An Important Day, Memorial Day

Rev. Kit Billings

St. Louis, Missouri

May 29, 2005



Ecclesiastes 3:1-8

John 15:9-13


Anwar Sadat, the late prime minister of Egypt, once noted that there were two experiences in life that were so traumatic, so far reaching in their scope, that having experienced them, one's life could never be quite the same.  One was prison; the other was war.  As we are gathered here this morning, on the weekend of Memorial Day, I would like to address ourselves to the latter.
            While there are many wars that will be remembered this week, I would like to take a look at the Civil War.  And perhaps this is an appropriate place to begin a memorial because it is in the Civil War that Memorial Day has its roots.  It was John A. Logan, a former Federal general, who called for the first formal day of remembrance on May 30, 1868.  School children were asked to spread flower pedals upon the graves of the war dead.  Since that time the day has been changed to the last Monday in May and the concept has been expanded to include a remembrance of America's war dead sustained in all Her conflicts.
            I would suggest to you two reasons why Christians should celebrate Memorial Day:

1.      First, we come to reflect, reflect upon the awful cost of war.

2.      Second, we gather this day not only to remember but also to recommit.


            The writer of Ecclesiastes felt that there is a just time for war, and I would have to soberly agree with him.  However, after many years of looking at the issue of warfare I would personally say that it should only be used as the very last resort.  There are terrible costs to warfare, the worst being in human lives, as well as the spiritual and emotional damage and wreckage that war, battle and killing inflict upon soldiers and their loved ones.  Memorial Day, each year, helps us to reflect upon both the cost of war and to upon any possible reasons why warfare may at times be necessary in the cause of protecting ourselves from inhuman evil and people who are in league with it.


            When I think about any war that Americans have fought, whether it be our current war in Iraq or World War II or the Civil War between the Northerners and Southerners in the United States, I think about the great sadness, grief and pain suffered by people who did not want to leave life on earth but who did so in service of a cause they either believed in or found themselves drafted into.  But I also think about the vital good that was done in some of our wars, but not all of them to be sure.  On the positive side of it all, I think and feel about those great words that Jesus spoke in our reading in John this morning—that “greater love has no one than this, than he lay down his life for his friends.”  From what I have learned in studying the history of warfare, there are many (but not all soldiers) who have given God glory by being willing to sacrifice themselves for the sake of many, or the few, or the one.  But I pray very deeply that one day humanity will grow so much as a whole that we will never again feel that shooting, bombing or in any way killing another person can solve any problem we have.


In our Civil War alone we lost more than 600,000 men—which is more casualties in that war than in all other wars combined in our nation’s history following the Civil War.  Now imagine the horrendous grief that just one set of parents (and perhaps the siblings of one of those soldiers) back then suffered upon hearing of their son’s death…and now that you are beginning to sympathize with that grief, multiply all of that pain and anguish and anger 618,000 times!  Indeed, counting dead bodies is but one of many ways of counting up the “cost” of the bloodshed of war; counting up the terrible emotional carnage is another.

Yes, the costs of war are overwhelmingly high.

On Memorial Day I believe it is important to think about the sacrifices of both our honored dead as well as the moms, dads, brothers and sisters of those who had to suffer due to the sacrifice of their loved one.  For example, on the radio this week I heard a young widow talking about the story of her husband, a recent veteran of our Iraq war, who was unable to deal with the psychological stress and pain of coming back from his experience of fighting to kill insurgents, watch as some of his buddies were killed in action, as well as avoid being killed himself.  Some veterans are able to handle the pain and stress of coming home, or of learning to make sense of life and find purpose in it again after losing a limb or more than one limb, while others are not.  Some veterans are unable to handle the emotional carnage of being in war.  And the deep pain of this widow came through to an extent in the sadness in her voice as she spoke of her loss.


In the years 1861-1865 our nation was unable to avoid what some historians have said was the inexorable conflict and brutal warfare between the North and South.  This was our war, the war between the States—between the Union Army and the Confederate Army, the one between the “Yankees” and the “Greybacks.”  It was the one war in our bloody human history where “Americans fought Americans.”  It was fueled by many years of growing tension between northerners who did not believe in slavery and southerners who did, and it began when groups of southern U.S. states began seceding from the United States Union, ultimately counting up to eleven states who broke away to form the Confederate States of America, led first by South Carolina.  Even the men and women of that time did not fully agree on the primary cause of the war.  Some felt it began over the issue of “state’s rights.”  Others, primarily wealthy aristocratic southern landowners, felt it came down to the northern Americans feeling very worried about the advantage that southern slave owners would have in pioneering and developing the largely unexplored west, since these southerners would have a labor force much greater than what any northerner could bring.  Personally, I believe it really boiled down to the issues of slavery and to keeping America stronger by remaining unified rather than splitting apart with the choice to secede.  The purpose of that war may well have been summed up by President Abraham Lincoln in an address to the Republican Convention of 1858:  “A house divided against itself cannot stand. I believe this government cannot endure permanently half slave and half free. I do not expect the Union to be dissolved; I do not expect the house to fall; but I do expect that it will cease to be divided. It will become all the one thing or all the other. Either the opponents of slavery will arrest the further spread of it and place it where the public mind shall rest in the belief that it is in course of ultimate extinction, or its advocates will push it forward until it shall become alike lawful in all the states, old as well as new, north as well as south.”


The Civil War years were the most violent in our nation’s history and the most turbulent I believe.  At times brothers fought against one another.  Here is one historian’s brief summary of that war:

The Civil War was fought in 10,000 places, from Valverde, New Mexico and Tullahoma, Tennessee, to St. Albans, Vermont and Fernandina on the Florida coast.  More than 3 million Americans fought in it, and over 600,000 men, 2 percent of the population, died in it.  American homes became headquarters, American churches and schoolhouses sheltered the dying, and huge foraging armies swept across American farms and burned American towns.  Americans slaughtered one another wholesale, right here in America, in their own cornfields and peach orchards, along familiar roads and by waters with old American names. (PBS website)


            Missourians, as you may know, were heavily involved in our Civil War, especially since our state was deeply divided on loyalty to the Union or to the Confederate States of America.  In fact, some 3,000 Missouri men from St. Louis alone joined up with the North, while about 1,400 others sided with the South.  Missouri is the State with the third largest number of engagements (1,162 battles and skirmishes) fought during the Civil War (only Virginia and Tennessee had more).  Wounded soldiers arriving from the battlefields aboard hospital steamboats frequently inundated St. Louis.  Sometimes 800 wounded would arrive in a single day.  The city's streets were filled with walking sick and wounded from “the levy on Chestnut Street up to the Planters House [Hotel] on 4th Street.”  Early in the war, the Confederate wounded POWs arriving on steamboat went to the Sisters of Charity Hospital and the Union wounded were sent to the City Hospital.  A number of other hospitals were also used in and around St. Louis.

And in order to bring it all further down to earth, I would also like now to quote a portion of a letter written by a Civil War Union soldier named Thomas Christie.  His family originally settled in Virginia but found their abolitionist values scorned, so they picked up and moved to southern Minnesota.  Thomas was fond of writing letters to his younger sister, Sarah, and his younger brother, Alexander, and he showed himself to be a talented man with words.  He wrote many letters, which are all available online via the Minnesota Historical Society website.  In a letter to his younger brother Alexander, Thomas described the military action at a battlefield near Atlanta, July 25th, 1864.  He wrote:


I jumped on my horse and rode out on the field in front where our fellows were scattered around looking at the bodies of the killed, warned them all to their posts, and spurred back in time to see a Brigade and 2 Batteries of the 16th Corps come up in double quick and form a line in the rear of our Battery, facing to the rear. They had not more than got into position when our pickets were driven in, and the Rebel Line advanced.  The 2 Batteries, 14th Ohio, and Co. "H" 1st Mo. opened on them, and the Infantry line soon was engaged heavily, first the Rebs would yell and charge till they came within 50 yds. of the Battery, when the fire would be too much for them and they would waver, then our chaps would cheer and charge with the bayonet, fall back again when the enemy rallied, and let the canister play into them, and so it went, till the last time the Johnnies charged when they brought their flag out in plain sight of us, so close to the 14th Ohio that the smoke of their Guns dashed over it.  The Canister thundered out twice as fast, our whole Line poured in a deadly volley, the standard bearer fell, the advancing Rebels faltered, our fellows sprang forward and there was a short hand to hand conflict over the fallen flag, the bayonets being locked and the muskets clubbed for a moment, then our chaps got the standard and the Enemy fled, leaving the field, with their heaps of dead and wounded and cords of muskets in our hands.  This was the only part of the battle that we saw, and so I have described it to you, and you may imagine the rest of the field from it.


Perhaps you have seen such warfare portrayed in movies like “Glory” with Matthew Broderick who portrayed the courage of a white Colonel leading one of America’s great all black infantry platoons of the Civil War, nicknamed “Buffalo Soldiers.”  The sacrifices and horror endured by America’s soldiers are immense and crushing to imagine.  Memorial Day helps me every year to remember what others have suffered so that we may enjoy the freedoms we have today.  And it also helps me to recommit myself to the cause of defeating evil in every form it takes.

Personally, I believe that an egregious evil such as slavery (especially for a society that claimed to be built on the motto that “all men are created equal”) is worth fighting to overcome.  When I think about all of those African American men, women and children who suffered immensely under the white slave owners of the Antebellum South, all I have to do is mentally put myself in their shoes and I am profoundly glad that Abraham Lincoln and his supporters were passionate about stopping the southern states in the Union from maintaining their secession and taking organized slavery with them.

And so, today, on this Memorial Day Sunday, we take time together to remember our fallen dead, perhaps with more hotly felt tears and grief in our hearts over the millions of dead Americans who gave the ultimate sacrifice in either a just or an unjust war involving our country.  In prayer we can thank our spiritual brothers and sisters who died on the battlefields in Korea, while driving a submarine in World War II, while flying an airplane or helicopter in Iraq, while riding as a horseman in the Union Cavalry under Gen. Ulysses S. Grant, or as an infantryman under the Union General (George G. Meade) who defeated Gen. Robert E. Lee of the South at Gettysburg.

As we remember the heroic men and women of so many wars in our history, may we also recommit ourselves to defeating the causes of war:  the narrow-mindedness, the hard-heartedness, the evil lust for power and dominion over others, and also those terrible psychological and emotional wounds suffered in childhood, which all can inspire human beings to want to fire a bullet or a bomb at someone else.  And while we do this, may we also, as Americans, always be ready and willing to stand up and fight to protect the weak and those suffering under injustice, like those who suffered and died under Hitler’s Natzi regime.  As our New Church teachings remind us, killing in any form causes a certain chaos of the mind to grow inside the human heart, since killing is fundamentally opposed to the love and mercy of God; but while that may be true, our theology also recognizes the critical importance of being able to fight to protect ourselves from the marauding evil campaigns of people in league with the hellish and dark forces that exist, the “powers and principalities” that Paul understood so well.

May God bless all Americans, and especially those charged to defend our country in times of peril or disaster.  Amen.