Remembering as Working for Peace

This slogan has been adopted by my organization, Mennonite Central Committee, for Veterans Day (Remembrance Day in Canada).

I.

I have come to see how remembering can be working for peace through my recent ventures into meditative prayer. 

In prayer, I have tried to quiet myself before God, consciously confessing my sin and giving my anxieties to Him.  The goal of this quieting of self is to become more attentive to God’s presence. The idea is that God is always there with you, and it is actually the condition of your self, preoccupied with its sins and other distractions, that prevents you from being aware of this.

G.K. Chesterton describes the inner awareness of God as a memory that is just out of reach.  For Chesterton, it is as if the bliss of being with God lies in continuity with and yet beyond our earliest memories; as if a sense of this untamable happiness still clings to our childhood encounters with the strangeness and beauty of the world.

I did not immediately experience this peace of God in my attempts to quiet myself in prayer.  Instead, parts of myself which I had forgotten about in day-to-day life cried out in protest.  It was as if I had to wrestle with the truth about myself before resting in the truth of God; to contend with the Cain and Abel within me before recovering the vision of Eden.

As I looked within myself in prayer, I remembered darkness I had pushed from my mind.  I was led into some of my worst moments in childhood: full of tyrannical violence, hurt and vindictiveness.  Finally, through prayer, I became aware of how much these experiences were still with me; and how, in practice, I despaired of God’s light ever reaching this darkness.

Not cheery, I admit.  Yet a painfully honest remembering is better than a sentimental prayer life that ignores one’s lack of peace with God and with people from whom you have become alienated. 

II.

For exactly this reason Christians should join all citizens to remember war and the veterans who fought in them.

But just as in prayer there is a sentimentality that keeps us from honest remembrance, so there is a sentimentality about war that falsifies memory and hides the truth.  This obfuscating sentimentality pervades our countries’ memorial services.  The US president’s Veterans Day proclamation is only an example of this.

In this proclamation, words used to honour veterans are mixed with fictions about what goes on in war.  Eulogies for dead soldiers are overshadowed by eulogizing the American military. 

It is not remembrance but sentimentality to pretend that what soldiers were up to when they went to war was furthering “the cause of peace and freedom around the world.”  It is not honouring but sentimentality to exult over “the uniform,” “the flag,” and “the finest military in the world.” 

It must be stated firmly that this sentimentality is not remembrance or honouring to veterans.  It only serves as a shroud over the reality of war and the monstrous militarism that continues to threaten war on millions of God’s precious creatures around the world.

What if, instead of this sentimentality, we quieted ourselves enough to listen to those who have gone through war.  This would be the proper way to honour them.

Art Hunter is one such veteran who served the US in the Korean War.  Half a century later, he still described his life as “a living hell” because he continued to be haunted in his dreams by the faces of those he killed (Cumings 166).

At the turn of the millenium, the circumstances surrounding Art Hunter’s memories were finally brought to light as a result the testimonies of Korean women: Chon Chun-ja, Chong Ku-hun, Yang Hae-suk, among others.  Ex-soldiers also confessed what had happened.  These testimonies had been ignored by the American and South Korean governments until this time (Cumings 201, 225).

Art Hunter had been involved in the Nogun village massacre, where American soldiers machine-gunned hundreds of women, children and elderly people at their commander’s order.  The truth is atrocious and scarcely comprehensible (Cumings 167).

Yet, as Bruce Cumings documents in The Korean War: A History, this is only one of countless atrocities that took place in a war where at least half of the three million Koreans who died were civilians (177; 243).

Truths like these cannot be ignored in any honest remembering of war in the 20th Century.  Moreover, even soldiers who were spared experiences like those of Art Hunter, must confront the darkness of war inside them.  As Stanley Hauerwas points out, even soldiers who never killed in war have had to think of themselves as killers.  They have had to recondition their hearts and minds to give up their ordinary unwillingness to kill.

These are things which must be acknowledged to work for peace.  The peace of people like Art Hunter as much as anyone else.  As Cumings writes, “Survivors such as Chon Chun-ja did something wonderful for Art Hunter, too: by coming forward and telling their stories, they made it possible for him to begin purging himself of a terrible guilt” (203).

 

Cumings, Bruce. The Korean War: A History. New York: Modern Library, 2010.

Add a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *