Crawling to Peace (Memorial Day 2015)

MemorialDayOne of the last books Jonah read before his death in 2009 was Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried, about the author’s experiences as a U.S. soldier in Vietnam. I have wanted, and I recently found time, to read it. The book speaks not only of the horrors of war, about death on both sides in the conflict, but also about friendship in the trenches, girlfriends waiting back home, the struggle for normalcy after the war, and O’Brien’s bringing his daughter with him back to Vietnam to revisit his memories and to see that war-torn land at peace. The stories, which O’Brien readily admits are some combination of fact and fiction, transported me alongside the author as he recalled his Vietnam War years. Today, Vietnam is at peace, with 90 million citizens, a communist government, and an economic growth rate among the highest in the world. It also demonstrates an abysmal record in healthcare and gender equality. A fair record for a country that lived in a state of war from 1946 until 1975.

On this Memorial Day weekend, it’s appropriate for us not only to honor those who have died in the defense of our nation, but also to reflect on the state of war in our world today. You’d think humanity would have had enough of violence and death but, of course, it’s as if there’s an insatiable thirst for destruction in the human genome.

The hotspots of military insurgency this year include Afghanistan, Syria, Iraq, Boko Haram in Africa, Sudan, Ukraine and, of course, the continuing unrest in Gaza and the West Bank. As for American involvement in war today, depending on how you look at it, says one writer, we’re either involved in no wars (after all, Congress hasn’t declared one since 1942), five wars (Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Somalia and Yemen … where we either have boots on the ground or drones in the air), or 134 wars (I won’t list them all but these are places where U.S. military forces are either involved in combat, special missions, or the advising and training of foreign forces).

And it gets me wondering. When will humankind finally rise above this insane use of might to get what we want in life? When will we finally agree to work out our differences by using our words like mom and dad always taught us?

I know, I know. Probably not for a long, long time … if ever. I searched the internet for articles on violence in the world today. I love that I found these three titles: First, “Is Society Becoming More and More Violent?” Second, “Why the World Is Becoming More Violent.” And third, “World Is Becoming Less Violent.” I suppose, like the definition of American military involvement, it all depends how you view things.

Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker, in his book, The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined, asserts the following based on peer-reviewed studies using examinations of graveyards, surveys and historical records:

1) The number of people killed in battle has dropped 1000-fold over the centuries. Before there were organized countries, more than 500 out of every 100,000 people died in battle. By the 19th century, that number had fallen to 70 of every 100,000. In the 20th century, even with two world wars and a few genocides, the number dropped to 60. And now, in the 21st century, battlefield deaths are down to 3/10 of a person per 100,000.

2) In 1942, the rate of genocide deaths across the world was 1400 times higher than it is today.

3) In 1946, there were fewer than 20 democracies in the world. Today, there are 115 nations with significant elements of democracy in them.

Pinker’s opinion is that one of the main reasons for the drop in violence is that we are smarter. Intelligence, he thinks, translates into a kinder, gentler world. I like his thinking. I don’t know if he’s right. But I’m all for more education.

So, that’s pretty encouraging. Sounds a lot better than what the news media shares with us, doesn’t it? If we listen to them, the world is at death’s door.

Question is, how do we – “we” being the human race – make it the rest of the way? How do we (can we) reach that age-old Jewish dream that we intone every time we sing Bayom Hahu … “On that day, God shall be One and God’s name shall be One”? How do we build a world at peace?

However we get there, I don’t imagine it’ll be an easy road. On many Shabbat mornings, when introducing Sim Shalom, Cantor Jonathan likes to talk about how we already know how to make peace. We just have to live with kindness, generosity and compassion as part of our daily routine.

It’s a simple recipe, really. What’s not so simple, I’m afraid, is obtaining the ingredients.

Leonard Mlodinow is a physicist who recently published an op-ed in the New York Times, entitled “It Is, in Fact, Rocket Science.” He was trying to correct misinformation about some of the world’s great scientific advances, explaining that things are rarely as simple as our most popular stories claim they are. Darwin, he writes, did not simply develop the theory of evolution while studying finches in the Galapagos Islands. Such a world-altering revelation would not be made public for many, many more years, including eight years spent writing a 684-page treatise on barnacles. On the Origin of Species, his magnum opus on evolution, would not be published until 1859, twenty-eight years after he met those finches. Similarly, Sir Isaac Newton would not discover gravity when an apple fell on his head. The truth is that while Newton theorized the existence of gravity when he was only 24 years old, he would not fully develop and publicly share his ideas until the printing of his book Principia when he was 71 years old.

Important stuff can take a very long time to complete. So while I can, and will, envision a world when all humanity finally commits to living together in peace, I suspect, like anything truly good and important, it’ll take a long while for us to get there.

This past Wednesday evening, in my words to those gathered for our congregation’s Annual Meeting, I said, “No matter what craziness life throws our way, let us together meet in the heights and in the depths, honoring our best selves, honoring one another, and honoring the Creator of all of it, whose most fervent prayer, I wholeheartedly believe, is that we just be good to each other.” I suspect that peace won’t come until the world’s religions all subscribe to this theological idea, and the atheists among us agree that the spirit of it is critical for the welfare of all.

There’s a Yiddish proverb: Ven ain zelner volt gevust vos der anderer tracht … if one soldier knew what the other was thinking … volt kain krig nisht geven … there would be no war. I don’t know how long it will take but, as my ancestors did before me, I believe with perfect faith that peace will happen. The day will come when there won’t be war no more. It won’t be easy. We’ll have to work hard and long for it. But on this Memorial Day weekend, I can think of no greater way to honor our nation’s military dead than to complete the work that they began.

We’ll start by teaching the little ones. Stella Marie Ivy, will you come up here please. I’ve got something to say to you. I know, you’re only about three months old, but there’s no time to waste if we want you to become a builder of peace.

[Stella Marie Ivy babynaming]

Shabbat shalom,

Postscript: Our rabbinic intern, Jason Fenster, made a beautiful contribution to this Memorial Day service as well. You can (and should!) read it here.