Published also on http://www.beyond400.net as a contribution to the Baptist Union of Great Britain Futures Process which can be accessed
On a cold but sunny afternoon last week I found myself at Arlington National Cemetery in Washington DC. Arlington describes itself as ‘our Nation’s most hallowed ground,’ a place where the pride that many Americans share in their nation is visible and tangible.
Let me acknowledge, hopefully to save later diversions, that there is much about America, and the UK and most nations I know, that is not as we would like it to be. This blog is not a political treatise on national perfections and imperfections nor indeed a celebration of militarism. What Arlington represents for me is the power of belonging to something we truly believe in.
Arlington is one of those places that remind me that Americans on the whole love their country, in spite of it’s faults. Some are cynical of course and cynics rarely make a contribution to the greater good. Sceptics do. Critics do too. But cynics don’t. So even when Americans are critics of their own nation its because they long for it to be better, to live up to the high ideals that lie at its core. That’s why times of critical reflection are important. Hard lessons need to be learned in order that the ideals we cherish continue to set a high standard for all our shared endeavours.
Arlington encapsulates so many of these ideals. The overwhelming majority of graves are marked by identical white headstones, as simple as its possible to imagine. To those who knew the people behind the names, every person is unique but the message conveyed from seeing so many standing shoulder to shoulder in the last light of day, is that our strength is in our togetherness, not our aloneness. In an era when we celebrate celebrity, and too quickly measure unfavourably the ordinary against the exceptional, Arlington says that the ordinary is exceptional when it stands united.
Amidst the uniformity, Arlington also recognises moments of great significance, events that changed the life of the nation. Great times of struggle, from the Civil War to the modern day are remembered. Tragedies such as the loss of the Challenger and Columbia Space Shuttles and the attack on Pan Am 103 that came down over Lockerbie – these moments of grief are remembered too. Life together is rarely untroubled and times of sorrow, and joy, suitably remembered, comprise the narrative for future generations.
It would be wrong to speak of the heart of Arlington, in a physical sense, but most who make a visit will go to the grave of John F Kennedy. Like many leaders, his faults are there to see, but there is no doubt he inspired generations of people, especially young people.
He was just one of the bearers of the story, like thousands of others, but he was set aside because others perceived in him the gifts and character of leadership. In return, he undertook to serve them, not knowing what that promise would cost him.
Whilst we wisely avoid elevating men and women to a burdensome sainthood, it is surely right that we acknowledge with thanksgiving those whose character and skills have shaped our lives in years gone by, and pray that we might match their example, if only in part.
Not all can be Presidents of course! Johnny Clem lies buried here too, a ten-year-old drummer boy during the civil war who attained the rank of sergeant by the age of twelve. Greatness is not automatically commensurate with age, or learning, or title. Even a 12-year old boy is capable of leading others, or so I’ve read, somewhere.
If the physical heart of Arlington is hard to define, maybe its soul – though intangible - is less elusive. Arlington is a cemetery for sure but when you visit, its plain that what is celebrated is not death but life, it’s potential and its responsibility.
The words of President Kennedy, taken from his January 1961 inaugural address and inscribed below his grave, remind us that our life is given for a purpose:
NOW THE TRUMPET SUMMONS US AGAIN
NOT AS A CALL TO BEAR ARMS - THOUGH EMBATTLED WE ARE
BUT A CALL TO BEAR THE BURDEN OF A LONG TWILIGHT STRUGGLE
A STRUGGLE AGAINST THE COMMON ENEMIES OF MAN
TYRANNY - POVERTY - DISEASE - AND WAR ITSELF
I am not an American, but if I was I think I would have left Arlington with a renewed sense of ‘who I am’ in the broader sweep of ‘who we are.’
I’d go back to my daily tasks with thanksgiving for those who have gone before and allowed me to live as I can live today. I’d be more aware of my responsibilities having seen the sacrifice that others made in fulfilling theirs.
I’d be humble about my achievements, slow to judge and quick to praise all that others have done in their faithful service.
And I’d be watchful lest the high ideals enshrined in this place ever slip from our common life together.
For then we would be a lesser people than we are capable of being, lesser than we are called to be.