Yesterday walking to church I passed self-identified “anti-Fascist” demonstrators at the Confederate statue near the church. They believe it’s a memorial to racism.
But the statue is not celebratory of the Confederacy or the war. An unarmed soldier is shown downcast and reflective. The names of the local dead are listed. Arguably it is an anti-war monument recalling loss and tragedy. There were wreaths on the monument marking Memorial Day.
Memorial Day was founded by Civil War Union veterans to commemorate the dead. It became a national commemoration for recalling the fallen of all wars and for others who’ve gone before. There are some Christian commentators who disdain such civic holidays as idolatrous reverence for the nation. It’s very American to disparage the past and imagine we are its superiors. Henry Ford famously said history is bunk.
It’s also ultra Protestant to disdain monuments, commemorations, traditions, communal habits and dead people. Ostensibly each of us as individuals discerns pure truth tying each of us directly to God. We don’t need previous generations of wider communities to instruct. Autonomously each of us stands alone.
But standing alone is more isolating than empowering. No religious or civic community can survive and prosper without collective memories, traditions and common bonds. And religious communities cannot realistically or responsibly stand apart from civic communities. The church in every nation and culture is a servant to and partner with that nation and culture, otherwise the church cannot be redemptive.
Civic holidays and their rites are imperative for sustaining all nations and communities. Memorial Day summons cohesive and somber memories of sacrifice and service. Where would we be without them who died? And unless we in our generation share their sense of sacrifice there can be no meaningful future.
Such memories need not be hagiographic. People of the past even when heroic were not intrinsically better than ourselves. They made all of our mistakes and worse. Hopefully we learn from their errors and do at least slightly better in some regard. The chief purpose of commemoration should be learning from the past and benefiting from learned experiences.
On my walk to church yesterday I passed an old cemetery for freed slaves, several very old historic black churches, Robert E. Lee’s former boyhood school, George Washington’s one-time clubhouse and the Confederate statue, with its demonstrators. This one mile walk offered a constellation of memories across several centuries, full of tragedy, wisdom and lessons.
Attending church is itself an immersion in lessons about human memories, saying prayers and singing hymns developed across millennia and cultures. Their chief lesson is that we never stand alone, and there is providential redemption in the human story.
Until the parousia there’ll always be plenty of human tragedy and evil, including war. But commemorations like Memorial Day, and monuments of all sorts, to saints and sinners, offer sober counsel and encouragement for the long walk ahead.