Marty Kuchma, Senior Pastor
This past Monday morning, I rang the church bell at the start of the Westminster Memorial Day parade. Tucked away in that steeple stairwell, holding that old, fraying rope, I felt deeply honored to have some part in this grand annual community celebration, the longest-standing Memorial Day parade in the United States, so I hear. Quite a tradition! Aware of that, and of my heart-felt desire to honor all who have died in war, I pulled that rope just a little harder and rang that bell just a little longer.
Eventually rung out, I made my way to the parade route where I caught up with some old friends standing in the crowd in front of what used to be the bank. Together we all waited and watched for the parade, which turned out to be very exciting, with motorcycles roaring by, and lots of veterans representing various groups, riding in cars and on trucks and proudly strolling in uniform down the parade route. I do indeed give thanks for their service. They’ve had experiences with which I, thankfully, will never have to personally grapple, nor will I ever fully comprehend.
The marching bands enlivened the crowd as they passed. And the fraternal and community service organizations paraded by, Lions, Kiwanis, Rotary, a wonderful reminder of the great good work they do to help people in our community and beyond. There were little baseball players and baton twirlers and various politicians and pageant winners, and scouts, both Boy Scouts and Girls Scouts seemingly still separate for now. And as the son of a professional fire-fighter, I always find fire trucks captivating in their own way; they closed out the parade.
There was much to take in. Indeed there were many things that commended this hour-long parade, not least the fact that it is a community event for which the community, despite the slight chill and the threat of rain, lined both sides of Main Street as far as I could see in either direction. What home town would not be proud to have such a rich and wonderful tradition?!
Yet, in the end, I walked away feeling confused and conflicted. This event that was ostensibly intended to honor those who died in war included what to me were rather shocking displays of military muscle and might moving rather menacingly through the middle of town trucks with big guns creepily scanning the terrain, huge tank-like vehicles with even bigger guns fixed and ready, and men dressed in military uniforms from various wars carrying guns down Main Street.
Probably more unsettling still was the way most of the churches in the parade were all tangled up in military and political imagery that seemed to me to be far from anything Jesus would have engaged with or approved of. Jesus was, after all, kind of all about peace and love, right? Most striking was the float with a statue of a soldier kneeling before what was presumably a battlefield cemetery cross, all beneath a large image of the Gadsden Flag which bears the coiled rattle snake and “don’t tread on me” motto that has more recently come to represent outright racism and radical anti-establishment ideology. Taken all together, I could not help but worry (a lot) about the conflation of “religious” symbols and culture with American military triumphalism. Is it any wonder there is so much bullying and killing in this country? And what about other ways such glorification of violence influences our lives?
All of this while small children enthusiastically waved their little flags and literally danced in the street, watching intently and likely making some connection between “patriotism” and military force that, for everyone’s sake, should be a last resort, to be employed only when all peaceful and collaborative means are exhausted. Images and implements of war literally formed the backdrop against which the kids saw the American flags they waved. How will that experience shape their understanding of what it means to be American? What are they learning about what the flag actually stands for? Are they being inspired to dream of having bigger and more guns, or scared into believ-ing such accrual of might is the only way? Where do kids learn that peace is also patriotic and noble and good – and that it, too, can be thrilling? Granted this was a military-oriented parade, but what I saw was a glorification of ways to make more dead soldiers, not fewer or none.
And I continue to wonder what it is about human nature – is there in fact something about human nature? – that compels us to glorify war. I hope we can find a better way.
So we’ve got some work to do in this awesome and amazing country, to find ways to get excited about peace, and collaboration, and to honor a spirit of unity across nations, all working together as global partners to make the world a better place. What would Jesus do? What will we do?