Today is both Memorial Day and the Feast of the Visitation. I write this both as a veteran who has lost friends in training and in combat, and as a seminarian who struggles to reconcile both my own past and our nation’s present with the Gospel teachings of the Prince of Peace. The coincidence of these two observances on the same day — Memorial Day falls on the last Monday of May, whereas the Visitation is always on May 31 — has given me pause to consider what both these occasions have to teach us.
As I was reading and reflecting on both the holiday and the Holy Day, I was struck with a common truth behind both observances. If we wish to both honor our fallen service men and women, and to create a more just and equitable society, we must spend far fewer lives and dollars on unnecessary overseas wars, and the immense corporate war machine that drives them.
Each year, as I walk further from my past as a Naval Officer, and further forward in my quest to follow Christ, I find myself more and more uncomfortable with the way our nation celebrates Memorial Day. I’ve always taken exception to the way this day is used as a festive day of pleasure and overindulgence — to my mind, not a sincere way to reflect on the sacrifice of the dead. But, I find myself also coming to take a dim view of the flag-waving display of celebratory nationalism that attends our memorial of those who’ve been sacrificed in our nation’s wars.
Nationalism, ideological pride, and corporate interests disguised as the patriotic call to defend freedom have fueled the majority of our wars, and have served as the justification for sending so many of our nation’s children to kill and be killed. And as I look at our Memorial Day celebrations, I see increasingly a fervent display of nationalism, ideological pride and corporate interests disguised as the patriotic call to defend freedom. In short, on Memorial Day, we all-too-often celebrate the very forces that have replaced lives that should have been lived to their fullest potential with cold headstones and waving flags.
I do not claim this to be case for every conflict — some have been just and necessary. And I do not claim any ill-intent on the part of those who sincerely remember and honor the dead, or on those who unwittingly celebrate and perpetuate the corporate machine that unnecessarily spills so much blood — I strive to be the former, and have erred in the latter. But if we are to sincerely honor the fallen, it seems to me we must dedicate ourselves to carving fewer of their names in stone.
And, if we are sincere in honoring the dead, must we not honor all the dead — both those who died beneath our flag, and those we killed in its service? We honor those whose coffins have been draped in red, white and blue, while ignoring the millions we have killed, both through direct use of force, and through the displacement, disease and famine that follow every war. To laud the former — as we should — while ignoring and vilifying the latter, is to claim one life is worth more than another, based solely on nationality. Trace any war in history back to its fetid roots, and you come to this lie: the lives of “us” are intrinsically worth more than the lives of “them.” Until we overcome this evil defect in our collective thinking, we will continue to condemn God’s children, of all nationalities, to unnecessary deaths.
But, how do these issues overlap with the Visitation of the Blessed Virgin Mary? The Visitation is taken from Luke’s Gospel (Luke 1:39-56), in which the Virgin Mary, having just received the Annunciation from the Archangel Gabriel, travels to visit her cousin Elizabeth, who has become pregnant with John the Baptist in spite of her old age. At the sound of Mary’s voice, Elizabeth is filled with the Holy Spirit, her child leaps in her womb and Elizabeth announces the presence of Christ in Mary’s womb (in other words, God chose a woman to make the first announcement of the Messiah, just as God chose Mary Magdalene to first proclaim the Risen Lord — for those who believe women shouldn’t preach). And then, Mary sings her Magnificat:
“My soul glorifies the Lord
47 and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
48 for he has been mindful
of the humble state of his servant.
From now on all generations will call me blessed,
49 for the Mighty One has done great things for me—
holy is his name.
50 His mercy extends to those who fear him,
from generation to generation.
51 He has performed mighty deeds with his arm;
he has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts.
52 He has brought down rulers from their thrones
but has lifted up the humble.
53 He has filled the hungry with good things
but has sent the rich away empty.
54 He has helped his servant Israel,
remembering to be merciful
55 to Abraham and his descendants forever,
just as he promised our ancestors.”
Read in the context of the life and society to which Christ calls us, Mary’s song is a radical, transformative cry for social justice. It is a cry to follow her Son in creating a world that turns away from pride and conceit; tears down the power structures of greed, nationalism and xenophobia in order to lift up the lowly; and that honors and feeds the poor and marginalized before the rich. In short, the Blessed Virgin calls us to follow her Son in creating a society in which we couldn’t begin to countenance spending trillions on war while God’s children — including those abroad, and many veterans on our own streets — are left without mercy to die, forgotten, hungry and poor.
We continue to willfully fail at creating that society. We fail not because we do not have the means, but because we collectively value money and nationalism more than human life. Our pride and our greed fuel an ever-increasing investment in war, and a woefully lacking investment in peace and caring for those in need. Dwight Eisenhower, a man who knew a few things about war, spoke early in his presidency about this alarming, self-destructive and ultimately sinful tendency: “Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed.”
More than a decade later, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. again warned society of the evils of placing war and profit above human life. In his Aug. 31, 1967, speech “The Three Evils of Society,” King sheds light on our society as the antithesis of Mary’s Magnificat — of a society driven by nationalist pride and greed, that spends trillions on war at the expense of the hungry and poor. King speaks of both war and the “military industrial complex” of which Eisenhower warned.
“It has frustrated our development at home, telling our own underprivileged citizens that we place insatiable military demands above their critical needs … A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death.”
Mary calls us to the path of spiritual life in her Son. But we persist in living in spiritual death, and in doing so we crush the poor and hungry beneath the wheels of our war machine, and create more dead sons and daughters to remember, but not truly honor, on Memorial Day.
If we wish to truly honor those who have sacrificed their lives in the service of our nation, we will work to ensure fewer of our children are sent to kill and die in unnecessary and preventable conflicts; and if we wish to obey the Blessed Virgin’s call in the Magnificat to follow her Son in lifting up the poor, feeding the hungry and tearing down injustice and oppression, we must create a society that prioritizes the dignity of human life and the needs of the poor above the profit to be made in arms sales and wars waged in the name of corporate interests and the stock market.
We cannot honor the dead, nor the call of Christ in the Magnificat, while continuing to place greed and nationalism above the lives and welfare of God’s children.
Almighty God, you call us in Jesus Christ to the ways of justice and peace, as you teach us in the words of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Give us the courage and wisdom to choose peace over war, justice over greed, to love and seek harmony with our neighbors, and to abhor nationalism and unnecessary violence. Help us to honor our fallen by committing ourselves, in Your Holy Name, to sending fewer of our children to kill and die, and to value the lives of all your children above profit and unholy fear. In the Name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, Amen.