Sunday, May 24, 2009
What’s Worth Dying—and Living--For?
(A message for Memorial Day 2009)
Fitzgerald, Georgia is an especially appropriate place to observe Memorial Day. To understand what I mean, let’s consider some history.
First, consider the history of Memorial Day. The observance developed out of the traumatic experience of the War Between the States (1861-1865). There is some evidence that women’s groups in the South were decorating the graves of fallen soldiers before the end of the war. The first widespread observance of the day took place on May 30, 1868 as a day to remember those soldiers killed during the Civil War by decorating their graves. Because of the practice of decorating soldiers’ graves, the day was originally known as Decoration Day. Originally, then, and for many years, the day focused on remembering those who gave their lives during the War Between the States. After World War I (ended 1918), the observance was expanded to remember those who died in all of America’s wars.
Second, consider the history of Fitzgerald. The city of Fitzgerald was founded in 1895 through the efforts of Indianapolis, Indiana newspaper editor P. H. Fitzgerald who dreamed during a time of depression in the nation and drought in the Midwest of establishing a home in the South for Union veterans of the Civil War; some 2,700 such veterans were among the original settlers of Fitzgerald. Our city has two streets named for Confederate ships and two named for Union ships; it has seven streets named for Union generals and seven named for Confederate generals; one of the first large buildings constructed was the Lee-Grant Hotel, named after the two great opposing commanding officers of the war.
Listen to this excerpt from the City of Fitzgerald website:
With the first year's hardships behind them and with thankful hearts, the colonists erected a Corn and Cotton Palace, planning a great Thanksgiving harvest. Invitations blanketed the surrounding area. Most natives were skeptical of the Yankees, but many decided to see for themselves. The Festival Committee had planned separate Union and Confederate parades. . . no use in asking for trouble. But as often happens, their plan did not work. When the band struck up a march, veterans in gray, recognizing the accomplishments of the colonists, stepped into formation with veterans in blue, and all marched as one beneath the Stars and Stripes. The stage was set for the future of Fitzgerald by men who, having met once on the field of battle, determined on that day to meet again on the field of life and forge a unique and enduring city where North and South reunited: Fitzgerald.
Granting that such an account may be sentimentalized and idealized, it nonetheless speaks to the hopes and dreams and no doubt also to some of the realities of the founding of our city.
My point is this: the history of both Memorial Day and Fitzgerald points us toward what is worth dying for and what is worth living for: the unity of brothers and sisters. Now, war is conflict and usually at the end of a conflict there are winners and losers although sometimes there is what amounts to a draw. Regardless, a war or a conflict is futile and purposeless if at the end of the conflict the combatants are still enemies; it may take them a long time to be allies and it may certainly take them a long time to be friends but such is the goal. Indeed, one of the things that speaks well of our nation is our willingness, having vanquished a foe, to lead in the rebuilding of that foe and in the rehabilitation of that foe in the community of nations. The Civil War, with all of its horrors and with all of its recriminations, nonetheless in the long term served to preserve the Union. Those who did the best work following the war were not those in the North who wished to punish the Southern rebels nor those in the South who wished to perpetuate hate toward the Northern victors; they were those who worked toward reconciliation and toward the reestablishment of unity. That is why we can be justifiably proud of the heritage of our city—it was founded as an effort to promote such unity.
So here on Memorial Day 2009 we honor and thank our noble dead because they died to preserve unity. They died to preserve the unity of the people of America because, even though the Civil War was our only conflict that directly threatened our national unity, other wars were fought to preserve our liberty and the integrity of our way of life and such preservation is necessary if we are to grow in unity as a people. In a larger context, though, our honored dead also died to promote greater unity in the world; such unity will never be fully achieved but when we fight we fight because of our foundational beliefs in the worth of the individual, in the right of self-determination, and in the ideal of peace.
There is a parallel here for the Church: the ideal for the Church is unity in Jesus Christ. As Psalm 133 puts it, “How very good and pleasant it is when kindred live together in unity!” (v. 1). And as it says in Ephesians,
I therefore, the prisoner in the Lord, beg you to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope of your calling, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all. (4:1-6)
Jesus died and rose again that we might be one in him; he left us the legacy of his love that we might be one in him—one of the things that Jesus died for is our unity! Churches, like nations, are made up of imperfect people, but we imperfect people in the Church are nonetheless recipients of the great grace and love of our Lord and so we have a far greater chance at unity than do they, and the unity of the Church is worth dying for—and living for.
Sometimes churches have conflicts; sometimes there is even what amounts to war in a church, which is most unfortunate and which damages our witness more than just about anything else. Here on this Memorial Day weekend, I say to you that, as our noble dead gave their lives for the unity of our nation and for the unity of our planet, we should give our lives and we should live our lives for the unity of the Church.
Our national motto, I remind you, is E pluribus unum: “Out of many, one.”
The Church's motto, I remind you, is “One body, one Spirit, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all.”
Both are worth dying—and living—for.