"Thank You For Your Service"

Sometimes if feels like the Universe or Spirit (one and the same) is sending you a message. Or maybe it’s just a coincidence that allows you to see a pattern that seems meaningful. Whatever it is, I had such an experience yesterday, after Sunday worship service.

 

It started with a conversation about Christianity, and how it shifted from its early form emphasizing life to one emphasizing death. Rebecca Parker and Rita Nakashima Brock detail this shift in their book “Saving Paradise: How Christianity Traded Love for This World for Crucifixion and Empire.” The symbol for the early Christian Church was a simple cross, not crucifix. And the artwork adorning first century Christian churches contain no images of Jesus’s torturous death, only that of his life healing the sick and feeding the hungry, and images of him as the risen Christ. In other words, the iconography (and theology) focused on life.

 

So what happened to change the focus? Well in short, Pope Urban II had declared a crusade (the first) against the “heathens” who controlled the Holy Land, the birthplace of Christianity. And the crusade wasn’t going well partly because there weren’t enough Christians in Europe willing to go to war and die in a foreign land. He needed willing soldiers. So he declared that anyone who joined the crusade would be absolved of all their sins. With that, the idea that suffering is redemptive took root and grew. Instead of depictions of a living Jesus, the Church put forth depictions of his bloody crucifixion. Over time, the representations became more and more gruesome, culminating in Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ.” (I still have not seen that movie.) Instead of living to love and serve others, saints became martyrs. And the more they were tortured before death, the greater their devotion to God.

Such was the shift in theology in the eleventh century because Rome needed people who were willing to fight and die for empire. The shift did not happen overnight, but rather was gradual, might even have seemed “natural” at the time, but nevertheless it happened.

Shortly after that conversation about the shift in Christianity ended, I talked with a different member of UUSF about the anniversary of Armistice Day. For those of you who don’t know, what we now observe as Veterans Day used to be called Armistice Day, which celebrated the end of World War One. In accordance with the signed agreement, on the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month of 1918, fighting ceased. (Soldiers actually continued shooting and bombing until 10:59 and then stopped a minute later. How weird is that?) At the time, WWI was thought to be the war to end all wars. There was the belief that its end was the beginning of a lasting peace, and Armistice Day was the celebration of that peace. It remained a somber yet hopeful holiday for many years, but obviously did not stay that way.

 

In 1954, Armistice Day was changed to Veterans Day. Part of the motivation for the change is understandable - WWI did not end all wars. We had had WWII and the Korean War, and we were about to enter the Vietnam War. So people wanted a day that would honor all veterans, not just those of WWI. But since the name change, Veterans Day has shifted from a somber hope for peace, to the flag-waving, military-parading, glorification of war.

 

Experiencing the two conversations so close to each other, I could see that it was the same pattern. (It’s not the first time that I’ve seen that the United States is the heir to the Roman Empire.) Washington needs soldiers to fight in its endless wars, and the way to make citizens willing to fight and die in foreign lands is to lift it up as the ideal.  Instead of paintings of Saint Lucy with her eyes gouged out or Saint Sebastian with a chest full of arrows, our televisions show us images of veterans missing arms and legs while flags wave and patriotic music swells in the background.

 

I want to be clear here that I do NOT want to return to the days during and after Vietnam, when those who answered the call to serve in our armed forces were spat upon and shunned. The willingness to serve our country - ie, our greater community - is noble, and recognition and gratitude are appropriate. What I object to is the shift from hope for peace to glorification of war. On Veterans Day now, we tell veterans “Thank you for your service,” but we (collectively) do nothing to make their sacrifice less required. Nothing to lessen war. For the sake of empire, we emphasize suffering and death over love and life.

 

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