There’s precious little remembrance on Memorial Day. For most Americans, it’s a vacation day – barbecue, boating, and beaches. These aren’t bad, but if they’re all there is, Americans are testimony to what Emily Dickinson called the amputated hand.
Memorial Day grew out of the carnage of the American Civil War. On May 5, 1868, the head of an organization of Union veterans established Decoration Day as a time for the nation to decorate the graves of the war dead. This was reflective of the Judeo-Christian tradition, where the Hebrew zakar means to remember the past so that we can make sense of the present. Memorial Day was to help us make sense of the messiness of life.
This requires seeing the hand of God. Wise believers admit that we see his hand dimly. They also recognize how God operates outside of time. For the Lord, a day is like a thousand years and a thousand years is like a single day (I Peter 3:8). God’s hand moves surely but often – given our finitude – slowly. But he is at work. His hand is not absent.
This is critical as, on the heels of repeated religious awakenings, many Americans began to believe God’s hand was absent. The War Between the States seemed to be a senseless slaughter between so-called saints. With over 700,000 slaughtered, it was hard to see the hand of God. Many took note of Abraham Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address, that North and South “read the same Bible, and pray to the same God; and each invokes His aid against the other.” This included Emily Dickinson.
Dickinson is the renowned recluse who lived through a revolutionary period in American history. As Roger Lundin writes, the 1800s is when “the locus of authority in American culture” shifted from Bible to Nature to experience. Truth was no longer found in the Bible but in the backwoods (Thoreau). Then Freud reframed it as whatever felt right. Dickinson, who learned versification through studying her church hymnal, turned from praising a God that “hid his rare life” (poem 338), to praise Nature which was tangible and empirical. But this belief was greatly hindered by the existence of evil, primarily the atrocities brought on by the Civil War. Dickinson surmised that the hand of God appeared to have been “amputated,” and God could “not be found.”1
Those – dying then,
Knew where they went –
They went to God’s Right Hand –
That Hand is amputated now
And God cannot be found – (1551)
With God’s hand amputated, time was untethered. It was less a caution – reminding us that we live in a fallen world – and more a commodity. We began to “manage” time. With the Industrial Revolution, work became a “job” (criminal), so people began to manage their time to work less and vacate more. Holidays (“Holy Days”) became vacation – vacating work and getting out of town. Memorial Day became barbecues.
With new technologies, time changed in other ways. The tempo sped up. We began to fight the clock, cramming as much as possible in a 24-hour day. With this, our sense of the hand of God largely disappeared. This accounts for why, as David Brooks notes, Americans live in the “future tense.”2 We don’t need to remember much of anything.
Fast-forward to present day. Isabel Allende’s observations on what North Americans’ call “time” are painfully insightful. “The North Americans’ sense of time is very special. They are short on patience. Everything must be quick, including food and sex, which the rest of the world treats ceremoniously. Gringos invented two terms that are untranslatable into most languages: ‘snack’ and ‘quickie,’ to refer to eating standing up and loving on the run … that, too, sometimes standing up. The most popular books are manuals: how to become a millionaire in ten easy lessons, how to lose fifteen pounds a week, how to recover from your divorce, and so on. People always go around looking for shortcuts and ways to escape anything they consider unpleasant: ugliness, old age, weight, illness, poverty, and failure in any of its aspects.”3
Vacations are fine but they are an escape. Memorial Day was supposed to be anything but escape. It was to remember. Millions of brave men and women gave their lives in the service of this country. In every case, the hand of God was present. It might not be evident until eternity, but then and there believers will see that it wasn’t amputated.
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1 Roger Lundin, From Nature to Experience: The American Search for Cultural Authority (New York: Bowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc., 2005), pp. 197-199.
2 David Brooks, On Paradise Drive: How We Live Now (And Always Have) in the Future Tense (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2004)
3 Isabel Allende, My Invented Country: A Nostalgic Journey Through Chile (New York: Harper, 2003), p. 188.