Even if one makes only a cursory reading of the Old Testament, that reading is sure to uncover the fact that ancient peoples were fond of building memorials. In the oldest of times, these places were called “gilgals.” A “gilgal” is a “circle” or a “wheel,” and these places were exactly that; circular campsites and memorials not unlike Stonehenge. A stone monument would be erected in the center of the circle and the community would gather at the outer edges for their rituals.
Like our ancient forefathers, we too are fond of building stone monuments, modern “gilgals” that honor the past, and the past we are most quick to memorialize is our history of war. An index of major US monuments reads like a catalogue of conquest. From our revolutionary beginnings to our current international military campaigns, we have filled up the ground with the infinitely precious bodies of our youngest and most promising men and women.
Case in point, visit our most iconic memorial of stone: Arlington National Cemetery. Hundreds of thousands have been buried there over the years, and it troubles me to say this, but it will reach capacity in only a few more decades. No, not everyone buried there is a war casualty, but all served in some capacity, and Arlington isn’t even the largest of our National Cemeteries. It is only one of nearly 150 such graveyards all over this country.
Yes, it is right to honor the men and women buried in those places, but we do them a disservice if we do not remember them and their deaths properly. How do we remember properly? By remembering in such a way as to stop filling the ground with the fallen dead of war. Or, at the very least, to reduce the numbers called upon to bleed, sacrifice, and die; to learn from the cycle of history and cease the crazed repetition of violence; and to work with all our might to end our dependence upon warfare.
On this weekend in which we remember the dead of war, let us do so with tears streaming down our faces. Let us fervently honor those who unselfishly gave their lives, but let us vigorously refuse to glorify the violence that took those lives. After all, “war,” as the often maligned William T. Sherman said, “is hell. It is all folly, madness, a crime against civilization. And even its success is over dead and mangled bodies with anguish and lamentation.”
For me to say “war is not the answer” is to do more than quote a Marvin Gaye song. It is to confess faith in Christ as the way to peace and reject the false promises of war. War promises us that when the last battle is fought, the last bomb is dropped, the last enemy is slain, and the last soldier is put to rest in sacred soil, then we will have a world at peace. Yet, war is waged without end, and our cemeteries continue to fill.
The world we want, a world where swords are beaten into plowshares, where mercy and justice flow down like the waters, where every tear will be wiped away from our eyes, and where there will be “no more death or sorrow or crying or pain” is the world constructed by the unconditional love of God, not the unconditional surrender of our enemies.
I believe, though it sounds utopian, that the death of Jesus was the last act of necessary violence in the history of the world. In showing us how to live and die; how to sacrifice without hate or hostility; and how to love others and ourselves, he has shown us the path to be at peace with God and the world.
So let us gather at our cemeteries and memorials of stone, around the tombs of the known and unknown who gave their lives. And as people of faith, let us also gather around another stone; the stone rolled away by the power and love of Christ, the only love that will bring peace to the world.