Memorial Day was once called Decoration Day and originated in the custom of decorating the graves of the Union Army’s war dead after the Civil War. Similar memorials developed in the south to commemorate Confederate war dead with the two memorials only being combined after World War II. In 1968 Congress voted to set a bunch of civil holidays on Mondays so there could be three-day weekend federal holidays and so mattress and car dealers could know when to schedule their sales.
The million-plus dead American soldiers we mourn and celebrate on Memorial Day are part of a civil religion’s sacred time. Memorial Day and Thanksgiving come closest to being both secular and religious holidays. Sacrifice and gratitude are not just civic virtues; they are religious virtues as well at their root. However, Memorial Day, unlike Thanksgiving, has an element that does not confirm but actually contradicts certain religious interpretations of our sacred texts. The hard question at its core is this: Can religion ever sanctify war and still be religion? This question depends upon a more fundamental question: Is all killing against the will of God?
In the east, religions like Jainism and certain forms of Hinduism and Buddhism hold to a doctrine called ahimsa, which means a total and absolute respect for all living beings and refusal to take life in any form for any reason. Some Jains will actually sweep the road in front of them and wear masks to avoid killing even a small insect. In the west, the Quakers of Protestantism are also extreme pacifists.
Recently, there has been some speculation that Pope Francis may end the Catholic “just war doctrine’’ developed in the fifth century by St. Augustine. As recently as the 1992 Catechism of the Catholic Church, the just war doctrine reaffirmed that in order for the church to sanction engaging in a war, ‘‘the damage inflicted by the aggressor on the nation or community of nations must be lasting, grave, and certain; all other means of putting an end to it must have been shown to be impractical or ineffective; there must be serious prospects of success; the use of arms must not produce evils and disorders graver than the evil to be eliminated.” At a retreat near Rome last month, reported on by the United States Institute for Peace, the pope, who has said in the past that ‘‘faith and violence are incompatible,” called upon the participants to challenge the prevailing just war theories and provide an alternative paradigm.
The roots of all Christian pacifism are sunk into the teachings of Jesus in his Sermon on the Mount:
‘‘You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also. And if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well. If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles. . . . You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven.” (Matthew 5:38-45; also Luke 6:27-36).
Although there are other texts that some say contradict these teachings, I believe that Jesus was clearly committed to nonviolence. And yet, over the centuries the religion organized in his name has not followed this part of his revelation.
In addition to the teachings of Jesus, one of the strongest arguments on behalf of nonviolence is that as a tactic it often actually succeeds more than armed conflict. The civil rights movement of the 1960s was a success due to the nonviolent teachings of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. The solidarity movement of the 1980s in Poland, brought an end to Soviet domination due to the nonviolent tactics of Lech Walesa, and Gandhi liberated India from British rule using ahimsa and not guns as his most effective weapon.
However, there are also very good reasons to reject absolute nonviolence even if one admires its lofty and spiritually unassailable vision. The commandment in Exodus is not ‘‘Thou shalt not kill” but rather, ‘‘Thou shalt not murder.” This makes killing in self-defense or killing in defense of a homeland that has been attacked a tragically necessary and morally defensible act.
Those brave soldiers whom we commemorate this Memorial Day were not part of some abstract theological argument. They instinctively, morally and heroically gave their lives to defend freedom, and their sacrifices are absolutely worthy of public memorial as well as private awe.