A member of the congregation approached me after worship last Sunday and thanked me for remembering Veterans Day and veterans during a part of the service. I didn’t make a big deal of it, but there was a prayer of thanksgiving for all who serve and a reflection by a member of the congregation that there are still those among us who were denied the opportunity or who had to serve while in the closet.
I grew up with not one, but two military veterans as parents. My dad was Marine who served in Korea and my mom was a WAC, but not in the Philippines. I am grateful for their service in the armed forces and grateful for all who serve. I have friends in the UU ministry who are military chaplains. It’s important as Unitarian Universalists to remember those who serve in the military. Although we are not technically a pacifist denomination, many UU’s are pacifists and peace activists. We can support those who serve even if we do not agree with the way our military is used or with the use of the military in a particular conflict. My veteran parents taught me to always pursue peace, to abhor guns and violence, and to always speak up for what’s right.
Every year on Veteran’s Day, when I remember my parents, I remember that Veteran’s Day used to be called Armistice Day. Armistice Day and was created by Congress in 1938 to be a day to honor world peace. World War I ended by treaty on the 11th hour of the 11the day of the 11th month, hence the choice of date. In the years following World War I and still to this day in many places around the world, there is a moment of silence and/or the ringing of bells at 11 am on November 11 as a reminder of the horror of war and as a call for peace. In 1954, however, Congress changed Armistice Day to Veterans Day and the shift was made to honoring American Military veterans. I have no problem with honoring our veterans, as noted above, and yet…
We have become a militarized society. Major events must by custom and norm have an American flag, the singing of patriotic and/or militaristic songs, and if the event is big enough in scale, the presence or ceremonial participation of warplanes or the firing of guns. Our police forces are now armed like the military. We spend an astronomical amount on our military while our schools, infrastructure, and social programs scramble to stay adequately funded.
A few years ago the television drama Battlestar Galactica addressed the issue of a militarized police force. Commander Adama (played brilliantly by Edward James Olmos), commander of the military in that drama, said this when asked about using the army to police the civilian population, “There’s a reason you separate the military and the police. One fights the enemies of the state, the other serves and protects the people. When the military becomes both, then the enemies of the state tend to become the people.”
And this is what I see happening in our society. Slowly, over time, we have criminalized entire groups of people such as African Americans (see The New Jim Crow) and Latino immigrants. There seems to be a new story each week about police handling some incident by excessive force instead of trying to de-escalate the situation. The white Tea Party holds rallies and openly carries guns, while at the same time the Occupy Movement and Black Lives Matter movement hold non-violent protests that are treated with violent intimidation by police. Another annual remembrance this week is a yearly warning and reminder about what happens when a society militarizes and the people are made into the enemy of the state.
Kristallnacht, the night of broken glass, took place in Germany over the night of Nov. 9-10, 1938. On Nov. 7, 1938, a Jewish teenager from Poland named Hershel Grynszpan , angry that his parents were deported to Poland from Germany, shot and killed a low level German diplomat in Paris. The diplomat, Ernst Vom Rath, died on Nov. 9. Hearing of the death, Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels delivered an inflammatory speech in Munich, urging people to take to the streets to avenge Vom Rath. Across Germany, police were issued orders to allow the destruction and looting of Jewish homes and businesses (but not of German ones), and police were to arrested as many Jews as their jails could hold. 7000 business were destroyed, 900 synagogues burned, and 30,000 Jews were deported to concentration camps. It was the beginning of the end.
When candidates for president openly call for entire minority groups to be rounded up and deported it sounds to me like Joseph Goebbels calling for Jewish blood. I fear a Kristallnacht like madness ignited by a bigoted president where the police, instead of protecting and serving the people, make the people the enemy.
I hope that our society is smart enough to avoid electing a bigot and hate monger such as Donald Trump or Ted Cruz to the highest office in the land, but it’s still not only possible, but plausible. The rise of the Tea Party and the promotion of ignorance as a virtue create an atmosphere where the historical lessons of Armistice Day, Jim Crow, and Kristallnacht are too easily forgotten, or worse, ignored.
Unitarian theologian James Luther Adams taught us that there is no immaculate conception of virtue. We must assume our own agency for the creation of the good, the just, and the compassion way. Adams says:
The creation of justice in community requires the organization of power …Thus we are led to the fourth element of liberalism: we deny the immaculate conception of virtue and affirm the necessity of social incarnation. There is no such thing as goodness as such, except in a limited sense. The decisive forms of goodness in society are institutional forms.”
Just holding a value or naming a good is not enough, we must act to make sure that value or good is made real in our community. There is never a time where it is acceptable to ignore this responsibility, but there are times when ignoring is not only wrong, but has catastrophic consequences. We live in such a time. We are called to act, to organize, to speak up and speak out. We live in a time where old ways of thinking and old ways of privilege and power are threatened, so the privileged and the powerful are digging in and holding on ever more tightly to their unjust inheritance. They will try and provide easy answers to our complex problems, they will scapegoat entire groups and classes of people, they will say anyone who contradicts their easy answers are lawbreakers and need to be controlled, and if necessary they will make the people the enemy of the state.
But not if we who believe in freedom refuse to rest.
Perhaps someday we will honor the veterans who refused to meet violence with violence and whose persistence in the face of persecution and injustice helped create a more a just and compassionate community.