Remembering the Dead on Independence Day

Richard Kauffman, the book review editor at The Christian Century, feels “out of step with the rest of American culture” on the Fourth of July.  I will let him explain:

The fourth of July joins Memorial Day and Veterans day as the three times a year I feel out of step with the rest of American culture. While I’m grateful for my country’s freedoms and opportunities, and I want to mourn with those who mourn the losses of war, I cannot participate in rituals that glorify war.

Eamon Duffy, who teaches the history of Christianity at Cambridge University, has helped me to better articulate my own discomfort with memorializing war. Remembering the war dead is a highly tribal act, Duffy argued in a speech he gave for Remembrance Day 1998 in the UK (a speech included in his collection Walking to Emmaus). We are remembering our own war dead. There’s no room in our rituals for remembering others’ losses, especially not those of our enemies.

The dead themselves are silent; we hijack them and use them for our own purposes. “They become ventriloquist’s dummies,” says Duffy, “through whom we utter the words we think we need to hear.” Behind all the trappings of the ceremonies is a nostalgic longing for the moral clarity of a nation united around war, in which divisions are silenced and people have a clear sense of right and wrong. Or rather, of who is in the right and who is in the wrong—of our enemies’ uniform as the embodiment of evil.

Most of the people killed in war aren’t heroes. Most of them are victims of war. Though they were fallible, sinful human beings, we make them into secular saints by virtue of them having been killed in war. Of course, the ones who actually fight the wars often have their own misgivings.

Read the rest here. Thanks, Richard.