Sunday, May 27, 2018

Memorial Day 2018

People enter the United States armed forces for many different reasons. Over the course of our nation's history some have been conscripted. Sometimes young men have been given the alternative of jail or enlistment. Sometimes people see it as a career, and in recent years, educational benefits have played a part. Almost all serve with a deep love of country. But regardless of how people get into the military, they hold one thing in common.

They agree to devote their time, and work, their bodies, and sometimes their lives to their nation, but in a very particular way. "I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic..." (from the Oath of Enlistment and Oath of Office.

While people intuitively understand defending their native land or group ("blood and soil"), America asks for and holds its military to a different obligation. The Constitution is the document which holds us together as a nation, the legal embodiment of the vision the American revolutionaries expressed: that all people are created equal before the law, that in this Republic, all have rights which the State should not abuse.

It is striking to me that the oath for our military, and the oath for swearing in our President, is an extremely conservative statement. It does not say anything about making America greater or stronger or richer or morally better. "I will to the best of my Ability, preserve, protect and defend the Constitution."

I think our Founders assumed that if America was to be great, that would come about through the work of all its citizens. They designed, and our ancestors adopted, a rule to let our government be flexible, but not infinitely so. Enshrined in our Constitution are limits to government and rights of the people. Preserving, protecting, and defending the Constitution was seen as the way to let us flourish, individually and as a people.

When the Constitution is under threat, it is a vital necessity for those who love this country to preserve, protect and defend that Constitution which has allowed our nation to grow and prosper. It is also a sacred duty we owe to those who have served, fought, and died supporting and defending the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic. It is to us, to here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain -- that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom -- and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.

Sunday, May 13, 2018

A tough day for mothers

On Mother's Day we celebrate the mothers in our community, and the great gifts they bring to the world and to their children. Yet amidst the flowers and dinners out, not every part of motherhood is lifted up equally. Motherhood may be the hardest vocation in the world.

Unlike fathers, mothers necessarily make room for new life not only in their lives, but in their very bodies. Then, there is no childbirth without pain. Ever since there have been mothers, they have fed their children, sheltered and protected them, taught and nurtured them, and sent them out into the world with prayers that they might be well. Mothers live knowing that their child's safety is not a given, and that their worst fears can be realized when children come to harm.

Over the past years and this week I have spoken with mothers who grieve the death of their children. While I have not taken a poll, I believe that every single one of them would have traded their life for that of their daughter or son. Every single one lives with the pain of continuing to live when their beloved child has been taken from them. It doesn't matter what continent the mother and child are from, or if the death happened today, a hundred years ago, or two thousand.

Iraqi, Armenian, Chinese, Palestinian mothers with their children

That is an inescapable part of mothers' vocation. And we do well to give it every bit as much honor as we give the "Hallmark" moments. The original observances of Mothers Day in America began in 1870 as a movement for mothers to fight for an end to wars. Julia Ward Howe called for women, as wives and mothers, to stand up against the abhorrent evil of war, inflicted by one woman's child against another's.

She wrote: "Arise, then, women of this day! Arise, all women who have hearts, Whether our baptism be of water or of tears! Say firmly:... 'Our sons shall not be taken from us to unlearn all that we have been able to teach them of charity, mercy and patience. We, the women of one country, will be too tender of those of another country to allow our sons to be trained to injure theirs.'”

Las Madres de la Plaza de Mayo - Mothers of the Disappeared, Argentina
Mothers' Day witness, 19th century

The other day I encountered this poem, by Dunya Mikhail. It ripped my heart apart, maybe moving me an inch closer to the experience of these mothers.

Bag of Bones, as read by the author (English), on the New Yorker Radio Hour, May 11, 2018.


What good luck!
She has found his bones.
The skull is also in the bag
the bag in her hand
like all other bags
in all other trembling hands.
His bones, like thousands of bones
in the mass graveyard,
His skull, not like any other skull.
Two eyes or holes
with which he saw too much,
two ears
with which he listened to music
that told his own story,
a nose
that never knew clean air,
a mouth, open like a chasm,
it was not like that when he kissed her
there, quietly,
not in this place
noisy with skulls and bones and dust
dug up with questions:
What does it mean to die all this death
in a place where the darkness plays all this silence?
What does it mean to meet your loved ones now
With all of these hollow places?
To give back to your mother
on the occasion of death
a handful of bones
she had given to you
on the occasion of birth?
To depart without death or birth certificates
because the dictator does not give receipts
when he takes your life.
The dictator has a skull too, a huge one
not like any other skull.
It solved by itself a math problem
that multiplied the one death by millions
to equal homeland.
The dictator is the director of a great tragedy.
he has an audience, too,
an audience that claps
until the bones begin to rattle
the bones in the bags,
the full bag finally in her hand,
unlike her disappointed neighbor
who has not yet found her own.

Mikhail, Dunya. The War Works Hard. New York: New Directions, 2005.
Translation © 2005, Dunya Mikhail with Elizabeth Winslow and Dan Veach.
From, the page also includes the author reading her poem in the original Arabic.