As you probably already know, today is Mother's Day. But I learned something very interesting about the holiday from a sermon today at the Unitarian Universalist church my wife and I attend, and I'd like to share it with you.
Given how rampantly commercial Mother's Day has become, you might be forgiven for assuming, as I did, that it was dreamed up by the jewelry and greeting-card companies. But that couldn't be further from the truth. Although the holiday did become commercialized soon after it was established, so much so that one of its creators spent the rest of her life protesting it, it was originally created for a very different reason.
In response to the bloodshed of the American Civil War, Mother's Day was first conceived of as an explicitly pacifist holiday by the radical American feminist, abolitionist, and social activist Julia Ward Howe. Howe's Mother's Day Proclamation, written in 1870, expressed her belief that women had a political responsibility to shape the society they lived in by opposing all war and violence. It's an amazing piece of writing, and if you can overlook the biblical quote added as window dressing, it's still well worth a read:
Arise, then, women of this day!
Arise, all women who have hearts,
Whether our baptism be of water or of tears!
"We will not have great questions decided by irrelevant agencies,
Our husbands will not come to us, reeking with carnage, for caresses and applause.
Our sons shall not be taken from us to unlearn
All that we have been able to teach them of charity, mercy and patience.
We, the women of one country, will be too tender of those of another country
To allow our sons to be trained to injure theirs."
From the bosom of the devastated Earth a voice goes up with our own.
It says: "Disarm! Disarm! The sword of murder is not the balance of justice."
Blood does not wipe out dishonor, nor violence indicate possession.
As men have often forsaken the plough and the anvil at the summons of war,
Let women now leave all that may be left of home for a great and earnest day of counsel.
Let them meet first, as women, to bewail and commemorate the dead.
Let them solemnly take counsel with each other as to the means
Whereby the great human family can live in peace,
Each bearing after his own time the sacred impress, not of Caesar,
But of God.
In the name of womanhood and humanity, I earnestly ask
That a general congress of women without limit of nationality
May be appointed and held at someplace deemed most convenient
And at the earliest period consistent with its objects,
To promote the alliance of the different nationalities,
The amicable settlement of international questions,
The great and general interests of peace.
In the United States, this Monday is Memorial Day, established by Congress to commemorate America's war dead. Across the nation, the day is marked by parades and solemn ceremonies, 21-gun salutes, roll calls of the names of the fallen, and flags, wreaths and ribbons placed on the graves of veterans. These ceremonies are familiar to us; we repeat them every year. And yet, those flags seem to have a special poignancy this year. Against the green grass, their colors seem especially bright.
Perhaps it is because this year we have so much to remember, so many more names to add to that solemn list. There has never been a period when America was truly at peace, but the last decade of the twentieth century offered hope that perhaps such a time was just around the corner, that we might be entering onto an era of relative tranquility and security. But that hope was shattered on a September morning in 2001, and since then, this country has had to come to terms with a wholly new kind of enemy, faceless and implacable, and has become embroiled in a bloody, seemingly endless, and probably unwinnable sectarian war in a fractured country. Ever since then, the country I live in and love has been under a dark cloud, ruled by an administration whose corruption, incompetence, sanctimonious hypocrisy, and outright evil far surpass any in living memory.
Some may say that I am being disrespectful by leveling such charges on a day that should be an occasion for patriotism, a day when we should honor our fallen in silence and not seek to gain partisan advantage. My answer is that it is my patriotism that compels me to speak, rather than to be silent. If anyone disrespects the Constitution, it is the president who asserts that he has the right to seize American citizens on American soil, to arrest and jail them indefinitely without charges, without a trial, without a defense, based on nothing but the raw assertion that he believes them an enemy of the state. If anyone disrespects the Constitution, it is the president who claims that he can eavesdrop and spy on American citizens as he alone sees fit, any time, any place, without a warrant, without oversight, for as long as he believes an indefinite and nebulous war on terror lasts. If anyone disrespects the Constitution, it is the president who says that he and he alone will decide which laws apply to him, that there is no check or balance on his power but that he can wave away laws passed by a democratically elected Congress with the stroke of a pen in a signing statement. If anyone disrespects the Constitution, it is the president who believes that he is accountable to God and not to the American people. These are not the ideals that Americans throughout history have fought for; these are not the ideals that Americans have died for.
Both in letter and spirit, these are the claims of tyranny, the very model of the arrogant, self-righteous monarchy whose shackles our predecessors fought a bloody war to free themselves from. Then as now, there will always be those who defend kings and dictators, who assert that only in a blind submission to the claims of authority can peace and safety be found. Benjamin Franklin warned us about such people over two hundred years ago.
In fact, almost all the founding fathers anticipated the threats we now face, often with what seems like eerie foresight. Or perhaps their prescience was not so uncanny, since the seed of tyranny is reborn in every generation in much the same guise. Either way, knowing they would not always be there to warn us against such threats, they crafted a document that would protect their descendants as best as possible, knowing that the reins of power must always be held by fallible, corruptible humans, and that even in a democracy, demagogues can manipulate the concerns and passions of the common people to sway them to their whims. And of course, there will always be those who are not just willing, but eager to believe the old lies.
But out of all the long slate of crimes that can be laid, and that future generations will lay, at the foot of the current administration, the war in Iraq will doubtless stand near the top of the list. This war has accomplished the uniquely paradoxical goal of removing a cruel and brutal dictator from power and simultaneously making the people of his nation far worse off than they were under his rule. Premised on a tissue of lies, this war was a strategic blunder on a staggeringly enormous scale, and will tarnish America's image worldwide and ensure that the Middle East continues to be a breeding ground for terrorism and chaos for decades to come.
No blame accrues to America's servicemembers for any of this. Except for those few who have participated in acts of torture or reprisal killings against civilians, they bear no responsibility for these failures. They have faithfully obeyed the orders of their commanders, and they have done all that possibly could be asked of them. Their valor and heroism are beyond dispute. What is in dispute is the intelligence, good sense, and patriotism of those who insist that they keep putting themselves in danger, keep laying down their lives, in support of an objective that was mangled and botched from the beginning and that now grows ever more nebulous as the bloodshed continues with no end in sight. Love of country and respect for our soldiers' sacrifices, both those who have fallen and those who still serve, compels us to speak on these matters. To do anything else would be the true example of disrespect for America's valiant defenders.
But today is, after all, a day for remembrance, and I do remember the 2465 (and counting) Americans whose blood has been shed on the field of combat. This Memorial Day, let us remember those who have given all they had to give, both by their lives and their deaths; and let that memory not be a hollow ceremony, a ceremony of empty words repeated by rote each year, but let it be true and deep and meaningful, a sacred tradition maintained faithfully because we all understand the meaning behind it.
We must never forget that these were not faceless tools of the state, not mere instruments of national policy, but people living lives of their own, until their destinies were so suddenly diverted onto another track. Perhaps some of them entered combat ablaze with dreams of patriotic glory, willing to give their all in the cause of freedom; but I have no doubt that most of them were just ordinary men and women, not seeking honor, but thinking of the home, the family, the life they left behind and seeking to get back as soon as possible. Every death - every flag-draped coffin, every entry in a military ledger - represents a life lost, a dream destroyed, a family shattered. We will never know what promise these men and women had, what they could have achieved had we never entered into this war. We will never know what happiness and joy they could have brought to those who loved them in the course of a long and full life. Most of all, we can never bring them back. We can and will honor their sacrifices, and remember them in Memorial Days without end down through history to come, but that is pitifully inadequate compensation. The best gift we can give these honored dead is to work toward peace, by ending not just this war but all wars, so that future generations will never be asked to make the awesome sacrifice that far too many have now made. The people now in power in America do not understand that; we can only hope that those who come after them will.