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Memorial Day and Memory

Memorial Day is inscribed deep in the American psyche. In the minds of many, Memorial Day means a three-day weekend or, at best, the gateway to another summer. But a moment’s reflection recalls that Memorial Day is a day to remember American men and woman who have died while in military service. It is a day to remember.

But “remembering” is a deeply religious practice. We are shaped by the things we regularly call to memory. This is no doubt why God told the Israelites to remember the Sabbath day. According to Exodus 20, the Sabbath was a day to remember our special relationship to the creator God who called us into existence. In Deuteronomy 5, Sabbath is an act of remembrance focused on the Israelite’s former life as slaves in the Egyptian empire, and God’s radical deliverance. Throughout the Hebrew Scripture, God’s people are told to remember the covenant that God made with them. Even the way they spoke of God – the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob – was a name with memory embedded in it. Remembering shapes identity.

This is why empires have special days of remembrance. Just over two weeks ago, on May 9, Russia celebrated Victory Day. Victory day, according to the Boston Globe’s blog, The Big Picture, is described this way.

“Commemorating the defeat of Nazi Germany 64 years ago, in 1945, Victory Day is both a day of remembrance and recently, for the Russian government, an opportunity to revive the nation’s armed forces and global clout.”

If you visit The Big Picture Blog you will see 35 incredible photos of Victory Day. Notice the liturgy, the vestments, the visual imagery. This is the political act of memory, to shape identity of citizens of the nation. It is very specifically constructed. I begin with Victory Day because for most readers of this blog, this is not a celebration that is native to our experience. But is this parade of power any different than the American 4th of July?

Or consider Memorial Day. Memorial Day is a day to remember those who have fallen while serving America’s military interests around the world. These men and women deserve to be remembered with the deepest respect. They are victims of the games powerful men (they are usually men) play for power and control. Every grave, every casket, is a tragedy.

However, I am interested not only in how we remember but who we remember. Because memory is a powerful formative practice, empire can reinforce its imperial narrative both by who it remember and how it remembers them.

I do not think Christians – those who name themselves as followers of the Christ who claimed to be Lord of all Creation, and who died as a seditious criminal on a Roman cross – can celebrate Memorial Day the way the empire prescribes. Christians must remember that memory is their provenance. Rather than simply being scripted into the imperial narrative Christians must subvert the imperial narrative, in service of the God of peace and justice, by remembering differently.

For starters I suggest remembering all the fallen. Let us today remember the approximately 100,000 Iraqi civilians who have died in the American occupation of Iraq.

Or the thousands of civilians who have died in Israel and the Gaza strip (one Israeli human rights group said that more than 50% of the Palestinians killed in the recent conflict were civilians)

Or the approximately 137,000 Americans who have died between 2000 and 2006 because they lack basic health insurance.

Or the approximately 30,000 children who die every single day of extreme poverty.

I could go on and on. This Memorial Day lets really stretch our memories to include all who are victims of power and greed across our globe. By remembering wrongly we only facilitate the status quo. But imagine what would happen if all across this country Americans started remembering all the fallen – all those who have given their lives in service of the empire – all the homeless poor who die each day as collateral damage of our “way of life.” What if a new memory took root in our social consciousness? We might not buy the lies anymore. We might be able to imagine a new future – a future of hope and possibility for everyone.

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