Eighty-seven years after the signing of the Declaration of Independence, Abraham Lincoln delivered perhaps the most famous speech in American History. In its text is the ironic line, “the world will little note, nor long remember what we say here.”
This is, of course the Gettysburg Address, 278 of the best words ever delivered.
In this dedication he speaks indirectly of the blood that was shed. “But, in a larger sense, we cannot dedicate — we can not consecrate — we can not hallow — this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract.”
Abraham Lincoln was one of many national leaders who were men of deep faith. If we think that their faith was conflicted and complicated, I suggest living through a civil war would tend to make most things conflicted and complicated.
Another national leader with deep faith, James Garfield, played a role in what we now call Memorial Day. He wrote of his baptism in his diary when he was 18 years old. These are entries made on Sunday and Monday, March 3-4, 1850. “Determined to obey the Gospel. Signified my intention of so doing.” On Monday he wrote, “Meeting. Today I was ‘buried with Christ’ in baptism and arose to walk in newness of life. For as many as have been baptized into Christ have put on Christ.”
He became a lay-preacher and had a successful military career. He was later sent to Washington as a congressman and was honored to give a speech at Arlington National Cemetery on Saturday May 30, 1868. The Decoration Day was the first national celebration of what was to become Memorial Day. This is the opening paragraph of his speech.
“I am oppressed with a sense of the impropriety of uttering words on this occasion. If silence is ever golden, it must be here beside the graves of 15,000 men, whose lives were more significant than speech, and whose death was a poem, the music of which can never be sung. With words we make promises, plight faith, praise virtue. Promises may not be kept; plighted faith may be broken; and vaunted virtue be only the cunning mask of vice. We do not know one promise these men made, one pledge they gave, one word they spoke; but we do know they summed up and perfected, by one supreme act, the highest virtues of men and citizens. For love of country they accepted death, and thus resolved all doubts, and made immortal their patriotism and their virtue. For the noblest man that lives, there still remains a conflict. He must still withstand the assaults of time and fortune, must still be assailed with temptations, before which lofty natures have fallen; but with these the conflict ended, the victory was won, when death stamped on them the great seal of heroic character, and closed a record which years can never blot.”
The history of war in the United States, as with all nation-states, is checkered to say the least. There have been wars we have been dragged into, “Just Wars,” wars begun with bad intelligence, and many proxy wars. When one decides to serve a group of people, there will be challenges to one’s morals and conscience (this is true even in congregations). There will be decisions made and events that push us beyond our capacity to discern. Anyone going into any kind of service must understand this or learn it very quickly.
I believe that Lincoln and Garfield understood that there is something holy about blood. We learn in Genesis 4:10 that the first blood shed was heard by God, “And the LORD said, ‘What have you done? The voice of your brother’s blood is crying to me from the ground.’ ”
If we consider blood to be holy (as in belonging to God), it will have an impact on how we view war. This is the reason war is so difficult for people of faith. David Lipscomb, for whom Lipscomb University in Nashville is named, was a famous pacifist. He was of the same faith tradition as James Garfield. Lipscomb believed that Christians should not vote. Garfield became president.
According to the Bible, blood represents life. Blood shed for another is given high honor. For over 150 years we have set aside a day to remember the blood shed by those who gave their lives serving in the military. We do not have to agree with the reasons why. We do not have to agree with the violence at all. But we can be thankful and remember. We must. May God grant us peace.
Sean Niestrath lives and ministers in Madisonville. You may contact him via email at email@example.com.