The bonds of Vet­er­ans Day should bring us all to­gether

The News & Observer (Sunday) - - Arts - BY RABBI MARC GELLMAN

Vet­er­ans Day oc­curs ev­ery year in Amer­ica on Nov. 11. It orig­i­nated as a cel­e­bra­tion and me­mo­rial for those who fought and died in World War I, which was for­mally con­cluded on Nov. 11, 1918 at the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month when the Armistice with Ger­many went into ef­fect. The hol­i­day was called Armistice Day un­til 1954. In the years since 1918, the hol­i­day broad­ened its man­date to honor all those who have served in the Armed Forces of the United States.

Since this is the 100th an­niver­sary of the end of WWI, I wanted to lift up both my deep re­spect for Vet­er­ans Day and the re­li­gious be­liefs that sup­port, in­form and sus­tain this sup­pos­edly sec­u­lar na­tional hol­i­day.

Vet­er­ans Day cel­e­brates sac­ri­fice, and sac­ri­fice is a foun­da­tional re­li­gious value. Ser­vice to one’s coun­try is a sac­ri­fice of per­sonal am­bi­tion and it can en­tail the ul­ti­mate sac­ri­fice of one’s life for our coun­try.

This sac­ri­fice is built upon the be­lief that we are a part of some­thing big­ger than our­selves. In this case, that some­thing big­ger is our coun­try, but in a re­li­gious set­ting the some­thing big­ger is God.

There is a vig­or­ous de­bate be­tween re­li­gious paci­fists and other re­li­gious folk as to whether love of na­tion and sac­ri­fice for na­tion is idol­a­try and thus pro­hib­ited by re­li­gious teach­ings. I do not agree. Wars of na­tional self-de­fense are per­mit­ted for ex­actly the same rea­son that per­sonal self­de­fense is re­li­giously per­mit­ted. Je­sus taught Chris­tians to “ren­der unto to Cae­sar that which is Cae­sar’s” (Matthew 22:21).

This does not mean that God en­dorses ev­ery act of ev­ery state. There are crim­i­nal states, failed states and im­moral states, and they were prop­erly the ob­ject of prophetic wrath in the Bible.

An im­moral state ob­vi­ously can­not com­pel re­li­gious re­spect and sac­ri­fice, but the stan­dards for es­tab­lish­ing the im­moral­ity of a state go far be­yond mere po­lit­i­cal dis­agree­ments. There is a grow­ing sen­ti­ment in some po­lit­i­cal cir­cles to la­bel Amer­ica an im­moral state. In my view this is spir­i­tual and eth­i­cal hy­per­bole. We must lift up both what needs cor­rec­tion and con­dem­na­tion as well as lift­ing up what needs ap­pre­ci­a­tion and praise. It is the balance that will de­ter­mine if we can live to­gether now.

This is the spir­i­tual point of Vet­er­ans Day to me. It is a col­lec­tive af­fir­ma­tion that we love this coun­try and we will de­fend this coun­try with the sac­ri­fices it de­serves.

Even though I did not serve in the mil­i­tary, it has been my ex­pe­ri­ence that such ser­vice pro­duces bonds of friend­ship that tran­scend dif­fer­ences of pol­i­tics, re­li­gion and race. My dad saved the life of an anti-Semitic sol­dier in Europe who also lived in Mil­wau­kee and they be­came life­long friends.

I met Leo once and he told me with tears in his eyes how ashamed he was that he had been taught from his child­hood to hate Jews un­til my dad saved him. War does such things. I think that mil­i­tary ser­vice even with­out war also does such things. I am con­vinced one of the rea­sons our coun­try is split­ting apart is that vol­un­tary mil­i­tary ser­vice binds to­gether too few of us. This gives the forces that di­vide us – pol­i­tics, class and race – free reign to pull us apart.

Fi­nally, there is a strange and, in my view, un­ac­cept­able split in our na­tional cel­e­bra­tion of mil­i­tary ser­vice in our na­tional cy­cle of hol­i­days. Vet­er­ans Day – ev­ery Novem­ber – cel­e­brates those who served in the mil­i­tary, and yet Me­mo­rial Day – ev­ery May – cel­e­brates those who died serv­ing our coun­try.

There is also a mi­nor hol­i­day in May called Armed Forces Day that honors those cur­rently serv­ing in the U.S. mil­i­tary. All three hol­i­days should be com­bined and cel­e­brated to­gether on Vet­er­ans Day (call your con­gressper­son). All of them are about sac­ri­fice and the sa­cred bonds it cre­ates among sol­diers as well as the sa­cred bonds of grat­i­tude it cre­ates among Amer­i­cans. They lift up what Pres­i­dent Woodrow Wil­son called “the splen­did for­get­ful­ness of mere per­sonal con­cerns.” So next Mon­day may we all cel­e­brate this “splen­did for­get­ful­ness of mere per­sonal con­cerns” and do some­thing to honor our mil­i­tary men and women and in so do­ing honor Amer­ica.

I do not ex­pect gov­ern­ment bu­reau­crats to be the­olo­gians or philoso­phers, but the De­part­ment of Vet­er­ans Af­fairs has ruled that there should be no apos­tro­phe in the spell­ing of Vet­er­ans Day (not Vet­eran’s Day and not Vet­er­ans’ Day), “Be­cause it is not a day that ‘be­longs’ to vet­er­ans, it is a day for hon­or­ing all vet­er­ans.”

And let us say, Amen.

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