Empty Chairs at Empty Tables
The first widely publicized observance of a Memorial Day-type observance after the Civil War was in Charleston, South Carolina. During the war, Union soldiers who were prisoners of war had been held at the Charleston Race Course; at least 257 Union prisoners died there and were hastily buried in unmarked graves. Together with teachers and missionaries, black residents of Charleston organized a May Day ceremony in 1865, which was covered by the New York Tribune and other national papers. The freedmen cleaned up and landscaped the burial ground, building an enclosure and an arch labeled, “Martyrs of the Race Course.” Nearly ten thousand people, mostly freedmen, gathered on May 1 to commemorate the war dead. Involved were about 3,000 school children newly enrolled in freedmen’s schools, mutual aid societies, Union troops, black ministers, and white northern missionaries. Most brought flowers to lay on the burial field. Years later, the celebration would come to be called the “First Decoration Day” in the North.
There are many claims to the first Decoration Day, or Memorial Day as we now call it, besides this one, but they all center around the Civil War. More than 600,000 total from North and South died in the Civil War, a higher toll than any other American conflict. Memorial Day is the day for us to honor those who died while serving in the military. In November we honor veterans on Veterans Day, and on All Saint’s and All Soul’s Day, we honor all who have died. But this day is specifically for those who died serving this country in the military.
Why? Why is this day declared a national holiday, a day off – ostensibly to visit and decorate the graves?
There is a real sense in which they died for all of us, that they gave their lives for us. Even if we didn’t or don’t believe in the cause they fight for, still these women and men have chosen to serve their nation in this way, and we, the people of the United States of America, are their nation. This is a democracy, and the nation is its people, at least in principle.
The song “Empty Chairs at Empty Tables” that Travis sang comes from the musical Les Misérables. It is sung by the character Marius at the end of the show. He sings it upon finding that he is the only one among the rebel students who has survived the attacks on their barricade, and asks that “his friends forgive him that he lives and they are gone.”
Marius feels such despair, such loss. You can hear it in the music, as well as the words.
I see it as a fitting mourning song for our own sense of loss, for our own despair – despair over losing so many lives to war, over losing any lives to conflicts we may believe could have and should have been resolved without resort to violence. Could any of the wars or conflicts our nation has been involved in been avoided?
We all learn as children that killing is wrong. Then we learn that it’s wrong for individuals, but if it’s state-sanctioned, it’s OK.
States can kill in the form of wars and capital punishment. The killing is justified as protection of the public from a potential harm. There are other ways to protect, but they are much more difficult. And so we kill. As a people, we kill. And our soldiers are killed. They give their lives for their country, but is their sacrifice justified?
Anne Frank didn’t choose to sacrifice her life for her nation, but she did die in a war of sorts. She was sent to a concentration camp, and did not come out. Her life was taken because she was Jewish, not because she did anything wrong. It was, however, a state-sanctioned killing.
And yet this young girl gives us hope. She sees the devastation all around her, she hears the news and knows what is going on – she knows that she and her family are likely to be killed, she feels the suffering of millions –
And yet – in spite of everything, she still believes that people are really good at heart.
In spite of everything she sees, hears and feels, she believes it will all come right, that the cruelty will end, and that peace and tranquility will return again.
What faith! What uplifting, life-sustaining faith! It’s the kind of faith we need to keep from going under, to save us from hopelessness, to enable us to continue to act in the world with the belief that our actions make a difference.
Anne upheld her ideals, but she didn’t get the chance to carry them out – at least not perhaps in the way she intended. Her ideals, as expressed in her diary, however, have inspired millions.
Whatever your ideals are, you have the chance to carry them out. We are not school girls hidden away in a house in Amsterdam. The time has come for us. There is nothing in the way of our carrying out our ideals.
Anne’s vision was of a world of peace and tranquility. What is your vision? Don’t we all wish to see peace and justice in our world? As Unitarian Universalists, it is our sixth principle.
Can we achieve peace by waging war? “There is no ‘way to peace,’ there is only ‘peace,” as Gandhi said. We only achieve peace by peaceful means – by finding non-violent solutions to our conflicts.
Yet as another great leader, Martin Luther King, Jr., said, “there is no peace without justice.” How can there be peace if inequities exist? And isn’t it a fact of human nature that people will take what they can from those who have no power, or less power? Doesn’t standing up to that aspect of human nature, to such abuses of power sometimes require violence? Is it possible that violence may sometimes be the only way to stop it?
A just world would be a peaceful world. If everybody has what they need, if resources are distributed in a fair manner to everyone, what need would there be for fighting?
We can achieve peace through justice. But does achieving justice ever require fighting?
The friends of Marius thought so. They had a vision of a new world – a “world reborn” – and they talked of revolution, they lit the flame of passion for their cause and rose with voices ringing. They sought to promote justice. They planned their revolt, they spread the word, they put up a barricade in the street to protect them from the attack. They fought bravely for their cause. But they didn’t return, and Marius wonders if their sacrifice was worth it. He lives and they are gone.
Oh my friends, my friends, don’t ask me
What your sacrifice was for
Empty chairs at empty tables
Where my friends will sing no more.
Are even the best of causes worth fighting for? In terms of physical violence? How do we decide if something is worth fighting for? How do we decide if something is worth dying for? How do we decide if something is worth killing for?
I believe with Anne Frank that people are really good at heart. I think that’s another way of saying everyone has inherent worth and dignity. We’re all trying our best to be the best that we can be, even though we’re all flawed to some degree, wounded by past hurts. We all have the divine light inside that just gets buried sometimes to varying degrees, and it may take a lot of work to uncover it. But it’s there. And if we’re clever enough, we might be able to reach it, even in the most terrible despot, even in the most callous killer.
The movie, Freedom Writers, starring Hillary Swank, is about a teacher in an inner-city school troubled by gang warfare, shootings and all kinds of disadvantages. The teachers and administration believe that these kids can’t be reached, can’t be taught – that the most that can be done with them is to keep discipline in the classroom until they leave, many of them after their sophomore year. But the teacher played by Swank manages to get through to these kids by letting them express their pain and describe their hurts, and by accepting them as they are. They manage to understand each other, they manage to get along with the other ethnic groups represented in the classroom, they manage to read books others thought they couldn’t read, they manage to drop their gang affiliations, they manage to do the right thing even when it is difficult, and they manage to graduate from high school and some even go on to college.
The movie is based on a true story. Somehow this woman managed to get through the pain and despair of these kids’ lives and tap the divine potential within all of them.
We all have this divine potential. And when we kill, if we kill, whether for self-defense or a great cause, whether we as a nation kill for self-defense or for oil, or to feed our hunger for revenge; whatever our reason, we need to remember that we are killing something divine, something sacred. A human being, a living being, a divine light.
We need to question whether our causes are worth it. Or might we end up like Marius, mourning the empty chairs at empty tables where our friends will sing no more.
The freed black people of post-Civil War Charleston honored the sacrifice of those northern soldiers who died to free them. Was their freedom worth the sacrifice? Was that bloody, awful war the only way to achieve their freedom? Perhaps. People don’t give up their way of life and their economic sustenance without a fight.
So it’s complicated. But respecting always the inherent worth and dignity, the divinity, of other beings, refusing to demonize them, can go a long way toward avoiding war or at least the worst of it.
We can honor the memory of those who gave their lives in the service of their nation, of our nation, while still upholding our ideals and striving for a world of peace and justice. Indeed, I believe that’s what we have to do.