Of Bayonets & Grace

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Of Bayonets and Grace

Isaiah 1:17 learn to do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow.

As we come to another autumn and approach the U.S holiday of Veterans day, I find myself reflecting on how we in the U.S. advocate for peace when more than half, 54%, of our federal budget, is allocated for war.

Veteran’s Day was once known as Armistice Day, a word that means “truce.” The holiday was as much to honor the soldiers of that time as to honor lessons learned through World War I, known at the time as the “War to End all Wars”. When that war ended, the world breathed a collective sigh of relief, and there was a shared, fervent wish at the time that a global conflict would never occur again. Armistice Day was designated to ensure we remembered the lesson: Never again!

The Vietnam war, I had thought, might have re-taught us the lesson that war does not solve conflicts. But today,  a budget of war drives our economy. Does this economy reflect our values? What are the costs of these choices?

I come from a military family that is also very diverse and deeply faithful. Maybe most everyone’s families were in the military if you go back far enough in our country’s history?  All four grandparents were in the army in WWI, (my grandmothers were nurses) My parents were both in WWII. They were in the Army (my mom was a nurse and lieutenant, my father a medic- their romance was a scandal).  I worked with veterans with PTSD in the VA Hospital in my community. Recently I have been concerned about the evolving understanding of soul repair in the occurrence of moral injury.  Today we see evidence that there is a high suicide rate of our veterans. As I came to understand moral injury I felt a bone deep resonance as I learned more about soul repair after moral injury. This resonance seems to have deep roots.

When I was a young child we lived in an old, old house, built by a sea captain, in a village outside Philadelphia with an unfinished cellar and an attic full of cobwebs and old terrors. My mother’s parents lived with us in those days. Her Scottish father, my grandfather, had a cabinet-making workshop in the cellar, and I would spend hours down there with him. I can remember his face aglow in the light, a furnace roaring and blazing flames, while sawdust, darkness and gloom rimmed the edges of the cellar. I wandered in those dark, shadowy edges of the cellar and discovered relics from the past: bayonets, WWI helmets, and mess kits.

I would drag these treasures out of the corners where they had been stored, and urge my grandfather to tell his stories of fighting in France, meeting my French grandmother, his feelings regarding my mom marrying my Jewish father. He would pause his work and tell me how he survived being wounded on the battlefield near Saumur and found love in the midst of that battlefield.

My father’s Dad had his own battlefield stories. He was one of the first of his kind, a battlefield psychiatrist. He was also stationed in France and recalled guns blazing and shells falling around. This grandfather, we called him Daddy Sam, kept detailed journals all his life. In 1917, he wrote of the beauty of a late-autumn sunrise, the fading colors of the autumn leaves drifting across the fields, mists rising from the warmer soil into the chilled, rain-soaked air.  Daddy Sam wrote also of the abject terror that filled the air on those battlefields. The blinding smoke and debris in the air, the shriek of falling shells, the cries of those wounded, the smells, the inescapable acrid, foul air. His work was to ensure soldiers remained at their post or returned as soon as possible after being injured. In those days, any soldier who did not want to return to battle faced immediate disciplinary action. But my grandfather looked more deeply into the battlefield injuries of mind and soul. He was part of what would be pioneering work on the effects of “shell shock”.

He likely saved many men from court martial or worse. He saw that the horrors of war wrecked souls, bodies and land. He kept meticulous case notes on the battle field, and afterwards, as Chief of Psychiatry for the Philadelphia Penitentiary and still later when he kept journals on his love of art and painting.

I read all of his journals, and was struck by the fact that after his accounts of WWI battlefield, I never heard his own voice again. His words “disappeared” into the clinical world of case notes and later into the world of the technique of writing. He never let us know what he was feeling during the remainder of his 102 years of life. I wonder now if my grandfather had suffered moral injury and what that cost his family, my family. The call to defend land, home and hearth has been a part of our human history and we have always known that we must honor those who sacrifice for what they hope is a “just war”. All of us can reflect on our priorities, on where we share our money and when we send our young to fight and perhaps die and how we honor those veterans who serve.

I read the scraps of paper Daddy Sam kept often used as book marks in treasured books. I believe he wondered a lot about the human condition and society, he wondered about God, he wondered about his own soul. I found this piece of scripture amongst the notes he kept, “I will stand at my watch post, and station myself on the rampart; I will keep watch to see what he will say to me, and what he will answer concerning my complaint. For there is still a vision for the appointed time; it speaks of the end and does not lie. If it seems to tarry, wait for it; it will surely come, it will not delay. Look at the proud! Their spirit is not right in them, but the righteous live by their faith.” Habakkuk 2:1-4

For all my family now gone: Samuel and Clara, Bryant and Marta, Richard and Yvonne, I pray that you know the peace and the grace that is available to all of us. I pray that our nation untangles its budgets of war, ensures communities are equipped for soul repair for those veterans in need and, weaves budgets that support education, protection of our land and housing and food for people in need.

For all of us this November 11, 2018, may we know the cleansing gaze of the divine passion for mercy. May our efforts be pure, may serve justice and may we defend the helpless.

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