Find the Cost of Freedom — May 24, 2020

The scent of lilacs always means, spring, to me and not just because they blossom in May, but also in a very special way. On Memorial Day, when I was a child, my father would often take my grandmother around to place flowers in the two cemeteries where generations of our family were laid to rest. She chose freshly gathered lilacs; we kids would ride in the back, steadying the Mason jars full of water, almost hidden in the profusion of blossoms. You can just imagine the scent.
Although in my family we did not make a great big deal of this, one of those graves was of my grandfather’s grandfather, a Civil War veteran. He survived two enlistments, returned home and founded part of my family line. His two brothers, who enlisted with him, were killed in battle.
Many of you will remember when the Memorial Day holiday was just the one day, May 30. The day off and parades or other festivities were held on that one day alone, whenever it happened to fall during the week. In 1971, it was moved to the last Monday in May in order to provide a reliable long weekend, angering some who asserted that the original purpose of the observance was to commemorate those who had served in the armed services, not to provide an excuse for holiday sales. I think they had a point, but I suppose it’s too late now.
In the center of my small town, a little bigger than Hopedale, were two parks flanking the main street; in one the county courthouse, in the other, a community bandstand. In the parks are various monuments with words, names and dates in stone or bronze.
When I was older, I asked about them, why they looked like the stones in the cemeteries where we would place flowers. It was explained to me that they were in memory of people from our town who had served in different wars. They were there, my father explained, so that we would always remember those who had served, some of whom never came back. Later, I learned the proper name for such a monument–cenotaph, from the Greek for empty grave.
A cenotaph serves the same purpose as a grave marker but for those whose bodies are not there, having fallen in some other place. As friends and family will, from time to time, visit graves in order to remember those interred there and honor their memory, a cenotaph is also meant to serve as a place of such remembrance and honor.
We have set aside this weekend to ponder on war, sacrifice and loss. The custom began during the last years of the Civil War, the conflict that gave birth to the consciousness of the United States of America, as we know it today. It is not clear where the custom originated, several towns, north and south, laid claim to it. Its first national occurrence was in the Army, when General John Logan ordered flowers to be placed on all graves in Arlington National Cemetery, Union and Confederate alike. Here, among those who knew intimately the pain and cost of war, there was a spirit, not of bitterness and revenge, but of reconciliation. There was no bringing back the dead, yet there was the impulse to mark what they had done, to honor a cause sincerely held and a sacrifice freely made.
Wars change everything; wars change nothing. On a personal level, wars change everything; every death is the elimination of a whole future—an entire potential life that might have touched thousands is never to be. On a world scale, wars change everything: whole nations rise or disappear. Because of war, empires fall, people achieve freedom; empires are established, people lose freedom. The American Civil War was not fought to end slavery in the United States, but it did. World War II was not fought to rescue Jews who had survived Hitler’s genocide, but it did. Wars change everything.
Yet, wars change nothing. What is now Veterans Day in November was originally Armistice Day; at the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month, the greatest war the world had ever seen came to an end. It was asserted that what we now call World War I was the war to end all wars, to make the world safe for democracy. It did not. We now know that an even bloodier war was only a generation away. Wars have been fought to eradicate Jews, Armenians, Native Americans and many other peoples, yet they still exist. Wars have been fought to make people and nations safe. No one is any safer now. Wars change everything; wars change nothing.
One ostensible cause for many a war, and one especially dear to American hearts, is freedom. If you were to ask Americans to choose one word—one word only—to symbolize the American spirit, I suspect most would choose, freedom. We were, after all, founded by revolution to free ourselves from British rule. Encomiums to our veterans always refer to their defense of American freedom. Freedom as a value and motivating force is invoked by Americans to justify believing, saying and doing all kinds of things we want to do. It is also invoked to justify not believing, saying and doing all kinds of things we don’t want to do. As you know, freedom is also particularly important to Unitarian Universalists. The fourth in the list of seven principles that UU congregations covenant to affirm and promotes is, “A free and responsible search for truth and meaning.” By this we mean that part of our most fundamental grounding as UUs is in freedom.
But let me point out another, absolutely crucial word in that phrase… “responsible”—a free and responsible search for truth and meaning, and so we covenant to believe and say and do things not only freely, but responsibly. That is, our freedom is not absolute and untrammeled; we must bear and exercise our freedom responsibly. Freedom without responsibility is mere license; it is to say, “I can do anything I want, any time I want, without reference to any higher power or anything or anybody else.” That is the creed of an infant, it is not how adults live. We Unitarian Universalists are not infants; we understand that the enormous power of freedom must be counterpoised at all times with an equal concern for how our words and actions affect the world around us. It is not all about us.
This weekend, as we think especially about our veterans who deeply understood that the freedom for which they served must always be counterbalanced with responsibility; as we think about the loved ones whose images were shared earlier; as we think about loved ones who live on in our own memories, we will remember what they taught us about freedom and responsibility. And because of the deadly coronavirus, our thoughts about balancing freedom with responsibility are more than just theory this weekend. In the name of freedom, some have been calling for the restrictions that have undoubtedly saved lives to be cast off immediately, that the freedom to patronize restaurants and businesses is more important than proceeding carefully, guided by medical science, in order to re-open the economy responsibly.
In the name of religious freedom, some have been defying laws and medical guidance to gather in churches, singing, hugging, shaking hands as they have been used to doing in the belief—misguided in my opinion—that the virus is some sort of liberal hoax or that the blood of Jesus is going to protect them. Infection and death rates have been proving them wrong. As you know, in our parish, we are going to stay the course we have charted, staying with virtual worship for the rest of this church year and then, based on medical science, we will decide on our course for the next church season. In this, we are guided by our principles and the conviction that freedom must be balanced with responsibility.
This is the kind of thoughtful, mature freedom that my ancestors fought and died for and some of you can say the same. I am sure it’s the kind of mature freedom that so many of our beloved family and friends lived out and that they imparted to us. For the witness of those lives, their love, sacrifices and gifts, may we ever be truly thankful.