Memorials in History
Each year, Americans celebrate Memorial Day, remembering those who died in times of war and peacekeeping. We remember those who served in the front lines are often the most vulnerable to opponents and to human errors. It doesn’t matter what the top-down goal or purpose was, who the commander in chief is: they died in service, and we honor them. We look to their stories and lives when the narratives and agendas from the top let us down.
But every Memorial for every soldier who died in the service and after began in Madness. Madness of people who would go to war with one another to get what they wanted. Madness of those who thought might made right. Historians often trace the beginnings of the major conflicts often to a single moment. World War I began with the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand. The Winter war of 1939 began when Finland refused to allow Stalin to mine within their borders. The War on Terror began after 9/11. It’s not limited to wars. The civil rights legislation finally became a reality after the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. Madness all around.
Sometimes the beginnings are less a moment than a movement. The end of WWI’s sanctions against Germany and failure to enforce them properly created a whole generation of Germans who felt shamed, disrespected, and all it took was a torch named Hitler to that powder to engulf the whole world in fire and warfare again. The madness was already there, churning, and it took a madman to give it its horrific form that killed millions of soldiers and millions of Jews in the Holocaust, and thousands of mental health patients, immigrants, LGBTQ persons, and other people groups in their camps. And madmen who give form and voice to churning racism, white supremacy, and violence against journalists will always exist and should always be opposed, no matter their form or office.
All that is to say that what starts in madness we often remember in Memorials. With graveyards, tombs, memorial structures, stonework. Memorials commit a madness and its harm and the meritorious response to memory, lest history repeat itself.
Memorials are important in the life of faith as they help us transcend from madness to imagination.
Memorials in Scripture
In Jeremiah’s time, the madness was unbelievable. The people just lost their nation to the Babylonian horde that ransacked the countryside. Their farmlands, their homes, they lost to another. They became refugees or slaves or just dead from the violence. The people had lost their homeland, their place of countless memories, of the only identity they knew, lost to warring madness and their leader’s own failings.
So Jeremiah, a prophet in the king’s court or in jail, depending on the day, writes a letter to the first group of deportees, whose king has been killed, his son and many people sent into exile in Babylon. Jeremiah advises the exiles to settle down in their adopted home and just wait out the time. He says in Chapter 29:
Build houses and live in them, plant gardens and eat their fruit. Multiply there, do not decrease…And seek the welfare of the city to which I have exiled you…”
In other words, you’re in for the long haul. There are plans for welfare, not for evil, and they will give you a future and a hope. But what will sustain them in that interim time?
In that call to endure, Jeremiah prophecies that they would not go quietly into the night, they would not vanish without a fight. No, Babylon would fall. The people would return. The land would be fruitful again. But did you hear the time frame? How many years would it take? 70 years. That’s a long time.
Psalm 137, which is written at this time, says:
By the rivers of Babylon,
there we sat,
sat and wept,
as we thought of Zion.
There on the poplars
we hung up our lyres,
for our captors asked us there for songs
our tormentors, for amusement, “Sing us one of the songs of Zion.”
How can we sing a song of the Lord
on alien soil?
If I forget you, O Jerusalem,
let my right hand wither;
let my tongue stick to my palate
if I cease to think of you,
if I do not keep Jerusalem in memory
even at my happiest hour.
That psalm is a Memorial. Hymns and music are memorials, lamenting, celebrating, uplifting that which should be. You are getting a vision of who God is from the hymns we sing and the anthems the choirs sing. They are not chosen because they are easy to sing, but because they are hard and heartfelt.
This Psalm is a spoken and sung memorial, carried by the wayward people who didn’t always have a permanent place inscribe a stone or a carving to make to mark the madness. They turned to music and ways of being to be memorials. They turned to God and God’s covenant of always being faithful, providing the exiles with the ideas that would transform the nation of Israel into the religion of Judaism, which birthed the way of Jesus Christ to which I subscribe.
Today, we rejoice. Madness may lead to memorials, lost lives and souls for senseless reasons fighting unnecessary wars or conflicts. But the movement of humanity does not stop at memorials. The best Memorials and the best people are those who let their imagination become resilient to the madness that created the memorials in the first place, never letting it repeat itself again.
Memorials are problematic when they keep us from having an imagination beyond them. A previous church I served had a long-time conversation about whether to have a Columbarium at the church, a place where the deceased can have their ashes interred. The pastor explained it in this way: if there is a columbarium on the property, it will be harder to move when the mission demands it. If the need of the congregation changes, and many longtime churches have moved in their past, then the mission demands that we move, and a memorial would be a complication of that, holding tight to the past and to family members long gone would keep a church from living into its mission.
Most of the time, memorials should endure when their story stands the test of time, but other memorials like confederate monuments and flags have been irrevocably broken and do not need to endure. Memorials only matter when they confront the madness and leave us invulnerable to its hooks into our hearts, not celebrate those hooks themselves.
Memorials must lead to imagination. When we visit the African American Heritage museum, the tombs, the national graveyards, we are inspired to never commit some atrocities again. It is unfortunate that it is so hard to invoke imagination without tragedy, without showing humans the awful effects of their current worldviews. We do not need their deaths, but we can find inspiration from them. We do not honor people’s lives and legacies if we do not allow ourselves to be shaped by their whole lives and witnesses, and even their deaths.
It’s often been said that prophets and activists who want to change the world into a better place are mad, crazy people who could not possibly change an entire culture into something better. But the Scriptures show us that they are responding to the world’s madness with memorials and testaments to God and to the human spirit that is better than this, and better than that. As the United Methodist hymn says
“Cure our children’s warring madness,
let it from the earth be banned.”
Go to the Memorial
It’s often said that people should “go to the funeral” of a loved one or friend because it is important. Likewise, we ought to “go to the memorials” of tragedy, war, violence, hatred, racism, sexism, not because they are easy to see, but because they are hard and they jar us out of complacency. Go to those thin places of human horror and human achievement so that we might become better as a people.
Memorials stand against madness by creating an imagination that resists that madness from taking root. May we celebrate the memorials that matter today so that the madness becomes a memory, and imagining a beloved community becomes our only song.