Spring several years ago, Margaret and I were talking. She is not Church of the Brethren, but has always shown great respect for the denomination. Her friends and neighbors at Timbercrest are Brethren.

In our conversation, Margaret took a surprisingly sharp tone. She said, “I don’t mind all the Brethren and their peace and pacifism, but I wish just once they’d say something for the veterans.”

I didn’t know Margaret’s late husband, but I knew he hadn’t been a veteran. “Why do you say that?” I asked.

“John was a veteran.”

“Who is John?” I asked. That wasn’t Margaret’s late husband’s name.

“John was my first husband.”

“Margaret, I didn’t know you had been married before.”

“John was killed in World War II. We got married right before he went to Europe.”

My heart stopped. Then it dawned on me: Margaret had been widowed in her early 20’s. I knew that Margaret was not originally from Indiana, but I learned that she married her high school sweetheart before the war and was devoted to waiting for him until he got home. He never made it home.

There was never any doubt about Margaret’s love for her second husband or the children they reared together. But they moved out of their home state and settled in Indiana in order to start new.

It was a life-changing moment for me. I had seen (and still see) the violence and killing of war and conflict in broad terms, ideas and notions that are hard for anyone to object to. Even military people say they’d rather have peace than war.

But in Margaret, it dawned on me that war and peace are is more than broad ideas or lofty notions.

War and peace are a young bride saying farewell to her fallen soldier.

And that is what Memorial Day is about. It’s not about war, it’s about the people affected by war.

Memorial Day isn’t about whether or not war and fighting and violence are good or bad. Who can argue that any of those things are good?

Instead, Memorial Day is about the women like Margaret who lost their young husbands, the children who are left fatherless, the parents who are left without their sons.

We who are peacemakers need to come to grips with this. I read a lot of lofty things by people who are opposed to war, rants against militarism, arguments about how the military budget takes food from the poor, dollars from education, and feeds a systemic problem of violence around the world.

But how many of pacifists know a woman whose husband lies in a grave in Viet Nam or a mother whose son didn’t come home from Korea?

And if we know them, do we talk with them? Do we hold their hands? Do we pray with them?

Do we honestly share their grief or do we settle for condemning the action that took their loved one… we can’t see the person for the issue.

When I put my flag out for Memorial Day, it’s not for some general in Washington to see that I am loyal. It’s not to demonstrate my support for war. It’s not a statement of American superiority.

It’s to remind people like Margaret that I care about her and what happened to her husband.

I care about those whom war and violence affect.

And people are what pacifism is about. The Margarets and Johns who need a hand to hold, an ear to listen.

Today there are women in their 20’s losing their husbands in the futile poppy fields of Afghanistan. There are sons not returning to their parents, fathers not coming home to their children. People devoted to loved ones until they come home.

Memorial Day is for them. As a peacemaker, the least I can do is let them know I care.

(*Margaret is a real person, but this is not her real name.)

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3 Comments
  1. Brian, your words moved me to tears–not an easy accomplishment. I’ll never think of Memorial Day the same. Thank you SO much!

  2. Brian, I just caught up with the blog posts I haven’t read in awhile and was so grateful for this post. I live in a very anabaptist county here in PA and have found that in the pursuit of peace, the ideal can even become an idol. Jesus always brings us back to the individual and what needs He wants us to meet. Your post is brilliant in describing this!

  3. Well said, Brian.

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