From the Book of Leviticus:
They shall compute with the purchaser the total from the year when they sold themselves to the alien until the jubilee year; the price of the sale shall be applied to the number of years: the time they were with the owner shall be rated as the time of a hired laborer.
(From the Daily Office Lectionary – Leviticus 25:50 (NRSV) – May 26, 2014)
Today is Memorial Day according to the calendar: in my mind, it’s really not, it’s just the Monday “holiday” that replaced Memorial Day which ought to be on Friday of this week. Yes, in that regard, I’m a traditionalist; I don’t hold with the change made by Federal law back when I was in college, a change that moved Memorial Day and a couple of other significant civil holidays (Washington’s birthday, for example) from their real dates to a variable Monday, creating “three-day weekends”.
As a student, of course, I thought that creating three-day weekends was a great idea, but as I’ve grown older I think back to fond memories of May 30th Memorial Days with my mother tending my father’s grave, days that were a disruption in the normal flow of everyday life, days that jarred us into awareness, days that forced us to recollect his military service and the sacrifices he and his comrades had made. The Monday of a three-day weekend doesn’t do that.
We have lost something, and what I think it is is the dissonance of that interruption and awareness that it brings. When Memorial Day fell whenever it would, forcing us in the middle of the week to take time from work and school or on a Saturday disrupting our weekend gardening or sporting events, we took notice. The Monday of a three-day weekend doesn’t do that.
The Episcopal Church doesn’t have special lessons for the commemoration of Memorial Day; this is a secular holiday, not a religious one. So when we sit down to offer our prayers in formal worship on this day this year we have three choices: the Daily Office lessons for Monday in the sixth week of Easter; the daily Eucharistic lectionary; or the lessons for the commemoration of St. Augustine of Canterbury. (In another year on another date, these options would change.) None of these offer anything one could count as particularly appropriate to the day, but I am struck by how grossly inappropriate the Levitical discussion of slavery and the redemption of slaves is . . . grossly inappropriate and yet very instructive.
One cannot deny that the Bible approves of slavery, however that evil may be embodied in a culture. Although slavery as practiced by the Hebrews was different from that of the Roman Empire and both were very different from that practiced in the American South before the Civil War, Holy Scripture was easily used to justify an inhumane practice. What was ignored in American slavery was the Bible’s insistence that slaves be treated fairly, that they or their kin be able to redeem them, and that the price of redemption be just. That’s what today’s Old Testament reading is all about, setting a redemption price that would be just and equitable.
I suppose, if I were more of a historian, my meditations on the relationship between this text and Memorial Day might have focused on the fact that the holiday’s historical origins are found in the aftermath of the American Civil War and the abolition of slavery in this country. There might be some appropriate and instructive linkage between this discussion of a reasonable price to free a slave and the horribly unreasonable cost of thousands of soldiers’ lives to free the American slaves. But I’m not that much of a historian and my initial thoughts on reading the text were more personal: I remembered those Memorial Days with Mom at my father’s grave, those special disruptions in our day-to-day lives and I wondered about the cost of moving the holiday from a set date to a variable Monday.
It seems to me that, in one sense, the alteration in the holiday has exacted too high a price and in another has cheapened the remembrance. The high price paid is in our forgetfulness and its consequences. That the day has become just another Monday of a three-day weekend, a day for gardening and sporting events and picnics, helps us to forget — or more accurately, encourages us to not remember — the horrors of war and the sacrifices of those who fight, are wounded, and die. Forgetting — or not remembering — the unjust and inequitable price of past wars, we are more willing to send our young men and women into another one.
The change also cheapens our loved ones’ loss. My father was badly wounded in France in World War II: shrapnel nearly destroyed his right leg. Surgeons were able to save it and, after more than a year of rehabilitation and therapy, he was able to walk, but I never knew him not to walk without a painful and pronounced limp. I suspect that that pain was one reason he drank to excess, self-medicating himself into numbness, oblivion, and eventually an early death; another was probably what he witnessed around him on the battlefield. A day of remembrance barging into and making a mess of our daily lives is not a high price to pay to remember the sacrifice he made and the larger sacrifices made by those who died in battle. The Monday of a three-day weekend doesn’t do that. It’s too easy; it’s cheap. And to me, the son of veteran who paid much too high a price, it’s offensive.
The Law of Moses may have approved of slavery, but it didn’t cheapen human lives. It insisted that the price of a human being be justly and equitably determined. The Monday of a three-day weekend doesn’t do that.
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Father Funston is the rector of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio.