By Frank Wessling
The Memorial Day holiday celebrated this week has a variety of meanings in American life. Besides its original intent as a pause in the workday calendar for remembering the men and women who died in our country’s wars, the day also gives us the Indianapolis 500 auto race, puts a period on another school year, and turns our attention to summer vacation time.
Coming this year only a short time after President Obama repeated his intention to get American combat forces out of Afghanistan by 2014, we could also use this week of the holiday to think, at least for a moment, about what war does to us besides kill and maim young men.
It’s been 10 years since we took up a “war on terrorism:” 10 years of lives disrupted repeatedly as National Guard troops were activated for service in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Ten years during which sectarian religious tension in Iraq, heightened by our war-making, has led to the near-extinction of a Christian community presence in that country.
Ten years of U.S. budget deficits made worse by nearly $1 trillion poured into war-making that we refused to pay for with monetary sacrifice as we refuse to share equally in the cost of blood.
There is much more: the tens of thousands of local dead in the war zones and more thousands forced to move and wander, often for years in strange places.
In the emotional aftermath of the attack of Sept. 11, 2001, who imagined that we might enter a 10-year war? Who stopped to think about what our angry belligerence might do to us as well as our assumed enemies? It is so easy to move from righteous indignation down the slope of anger into vengeance that squeezes the humane life out of us. Everything focuses down to destruction.
How can we not be spiritually affected by that?
The events of 9/11 did not cause our current “culture wars” and the sense of politics as war that makes election years feel so sour. That was already part of the national mood. But the drawing of hard lines between us and them, between the righteous and the other, has become even more of a habit.
Religious people are not immune from the nasty effects of such a habit.
“In God’s Right Hand,” a new book tracing the way the Rev. Jerry Falwell created the Moral Majority movement in the late 1970s and “made God a Republican,” Michael Sean Winters has a scene in which an evangelical minister realizes with sorrow how anger has affected him.
“My motives started out pure,” said the Rev. James Robison, “but power corrupts.”
He had no real power when he said this, but he had jumped on that track in the campaign to elect Ronald Reagan. It was the thought of power, imagining the levers of power, the happy feeling of triumphant domination that was consuming him. Known in those days as “God’s Angry Young Man,” Robison was having second thoughts after the 1980 presidential campaign in which Reagan defeated Jimmy Carter:
“I found myself saying hard things about Jimmy Carter — hard, mean, cruel things. I found myself caught up in that, but the closer I got to it, I was frightened of it. I watched what it did to people.”
What it did to people then, 32 years ago, it does today as too many of us still see politics as war for the national soul. There is no Memorial Day for the spiritual casualties from that attitude. We could make one unnecessary by taking a more modest, realistic and spiritually healthy approach to politics: that it is only the art of the possible in living together with our differences, not Armageddon.
We’ve had more than enough of war-making.