I saw Joe Pug play a great show here in DC not too long ago. Toward the end of his set, someone shouted out a request for this song:
Joe refused to play the song. "I can't play that song anymore," he said, "and I'll tell you why. Not because it's a bad song - it's a really good song. But my grandfather died recently, and he was buried right near here at Arlington Cemetery. I went. And since that day, I just haven't been able to play that song again. I'm sorry about that, and I just hope you can respect it."
Joe's confession was honest and raw, like his songwriting, and I heard in it more than just grief over his grandfather's passing. I heard real struggle with concepts of honor, and respect, and sacrifice.
I get that.
My church long ago agreed that our official position was, is, and will be "all war is sin." I agree with that, wholeheartedly. I have read and studied and argued the theological nooks and crannies of just war theory versus pacifism, fought back against what I heard as the million caveats toward pacifism (yes, except in the case of...; right, unless...; sure, that's what Jesus would do, but we aren't Jesus...).
And now, I work as a pastor in the belly of the beast - Northern Virginia, where government and military and government and military contractors dominate almost every square inch of life and lifestyle. My Church of the Brethren congregation includes passionate pacifists, moderate realists, and a large number of active and retired military, government employees, and plenty of people whose livelihoods and vocation are tied securely to what President Eisenhower called the "military industrial complex." Not too long ago, Pastor Jeff and I were at a burial at Arlington National Cemetery one week and officiating at a Civil War Living History funeral the next. Military, militarism, service and selflessness, honor and respect, war and peace - they all swirl around us here, in the air we breathe, the news we read, the thick soup of life lived in overlapping circles of faith and place, trying always to be in the world at the same time we refuse to be of it.
I am not sure what it is I want to say today, except that, like Joe Pug's inability to play his very own song, pastoral pacifism is complicated to live out. I love the people of Manassas Church of the Brethren, a lot. My youth who've entered military service are constantly in my prayers, as are their parents, worried and loving and bursting with pride. Welcoming the faces of service members finally back in their pews after long months away from their families (whose joyful faces themselves are a sight to see!) is a celebratory privilege. To hear people's stories of service, struggle, and making peace with their lives - or not - is a gift.
All of that is true.
There is, of course, much more to it - where our ultimate loyalties lie, which liturgies of the world are forming us most powerfully, how we speak truth in ways of gentle love, what the military and its structures might have to teach the church, in what ways our own narrow hearts might be broken open to larger realities...
But today is Memorial Day - a holiday begun after the Civil War, a war that began here in this very town where I live and work - and so, instead of argument or condemnation, instead of blissful ignorance filled with hotdogs and pool time, I think I'd rather really remember: that life is complex and complicated. That it is possible to love people deeply, even when we disagree. That people I love have given their lives in service to something greater than themselves, that this desire to join in and be a part of greater good, larger identity, honor and meaning is a basic human inclination. That Jesus did not defend or secure himself, but neither did he condemn. And to remember the people who share their lives and their stories generously with me: it's a gift.