Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Jesus Tried to Steal My Holiday: A Memorial Day Dilemma

Memorial Day weekend is always a mixed bag for me.  On the one hand my son’s and their better halves come up to the Camel Ranch for festive BBQ, shooting, bon fires, dog play, day trips, and medicinal alcoholic consumption.  It’s a highpoint for Mrs. Hump and me.  

At the same time Memorial Day has a somber overtone for those of us veterans who lost brothers in arms in combat.  Their faces and the memories never fade, nor should they.  Remembrance of their personal sacrifice, their young lives lost, will always be with me. I will never allow myself to forget because it’s all I can offer them.

On Monday morning at 9:00 a.m. the American Legion hosts the annual Memorial Day event.  The high school band plays some patriotic numbers. The ROTC cadets parade the colors. The Cub Scouts place flags on the graves of veterans in the small cemetery, which dates back to the Revolutionary War. An address is given by one of the few remaining vets of The Greatest Generation.  Although I tendered my resignation from the American Legion years ago because of the national headquarters equating the Christian cross with patriotism (as I discussed in The Atheist Camel Chronicles), I am always asked by the handful of our remaining Legionnaires to help raise the flag and lower it to half mast in the town square as the anthem is played. I’m happy to do it.   That's me in the tan shirt.

When taps is finally played, with the dual muffled trumpet echoing some where off in the distance I snap to salute the deceased with the rest of the vets. I have to fight back a tear.  It brings it all home...those young faces, some of whom never had their first shave, whose names are on that wall in Washington that I can still not bring myself to visit.

After the ceremonies are completed the entire town is invited to partake in refreshments in our 18th century town hall. It’s a Norman Rockwell Memorial Day observance that is repeated throughout small New England towns.  A staple of Americana that will be repeated every year varying nary a hair as tradition never should.

I feel as though I did my duty to those memories. I’m both grieved and yet renewed. Perhaps it’s cathartic. Nothing more need be said except for one detail which, even as I type this, causes me angst.

It’s traditional that the designated Legion “chaplain,” one of the guys who volunteers for the role, reads the basic-by-the-handbook-non-denominational-prayer;  a simple and inoffensive blend of canned mumbo jumbo and respect for our fallen comrades.  This year however a genuine Christian pastor was invited to give the benediction. In the three or four minutes she stood before that microphone she invoked the name Jesus three times. I was stunned.  “Jesus our Savior,”  “Jesus who sacrificed as our soldiers had sacrificed.” “Jesus whose presence is with us, as the memory of...”   Shit! 

In shock I glanced around at the assemblage. I could detect no particular discomfort among my fellow town’s folk.  And why would I?  My educated assessment is there isn’t a Jew, Hindu, Muslim, Wiccan or openly atheist much less anti-theist among them.  These are folks who were raised to believe in a god, a Christian one, albeit Christian-Lite is the preferred flavor here.  If they still retain their childhood indoctrination and believe in a god, or if they don’t even give it a second thought, they do so quietly and don’t wear it on their sleeve. New Englanders are nothing if not the pragmatic; mind yer own business; keep your beliefs to yourself types. This isn’t the South.

Given this, I could only describe the preacher invoking Jesus at an otherwise secular public gathering as a breach of New England etiquette. More importantly it was a thoughtless, insensitive, and wholly inappropriate display of the Christian Majority/Might Makes Right/ “Christian Nation” mentality. “Don’t buy into the Jesus myth?  Tough shit!” I’d have been less offended if someone had peed on my shoe.

If this had been a local governmental sanctioned event I’d write a scathing letter to the selectmen and the newspaper. But it wasn’t.  If I was a dues paying member of the American Legion I could voice my objection and dismay to the post commander. But I’m not.  I could demonstrate my ire by not attending next year’s event, and explaining why I won’t be there to raise the flag. But then, I’d be denying myself a secular ritual that holds deep meaning, and I won’t let them take it from me.

For the first time I am at a loss as to how to handle this.  I have 363 days to contemplate what I’ll do if this religious provocation threatens to sully my next Memorial Day.  I welcome suggestions.      


NewEnglandBob said...

Just because you are not a member of the legion post, doesn't mean you can't speak out. Send them a letter telling them just how you feel about this ceremony and how you were offended by the mention of supernatural bullshit nonsense, and how it ruined the event for you.

Jim Thompson said...

Maybe just send them a link to this post?

flyz4free said...

This is indeed a bit of a conundrum. If you push back against this preacher in an 'in your face' sort of way it will appear you are pushing back against the whole observance. Who was in charge of having this particular preacher do the prayer? You might send a letter to that person or group explaining that this event should remain secular to respect all belief sets and not emphasize christianity as that is exclusive of all other soldiers with dissimilar beliefs, or no beliefs. And you could...and this is a holy crapper...you could ask them to speak to the crowd, explain the secular nature of this gathering and why it must remain so to honor ALL the soldiers who have sacrificed on their behalf. Could you do it without offending some? I doubt it. On the other hand Hump, you must assess what is to be gained or lost and is it worth it in the larger scheme of things. I would jump in and say the advancement of awareness would indeed be worth it but I don't live there and interact with these folks. I would just say this...if you are going to intervene then do it with conviction. More there will understand than you think. But, it may cause a firestorm too, and right where you live. Keep us in the loop on what, if anything, you plan to do.

Kompani said...

Those that make the selection of the speaker need to be made aware that those who died for their country came from every walk of life, religious, non-religious, black, white, straight, gay, female, male and everything between. To reflect that diversity religion, with all its doctrine, cannot be used as it would not be all inclusive. You then have to hope that those you talk to are open minded enough and have broad enough shoulders to see the point and to act upon it. Good luck.

Dromedary Hump said...

Thanks guys... sound advise. We are all of the same mind set that it cannot be left unsaid and unopposed.

flyz... thanks for that scripting, it may well be exactly my approach.

The post commander would be the person who selected the speaker. I don't have any of their email addresses, in fact, I doubt most of them own or have ever used a computer.

This would be easier if the post was comprised of young Afghanistan, or Iraq war vets. In fact they are virtually all WWII and Korean Vets, a couple of Nam vets, who served stateside, some served during peace time. Not a group whose background is rooted in thinking progressively or inclusively. It will be a challenge.

DerFarm said...

Mr. Dromedary,

You might try a correspondence with Jim Wright of Stonekettle Station.

I had a similarly sensitive question about the idiots who want to thank you for your service.

I copied his response to a blog entry.

He's good. He might could help.

Anonymous said...

You may make some progress if you follow flyz4free's advice regarding respecting 'all belief sets', but you won't get very far if you try to convince them to not have any invocation. See the following direct quote from the American Legion Constitution's Preamble - opening sentence & explanation: " "FOR GOD AND COUNTRY, WE ASSOCIATE OURSELVES TOGETHER..." This is the introduction. It declares that
The American Legion recognizes the influence of Almighty God in all worthwhile endeavors-and declares the allegiance of Legionnaires to both God and Nation. First things have been put first. All that follows is in conformity."

Dromedary Hump said...

Anon... yes, familiar with the motto. I would not attempt to oppose, nor would I have blinked had the normal invocation been followed which is non-sectarian.

But it goes beyond simple mindless prayer, and duty to god (whatever the hell that actually means) and into exclusionary and preferred religion when Jesus is invoked. That's my only objection.

Derfarm..thanks, I'll look Jim Wright up.

Anonymous said...

iPhone/headphones - YouTube - Bill Maher, Dawkins or Hitchens queued up - play at start of prayer.

Bart Lieurance said...

May I suggest that you volunteer to give the invocation next year. Then prepare a thought provoking, well worded "atheist" invocation.

AspenBH said...

The sad true is that your fallen comrades are dead. They are not witnessing your devotion to them neither in Heaven nor in Hell; they just ceased to exist. The only reason you attend those meetings is because is a rare opportunity to share this sadness you fell deep within your heart with your fellow men; sometimes the burden is softened when you share it with other people. It is a shame your Christian neighbors are taking advantage of this solemn moment to distort it. It is so sad they don't realize that - by turning those meetings into a preaching opportunity - they are outraging the memories of the lost ones. As if gathering to remember them is not good enough! As if you needed a lame excuse to attend those “boring meetings”.

I think you should remind your neighbors that both hammers and handsaws are useful tools, but sawing wood with a hammer is not wise. State and Church are tools just like hammers and handsaws; it is silly to think they could be interchanged. The human being needs ceremonies and most of them are secular, including birthday parties, graduations and national holidays – affiliating them to a certain religious denomination creates a sense of exclusion that will ultimately poison the nation. If the Legion fails to understand your point of view, is it viable that you replace their public memorial with a private one? Maybe you will find among your fellow members people who would gladly attend your private secular memorial too.

Dromedary Hump said...

thanks. I concur.

But as for a private/secular memorial, I wouldn't want to establish a competing memorial. This is a pretty closely knit town, with only 600 people.

I'm considering proposing my giving the secular invocation, as flyz4 and Bart L. suggested.

Doc Willard said...

I know exactly how you feel on this one. I had the same experience almost to a tee. I am a member of our American Legion Post, but I can't bring myself to say anything even if I've known the guy playing "Chaplin" this year for all my life. At least in my case it was just one of the guys reading a pretty generic prayer with no mention of jesus by name, though I'm sure most would insert jesus for god and not notice. They have the prayers so wrapped in with the flag, they'd be sure to get the wrong idea if anyone spoke up any time near Memorial Day. I plan to support atheists in fox holes (if they're still an organization) and see if any of their members belong to the Legion or the VFW. Sorry for the ramble, keep up the good fight.

Anonymous said...

You might approach the Christian pastor and explain how Jesus was AWOL during all wars and his sacrifice, according to legend, was merely a long weekend.

She may also just be saying what is expected and, as sheep never question the shepherd, she may not be aware anybody objects. This may be an opportunity to decult a misbeliever.

Joe said...

My father is a Legion Post commander himself and I am thinking of sending him this post to A.) reinforce the notion that, despite what the Theo-cons insist, one need not be a Christian to be patriotic (a sad state of affairs that one even has to make that case!) and B.) to see if he has any suggestions for you (that are printable!). However, I suspect that he will take issue with the assertion that the Legion HQ equated the Christian Cross with patriotism. There is no doubt that most of them believe that -- Hell, GBI says we atheists should not even be considered citizens (let alone patriots)! But, with all that being said, do you know if the equating of the Christian Cross with patriotism is an "official" position taken by Legion HQ? I read your books and I recall the essay on the general idea of equating patriotism with Christianity but I don't recall anything specific about the American Legion. Any ammo you can supply me with will be greatly appreciated!

Keep up the great work and -- If I read the excellent post from Jim Wright correctly -- let me emphatically say "Thanks for your Service!"

Dromedary Hump said...

Hi Joe, and thanks for that.
I was almost certain I wrote about my letter to the AL and my resignation in one of my books. But I just leafed through both indexes and can't find it. Strange. Anyway...

Three years (?) ago the Legion came out in their national publication in support of retaining of some giant cross placed on a national park, or cemetary.

The National Commander of the AL in Washington wrote that if it is allowed to be removed then the godless (my word not his) will next want to remove crosses from soldier's head stones at Arlington. This was an outrageous statement obviously meant to confuse and raise the ire of hapless members since there is no equating personal grave stone markers, selected by the fallen service member, with a giant cross that throws its shadow over the graves of atheists and non-christians. No one has ever proposed removing religious symbols from grave markers and he knew that.

He equated defending that cross as the duty of all Legionaires and all patriotic Americans.

If that's not equating patriotism with Christianity, I'm not sure what is.

It is because of his/their refusal to retract and revise their statement and position that I resigned from the Legion. It's one thing to have the innocuous "For God and Country" as your motto, a whole nuther thing to be a quasi-religious organization that equates the Xtian cross to an American symbol.

If I can find the resignation letter I sent them in my email file I'll let you know and you can give me an email addy to forward it to.

Dromedary Hump said...

PS: it was a hard copy letter, my wife tells me.

I specifically recall his article said the cross was "an American symbol"or "symbol of America." I took particular exception to that, since besides the flag, the bald eagle, and perhaps some iconic buildings and memorabilia (i.e. the Liberty Bell, The Constitution, The Declaration of Independence) there are no religious symbols that represent America.

Joe said...

Hump, Thanks much for the reply and info -- much appreciated. I do remember that story but was unaware that the AL had weighed in on it. Obviously, I am on your side here -- the equating of patriotism to the belief in Christianity is perhaps one of the most egregious memes that prevails these days -- makes me damn mad to be honest. The theo-cons have been remarkably successful in perpetuating that bit of nonsense.