Larry Buxton: Remembering the sacrifices of Peacemakers as well on Memorial Day

HONORING PEACEMAKERS AND WARRIORS IN A SINGLE IMAGE: U.S. Army photographer Rachel Larue took this photo at Arlington National Cemetery on Memorial Day a few years ago. It shows Audrey Hsieh laying flowers at the gravesite of U.S. Marine Corps Staff Sgt. Donald C. May Jr. who was killed in Iraq when his tank plunged off a cliff into the Euphrates River. After his death, May’s wife connected with TAPS, a nationwide nonprofit that aides families grieving the death of a loved one in the military. Hsieh volunteered to serve as the TAPS mentor to May’s young sons. In addition to helping the boys, Hsieh visits May’s Arlington grave on Memorial Day.

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By LARRY BUXTON
Contributing Columnist

What are the iconic images of Memorial Day? A man, a woman or a child pausing in prayerful reflection in a cemetery, near the grave of a loved one who served in the military.

Such powerful images of war and peace! They bring tears to our eyes, because this is the eternal spiritual struggle that explodes into headlines in every season—especially this spring. It’s a spiritual tension in all of the world’s great faith traditions.

I was reminded of the universality of this struggle when my Muslim friend Ibrahim Anli and my editor-and-publisher David Crumm spent time with me recently on Zoom discussing the role King David plays in Islam. David Crumm then wrote about his impressions from that conversation. And I followed up with my own video meditation on these timeless questions.

In a real sense, this is an ongoing conversation in which we all share, isn’t it? That’s especially true as we reach Memorial Day.

In our initial talk, Ibrahim offered a provocative insight that I wrestled with powerfully over the past week. In Islam, he told us, King David—also known as Dawud—is honored for living “a balanced life.” It was balanced because “David was a warrior by day and a priest by night,” Ibrahim said. That is, his daytime work involved planning, leading and strategizing, focusing on military power to protect his people. David’s nighttime work involved praying, meditating and interceding, focusing on divine power to protect his people. The balance came because David equally valued both. He was a man of war and a man of prayer, and the two were of equal importance.

I nodded. As a Christian and a pastor, I liked the sound of that—at first.

Except, that “balance” bothered me all week. With apologies to my friend Ibrahim, I think his use of the word “balanced” is confusing here. “Balanced” sounds like an equilibrium, like something that is settled, at rest, peaceful, content.

Like the iconic photographs we see in newspapers, magazines and TV reports each Memorial Day, I don’t think that those people visiting the memorials in our graveyards would describe their experience as “balanced.”

Our Challenging Choices

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Like most Americans, throughout my lifetime I have had a love-hate relationship with the military, both the U.S. military and other armed forces all around the world.

As a pastor for many years, I experienced families with ties to the military as strong supporters of congregational life, as generous givers and often engaged in volunteer community service.

But, like many Americans of my generation, I came of age during the Vietnam War. In fact, I came of age at a time when a lot of reflection and prayer went into my decision to file as a Conscientious Objector. This is one reason I’m pleased to see my publishing house releasing the new book, What Belongs to God: Reflections on Peacemaking by a Conscientious Objector, by the late Disciples of Christ pastor, teacher and singer-songwriter David Livingston Edwards.

David Edwards rejects the whole idea that faithful Christians can lead a life balanced between war and prayerful peace. In my case, my own choice to file as a CO became moot when it was clear that I would not be called in the draft. In David Edwards’ life, he did formally become a CO and performed alternative service at a children’s hospital. In his new book, David argues that all of us who consider ourselves people of faith must consider the call to “Choose Peace.”

This begins to sound much more like a struggle than a balance.

One thing my friend Ibrahim emphasized in his description of David’s prayer life was its overwhelming intensity. Ibrahim describes it as if David needed to pour an equal amount of physical, emotional and spiritual energy into his prayerful connection with God—because of the challenges of his life as a military ruler.

What’s the character of my peacemaking?

This raises questions we all ask need to ourselves, don’t we? What’s the character of my prayer life? And what’s the character of my peacemaking?

These questions haunt me especially as I stand before the rows of military graves in nearby Arlington Cemetery at yet another Memorial Day. I know those graves hold men and women of courage. And they also hold reluctant soldiers, frightened warriors, men and women who prayed not to be where they were.

And other graves around the world hold civilians who showed sacrificial courage in more peaceable ways. They prayed about military service, or they stood ready but were not called, or they took the risk and the consequences of saying: No.

Some of our world’s graves hold those who devoted their whole selves—sometimes gave up their lives—in peaceful action.

Just this week, I was heartbroken to read The New York Times story about Ko Chan Thar Swe, who left his role as a Buddhist monk because he felt a calling to write poetry that would peacefully but forcefully confront the military dictators now running Myanmar. For his eloquent witness, he was arrested, tortured and shot in the head. Thanks to the Times’ Hannah Beech, millions now are mourning his death as he pursued the forceful service of peace.

Honoring Sacrificial Peacemakers, too

In his new book, David Edwards raises this very question from his many years serving congregations as a pastor where the community knew that he was also a CO and pacifist. He writes, “My overall experience of serving churches as a minister who was a conscientious objector, and who felt it important to speak about Jesus’ life and teachings regarding violence, was that the church simply did not talk about it. The church in our society was so thoroughly acculturated that the default position was always in favor of nationalism and militarism. There was a consistent concern for those ‘who served’ be honored and recognized, yet no interest in the same for those who had chosen, out of their commitment as followers of Jesus and his teachings, to serve the country and world in ways other than military.”

That’s quite an indictment, isn’t it? Are our communities really balanced? Do we make time to prayerfully remember and lift up the peacemakers among us as regularly as we honor the warriors?

King David’s “balanced life” is impossible for me and for most of us, if only because thankfully most of us will never face the daily challenges David confronted in his time and place.

But what we can’t do individually—we can do communally. As a nation, we can find balance this Memorial Day by honoring both the warrior—and the pray-ers, the peacemakers.

We can rebalance ourselves as a country by honoring the sacrifice of those who fought and the conscience of those who would not. Christian faith teaches us that in being a part of the Body of Christ, we have more wholeness as a community than any one has individually.

Can we find that wholeness as a nation?

Every war has more casualties than just those who wear a uniform. When we honor that truth on Memorial Day, we the people just might stand straighter than ever before.

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NOTE TO READERS: As our conversation continues, David Crumm also contributed to this column.

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Care to Read More?

You’ve already seen a link to David Edwards’ new book, above. If this column is intriguing to you, then please order a copy of Larry Buxton’s book about King. David, as well.

Because of the 10-week focus on David in thousands of Catholic and Protestant congregations, this summer, Larry also is freely sharing 10 videos that match those “lectionary” readings in churches. Visit www.LarryBuxton.com/Preaching-David to find all of the videos.

Please help with this peacemaking effort. Share that link with friends. Encourage your pastor, lector, small group leader or Sunday School teacher to check out these videos. They’re easy to share—and easy to show to friends as a brief “video clip” to spark discussion in your congregation or small group.

And, YES, for those of you who pay careful attention to intellectual property: You do have our permission to stream these clips in your community.

AN EASY REMINDER: If you want to make the videos’ location even easier to remember, just go to www.LarryBuxton.com and you’ll find a link to the Preaching David video series right there on the opening page.

Interested in placing a group order of books for your class or circle of friends? Amazon ordering is quick and easy for most of us. If you are interested in 10 or more copies, email us at [email protected] 

From Larry Buxton: ‘A better way to win’

This entry is part 2 of 5 in the series Letters to America

From LARRY BUXTON
Author of ‘30 Days with King David on Leadership

Dear Friends,

This autumn, how often do you find yourself asking this question: How will this battle end?

I came across a true story recently that moved me deeply. I kept thinking about it. Finally, I realized that it truly is a parable for our day—a parable I like to call: ‘A Better Way to Win.’

You can watch the video right here:

Or, please visit my website …

Did you find that video letter helpful? Want more? Every week, I’m posting another very short video meditation based on lessons from my book 30 Days with King David on Leadership. If you go to my website LarryBuxton.com you can enter your email address and get a link to a new video letter like this from me each week. (Don’t worry, we follow best practices and you can cancel the weekly email anytime.)

Want the text of this video letter?

‘A Better Way to Win’

Sometimes, visitors to my website ask me for a text they can read or save or quote or share with a friend. In case you’d like this video letter in text form, here it is …

Two marathoners were matching each other, stride for stride, mile for mile. For hours they pounded the gray streets in rhythm, each man hoping to be crowned the winner of the first-ever London Marathon.

As the miles went on, one runner would attempt a surge—and fail. Then the other one would try to pull ahead—and fail. Nothing worked. Neither runner could shake the other. How would this battle end?

As the two men pass the 26-mile marker, the commentator is heard saying, “Someone must take the race.”

But which one? They’re down to the last 300 yards, gasping and straining. We hold our breaths.

Suddenly one runner puts a hand out. The other takes it. No words are exchanged. In shared exertion they join hands and cross the finish line together. Dick Beardsley of the U.S and Inge Simonsen of Norway finished as the first co-winners of the 1981 London Marathon.

How automatically we assume that winning must be a zero sum game: If someone wins, someone else has to lose. We assume this is the purpose of competition. But the goal of competition is not necessarily winning, Competition is our straining for excellence in the presence of others. It’s pounding out stamina, chasing down resilience, pursuing strength and gasping for courage.

Beardsley and Simonsen were equally great competitors.

I find the mysterious Spirit here in two moments. The first is Dick’s and Inge’s implicit realization that competition doesn’t require a loser. Everyone’s assumption echoed the announcer’s intoning, “Someone must take the race.” But Spirit—however we define Spirit—reframes this contest in their minds and substitutes a win-win model.

Neither suggests it. Neither one floats the possibility for them to discuss along the route. But somewhere they each see it, a different way to win, and that new image or new possibility begins to inspire their race.

Then comes the mysterious moment. Neither one speaks. They don’t even look at each other. Each man reaches out his hand. At the same time.

In their simultaneous clasping hands, Beardsley and Simonsen each surrender, in a sense. Each one surrenders his hope to stand alone on the winner’s podium. But their shared surrender makes for a shared victory. Theirs was concession and triumph at the same time.

That’s a basic conversion theme for Christians and alcoholics and lots of others of us: Surrender leads to victory. When we surrender ourselves and our individual dreams of glory, we discover a much greater victory: Sobriety. Salvation. Honor. Self-respect. Character. Love.

Our political leaders need to embrace this story. So do we in squabbling marriages, antagonistic organizations, conflicted congregations, argumentative families, and bickering boardrooms. We might watch for that glimpse – listen for that whisper – and welcome a more selfless way to lead.

I hope you see it – or hear it – or reframe it yourself. And then, reach out! Risk an offered hand. In the days ahead – Let the Spirit move within you. Our entire nation needs it, now more than ever.

Yours in faith,

Larry

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