Memorial Day Reflections

May 29, 2011
Rev. Dr. Victoria Weinstein

William Faulkner, the great Southern author, wrote, "The past isn't dead and buried. In fact, it isn't even past." He was speaking of the South's hauntedness by its history, and the War of Northern Aggression, as the Civil War is known down in the Confederate states, is not over. All wars instruct, if incompletely and imperfectly. The Civil War should have instructed the nation that it is not morally acceptable to avoid action when an abomination benefits us economically, as did the "peculiar institution" of slavery, just because it is mostly out of sight. Boston benefitted tremendously from the Triangle Trade, and it is a shame that it took the Fugitive Slave Law to make slavery real enough for enough northerners to want to take up arms against it. However, this tendency to avoid confrontation even when it is the only righteous course of action is an enduring weakness in the character of most nations, and in most individuals.

However, the struggles of William Tilden and Samuel May show that avoidance is not always because we are denying that an issue is urgent and immoral, but because we do not know what to do.  To be imperfect, confused and ignorant is also an enduring trait of all humans and human communities.  We do not know what to support. As our global community gets smaller and our economies, technologies and political systems more interdependent and enmeshed, this question becomes even more urgent.  Just yesterday I was reading about the 13 year-old boy captured and tortured in Syria, another nation where there is a brutal conflict unfolding between pro-democracy forces and an entrenched dictatorship.  We know what's going on. We have video now, and instant access to the realities of the oppression.  What do we do? It is a moral question, a religious question, and a practical question.  What is our higher calling? And quite tangibly, what are our resources?

These quandaries are painful for individuals and painful for nations. We focus today on Samuel May and William Tilden not because they are unique but because they are in so many ways typical. By leaving behind extensive records of their moral struggles in the 19th century, they help us understand our own in the 21st.  Out there on the town green where we will hold Memorial Day observances on Monday, there is a beautiful monument to the local South Scituate men who died in the Civil War. There are twenty-four of them, and many family names of people who still worship in this church. Some died in battle, some died later of wounds, some died of starvation in prison. That monument was dedicated on Memorial Day in 1924, and Horace Fogg addressed the D. Willard Robinson Post 112 of the G.A.R. (Grand Army of the Republic), lifting up the care and devotion of those who remained in town, who gave comfort and aid to those who needed it.

We are all familiar with the post-traumatic stress that can plague soldiers when they return from combat, and things were no different in the 1860's. Town officials throughout the state were sent letters in 1865 to ascertain what number of Civil War veterans had committed crimes since their return home. Samuel Tolman, one of South Scituate's foremost citizens, replied,

"No soldier of South Scituate has been guilty of any crime, that as at their country's first call they laid aside the implements of honest industry, grasped the musket, bid a sad adieu to the loved ones at home and hurried to battle, so when the rebellion was crushed, the Union saved, slavery destroyed, they gladly hastened to their homes, resumed their peaceful avocations and became the same sober, industrious citizens as before. " (Samuel Tolman quoted in Horace Fogg's Memorial Day Address, 1924, in A Narrative History of South Scituate-Norwell Massachusetts, Joseph Foster Merritt, Rockland, MA: Rockland Standard Publishing Co., 1938, p. 19).

They were good men (young men, just boys in many cases).  Their pastors knew them, and they knew that.  How hard for them to care about them as individuals and members of families under their care while battling so mightily with the very concept of war. Emotions must have run so high. Then, as now, questioning the morality of war was confused by some with a more personal rejection or judgment.  It is still risky to speak out against war without being accused of not supporting the troops. We still conflate patriotism with militarism. In fact, that tendency has become much worse since the United States, so young a nation in the 1860's, became an empire in the following century.  

And yet Tilden and May were servants under "another banner," as Tilden wrote. That banner was religious life and Christian teachings against violence and war. "They shall beat their swords into ploughshares." These two men who suffered grave doubts and inner conflict and who had the spiritual care of this community at heart at all times, model for us the kind of freedom that we should remember is the ultimate goal of our national aspirations as well as of this historic religious institution: the freedom to determine what is right and true as people of individual conscience.  The freedom to be deeply troubled by life's often conflicting obligations. A freedom that does not have as its ultimate goal comfort and confidence but a sense of profound and unremitting responsibility.

As I have spent time this past week with the 1860 hymnal that Tilden and May would have known, and seen in there so many references to sin, I have noticed that whenever sin is noted, it is noted as being something of the past, something that we can --through the grace of divine love and the wisdom that is hard-won through the ages—we can outgrow, outpace, overcome. Always, always there is this hope: that through our freedoms, we may be freed for more than leisure and comfort and privilege and safety, but to be advocates, reformers,

And servants of the most high.
O living Church!  Thine errand speed;
Fulfil thy task sublime;
With bread of life earth's hunger feed;
Redeem the evil time!*

* This reading, and all of the readings from this morning's service, came from the 1860 edition of the Unitarian hymnal, "Hymns of the Living Spirit".