Uneasiness at the Graveside

It happened again. I was asked to officiate at an internment for someone associated with Old South (it’s not uncommon, in this cold climate, that people who pass away in the winter months are not buried until spring, months after their funeral) and when I arrived, I discovered that I was really just the “opening act” for the local Legion graveside service. The last time this happened, I was also not told in advance.

I kept my portion short and then handed the service over. There were a couple of older men who led the service, along with an honor guard and a couple of other younger men who were there to fold the flag that was draped the casket and to hand it to the widow.

On the one hand, it is very moving to watch and listen to the older men pay tribute to a fallen brother in arms. Although I can’t remember the number of services that they told me they’ve done in recent years, I think I actually gasped when they told me. It is humbling not only to realize the number of veterans who have died in this little part of the world, but that the men who lead these services make themselves so available to honor those who have passed away, despite the fact that they are quite elderly themselves.

But, on the other hand, it is deeply troubling to me to hear the seemingly seamless blending of Christian language and military language. It feels like these two things are melded as if they were just meant to be together. It’s like the Foxification of funerals for veterans—the perfect amalgamation of Jesus and patriotism.

Yet, that’s not how I experience my faith tradition. Christianity does not hold for me such staunch, unfiltered militarism and patriotism. There are no recorded sayings, I’m quite sure, of Jesus blessing the United States, or our flag, or our military.

In fact, Jesus didn’t bless any nation, flag or military. When he had his big chance to really show everyone who he was, when he entered Jerusalem (on the first Palm Sunday), he somehow chose to enter on the back of a donkey, without a sizable army, along with a vast array of weaponry, marching with him. Presumably, being the Son of God and all, he could have done so. And could have really shown the Romans who was boss.

But, he didn’t. Instead, in that moment and in so many others, Jesus spoke—literally and figuratively— of peace and of a staunch, nonviolent resistance to oppression (see the real meaning of “turn the other cheek” at  http://www.cpt.org/files/BN%20-%20Jesus’%20Third%20Way.pdf ).  Jesus was no doormat, but he also wasn’t a big cheerleader for massive armies or weaponry.

I am moved by those serve, and have served, in the military and who give of themselves so freely, and especially those who have actually given their lives for this country. They deserve honor and respect.

But, I draw the line—or at least wish to draw the line—when it comes to the military getting involved in showing honor for the deceased by adopting so much Christian imagery and vocabulary.

Even if we were to believe that the United States is somehow uniquely blessed by God to serve some kind of honorable purpose above all other nations, I am unsettled by the lack of reflection that our reliance on vast and powerful military weapons actually demonstrates more of our human folly and limitations than it does our connection to the God of the Bible, or a risen Savior, spoken of in the New Testament.

While I am deeply moved by the service of the men who offer themselves to lead graveside services, and especially those who clearly must exert an effort to get their own frail bodies moving and going each day, but I just wish that we could have a more respectful separation between the values of the military and the basic tenets of the Christian faith. Because they are profoundly different. Profoundly and significantly different.

We would all be better served by a recognition that, while we may recognize that we live in a world that relies on weapons to maintain peace and/or to bring “peace,” such a system is certainly not what Jesus envisioned or hoped for. Even a cursory reading of the New Testament tells us this. It’s not damning to recognize the gulf that exists between what Jesus preached, and how we actually live. In fact, I suspect that we might be a lot further along in the quest for a more peaceful planet, if we found the courage to be more honest about that gulf and what propels its continued vast existence.

About smaxreisert

I'm a United Church of Christ pastor serving the small, faithful Old South Congregational Church, United Church of Christ, in Hallowell, Maine. I was ordained in Massachusetts in 1995, moved to Maine in 1997 and have served the Hallowell church since 2005.
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