It is better to enter a house of mourning than a house of feasting, since death is the end of every man, and the living should take this to heart. Sorrow is better than laughter, for a sad countenance is good for the heart. (Ecc 7:2-3)
It is called Memorial Day precisely because it is about the dead from wars past, who need to be remembered most for the lessons they tried to teach us. Yes, they also need to be remembered for their courage, obviously, but we need to remember them for something far more important that we have forgotten with each successive war and through all our celebrations of life: chivalry and honor. For without those two qualities, real democracy (and the freedom that arises from such) is not possible. We cannot “achieve democracy” as the Left says, with protests. And we cannot “fight for our freedom”, as the Right says, through entitlement. Only chivalry and honor along with gratitude and humility give us the freedom each side is seeking. These are not necessarily simply patriotic qualities, they are godly qualities. So, ultimately, it is God alone who defines what real freedom is, with its construct, and yes, its limits, not humankind. It is humankind’s challenge to see the strengths God has given others, each one in its own measure and reconcile themselves to each other for the good of all. At their best, this is what the Church, who is supposed to be neither political Left and neither political Right, is to do. But are we doing so and showing the world the truth through God’s Light?
Long ago, a part of our country, in a divided time much like we live in now, strangely, as it might seem, exhibited those qualities much more than their more “moral” brothers in arms. But that’s what happens when a society becomes so terribly fragmented: both sides lose something that they need from the other. Their troubles perpetuate because of this bewildering loss that is not sharply defined and clear cut. The most sober loss of all, death, is supposed to wake us up to what the problem really is and why it cannot be solved except through reconciliation. To fail to see this, is to let that loss be in vain. This is the point that President Abraham Lincoln made in his famous Gettysburg Address given November 9th, 1863:
But, in a larger sense, we can not 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. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us — that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion — that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain — that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom — and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.
Aside from the lives of the future generations of those men who were killed, affecting forever the destinies of untold thousands in this country, we have lost four things in our general American society from that long ago Civil War: gallantry, honor, humility and chivalry. We now have hard thinking, relentless marketing, and common aggressiveness.
Gallantry, honor, humility and chivalry.
Gallantry, honor, humility and chivalry. These words have little meaning today, but they were the idealist bedrock of a lost society, a society from our anti-bellum past who are now only remembered for one glaring fault, a fault that has been made larger than the faults of her accusers’ often unadmitted faults. This was a society who was willing to bank it all on a card game, an endeavor, a piece of land, a cause and walk away, chin high, even laughing in their defeat, accepting it honorably. As Margaret Mitchell wrote in her preface, quoting a poem from which her book took its title, Gone With the Wind, that way of living life has floated away from us like the wind. Some of us gained a kind of wretched and crude “freedom” through its loss, but only at the loss of what was best about our society. G. K. Chesterton, while not defending slavery on any level, recognized with the defeat of the South, what the loss of these ideals meant for the future of America and its national character. In 1930 he wrote of his observations in a piece called “On America” from Come To Think Of It.
“In other words, what is most lacking in modern psychology is the sentiment of Honour; the sentiment to which personal independence is vital and to which wealth is entirely incommensurate. I know very well that Honour had all sorts of fantasies and follies in the days of its excess. But that does not affect the danger of its deficiency, or rather its disappearance. The world will need, and need desperately, the particular spirit of the landowner who will not sell his land, of the shopkeeper who will not sell his shop, of the private man who will not be bullied or bribed into being part of a public combination; of what our fathers meant by the free man. And we need the Southern gentleman more than the English or French or Spanish gentleman. For the aristocrat of Old Dixie, with all his faults and inconsistencies, did understand what the gentle man of Old Europe generally did not. He did understand the Republican ideal, the notion of the Citizen as it was understood among the noblest of the pagans. That combination of ideal democracy with real chivalry was a particular blend for which the world was immeasurably the better; and for the loss of which it is immeasurably the worse. It may never be recovered; but it will certainly be missed.”
Do you miss these things as much as you miss those men you have loved? Then let their deaths be not in vain. A thoroughly shared experience, a thoroughly shared loss is what brings about reconciliation. Because it brings us both to our knees.
Image source: A dead Confederate Soldier on the battlefield of Ewell’s Attack, May 19, 1864. Near Spotsylvannia Court House. Wikimedia Commons.