November 11, 2017

Veterans Day at Duke Chapel

Duke University to many of us is most associated with its famous longtime though now partly retired professor, highly influential, outspoken theologian and pacifist Stanley Hauerwas, who regards patriotism as idolatry and military service as its blood-soaked liturgical rite.

Hauerwas would highly disapprove and presumably did not attend yesterday’s Veterans Day commemoration outside soaring Duke Chapel, which included a uniformed and gun-wielding color guard, who stood to attention for the National Anthem. This scene to Hauerwas would have seemed idolatrous indeed. But to the several hundred who attended, including many war veterans, this commemoration no doubt was appropriate and inspirational.

Duke Chapel Dean Luke Powery opened with prayer:

As we stand in front of this great towering church that rises above us, we are reminded of the great men and women whose military service soars with sacrifice, honor, dedication, courage, purpose, and humility.


As they have worked for peace, let us all strive for peace, remembering ‘blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.  … Let our veterans know that their living was, and is, not in vain.

Kyle Cavanaugh, Duke’s vice president of administration, presided at the ceremony, thanking veterans for their “selfless service that each one of them has provided to this nation that allow us to enjoy the freedoms that we sometimes take for granted.”

Duke Assistant Vice President Antwan Lofton, before leading a procession to a wreath-laying ceremony at Duke’s Memorial Wall between the Chapel and the Duke Divinity School, asked for a moment of silence, saying, “Let us take a moment to reflect on the freedoms we have.”

Most poignant was keynoter Phail Wynn Jr., Duke vice president for Durham and regional affairs, himself a Vietnam veteran and father of a U.S. Marine who served in Afghanistan and Iraq. He thanked veterans at Duke for their “dedicated and loyal service to our country” to “preserve freedom and protect the United States of America.”

Wynn recalled his WWII veteran father had enlisted in the legendary Tuskegee Airmen of black pilots who flew bombers and fighter aircraft over Europe. Having asked his own father for advice, Wynn’s father was told it was his “patriotic duty [to join] even if unhappy with segregation.”

Addressing athletes who now kneel instead of stand for the National Anthem, Wynn said although they “maybe be sincere in their belief they’re not disrespecting the flag, I would say in the minds of veterans of all colors particularly combat veterans those gestures are offensive and disrespectful both to the flag and its legacy.”

Noting his own son’s Marine over 20 year service, Wynn said the flag the Marines famously carried aloft at Iwo Jima carries special significance. He also recalled a saying: “Don’t disrespect the flag if you haven’t risked coming home under one,” i.e. in a coffin. “There are injustice and inequality in America but there are other less offensive ways to protest,” he concluded.

Amen. And thank you Duke University for honoring veterans. (You’ll enjoy watching video of the ceremony outside Duke Chapel here.)

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