Study War No More
Rev. Douglas Taylor
Happy Mother’s Day. Religion has an old and deep tradition of honoring motherhood that is somewhat lost in our modern practice. Ancient religious rituals to honor the Creative power of divinity would invoke maternal symbolism, through either a mother-deity or in less-than ancient times the mother-church. Over time however, this has slipped out of practice in many traditions. What we now call “Mother’s Day” is broadly secular. We’re not giving mom flowers or breakfast in bed to honor the ancient creative divinity undergirding all that is. We’re giving mom chocolates and spa-treatments because we love our mothers and wish to show our gratitude for all they have done for us, first and for most: giving birth to us and nurture us through our early years.
It does feel as if the holiday has become a sentimental prop for corporate interests. Mother’s Day shopping is second only to Christmas. It is the top sales event for florists. Mother’s Day has become a billion-dollar industry.
Yet, the rampant consumerism of the holiday really has nothing to do with religion. And unlike the Christmas season debate between consumerism and religion, Mother’s Day never was a formal religious holiday and as such is not something to be ‘rescued’ by religion. Unless the piece to be rescued involves honoring the ancient earth-mother deities, which is really not something I hear about much. So I feel fairly safe in saying, Mother’s Day does not need to be rescued by religion.
Mother’s Day, or Mothering Day as it was earlier known in England, is clearly focused on the personal human mothers in our lives. There is a very secular base to the day. In the 1600’s in England Mothering Day was focused as a holiday for laborers to travel back to their home towns where they would gather with their families for feasting with mother as the guest of honor. Mothers were given cakes and flowers and visits from beloved though distant children. This was a compassionate holiday for the working class.
And it is not a holiday that traveled to this country, America had to invent Mother’s Day all over a few centuries later. This is probably due to the fact that it was the puritans who traveled from Europe to America and the puritans did not bring Mothering Day with them because it wasn’t religious enough.
And it was not until 1870 that Mother’s Day made its début in American culture. Julia Ward Howe, the woman who, ironically, had written the Battle Hymn of the Republic 12 years earlier, issued a Mother’s Day proclamation for peace. She called for an international gathering of women on June 2nd to bring those values and qualities of motherhood such as compassion, patience, and caring for one’s family to the boarder world family.
This original Mother’s Day was not a religious holiday to honor creation and the divine mother, but neither was this a day to let mom sleep in and be pampered. This was a day for mothers to take up the mantle of active citizenship and public activism for the goal of peace in the world. The vision of this woman who penned The Battle Hymn of the Republic was to spark women to gather for the abolition of war.
Thus, in the spirit of the original Mother’s Day, in the spirit of Julia Ward Howe’s vision, Mother’s Day might better be a day of taking to the streets, a day of prayer and action and involvement, a day of promoting peace among people and peace among nations.
One fond memory I have of my mother was the Sunday she led the congregation parading around the outside of the Church singing peace songs and carrying banners calling for the abolition of nuclear weapons. The newspapers and TV stations came out and I was standing with her as she spoke to the press about why we were all outside singing that Sunday morning. I was so young then and so proud of myself for being part of that and singing so loud. Now, when I think back, I’m proud of her for organizing it and leading us to speak out for peace. Julia Ward Howe would have been proud too.
Rev. Dr. Forrest Church tells this story about his mother:
She even saved me from the bomb. It was 1958. Fire drills in elementary school had been temporarily replaced by nuclear attack drills. The alarm would go off and all of us would dutifully tuck ourselves under our desks. From the moment of the first alert to the arrival of the missiles, we had ten minutes. Three times a year we practiced this. I can assure you (and some of you will remember), ten minutes pass very slowly when you are crouching under your desk waiting for an imaginary bomb to fall.
So I planned my escape, and practiced by running home after school every day. Despite an innate lack of athletic ability, I finally got it down under ten minutes. One day I arrived panting at the door, and my mother, fearing that once again I had attracted the attention of neighborhood bullies, asked me why I was so winded. I told her my plan. She understood completely. “If there ever were a nuclear attack, I’d want you here with me, not at school under your stupid desk.”
So my mother went to the principal and requested that, in the event of nuclear attack, I might have permission to run home and die with her. The result was a new school policy. Should a nuclear attack take place, upon securing parental permission, those children who could get home within ten minutes would be excused from school.
I grew up in the 70’s and 80’s and did not have these bomb drills, but I had heard about them. And the news was filled with worry over the cold war and fear for the ever pending threat of World War III. I honor my mother today for showing me that we need not wring our hands or hide under desks or live in fear. I honor my mother this Mother’s Day for showing me that we can stand up and speak out for peace.
This is a message we still need today. War and violence have been very much in the news lately. The killing this past Monday, May 1st of terrorist mastermind Osama bin Laden by US troops has sparked a wave of response from relief to jubilation. It has also marked a resurgence in national conversation about war and about how best to respond to the evil we call terrorism. Among my colleagues and several members of the congregations the death of Osama bin Laden stirred up questions about the nature of a Unitarian Universalist response to the killing of bin Laden, to war and terrorism, and to the events of 9/11. Certainly we do not want to wage war, but when Osama bin Laden and others like him attack us it certainly tries our principles and convictions as a nation. And it tests our theology as Unitarian Universalists.
The Republican response as typified by President Bush was to take the fight to nations that harbor terrorists such as those who attacked our country nearly ten years ago now. The Democrat response as typified by President Obama was to take out the mastermind who orchestrated the September 11th attack resulting in the death of thousands of innocent American citizens. Personally, if I were in charge, my strategy would be to bring to bear the wisdom of Julia Ward Howe on our foreign policies. I would call for compassion and patience and the sense that we are all one human family, thus dismantling the injustices that sow the angry seeds of terrorism. I don’t know what Julia Ward Howe would suggest be done with Osama bin Laden or with terrorists. She did, after all, write the Battle Hymn of the republic out of her strong support of abolition and the Union cause of the Civil War. Yet when the Civil War had ended and the Franco-Prussian war began, Julia Ward Howe felt compelled to speak out against the endlessness of humanity’s warring ways.
I don’t know what Julia Ward Howe would have said about Osama bin Laden or about terrorists in general. I am certainly glad Osama bin Laden is dead and will not be spreading malice and suffering across the face of the earth any longer. But that gladness and relief is tempered by a sadness borne of my theology that must acknowledge that it took his death to accomplish this.
My colleague Chip Roush in Traverse City, Michigan wrote this prayer for today which I find compelling.
We call upon the ghost of Julia Ward Howe,
dead now one hundred years,
yet still alive in our imaginations and our hearts
we call you forth in our consciousness
to echo your cry
for a Mothers Peace Day
to end the unnecessary bloodshed
which we humans all-too-often employ.
We call you, dear Ms. Howe,
to help us make sense of the death of Osama bin Laden.
You, the author of the Battle Hymn of the Republic,
know that self-defense and war are sometimes necessary.
Yet you, as a mother,
who lost her own mother as a child
and who lost a child herself,
know the tragic sting of death.
Mindful of the chaos and destruction
and the many, many deaths
on September 11, 2001,
and through the war-torn years since,
we honor the losses and the sacrifices
and we rejoice at this possible turning point
in the war on terrorism.
We rejoice at the possibility of peace,
but let us not rejoice at the loss of life.
Mother Julia, remind us
that every life has inherent worth,
that each person had a mother somewhere.
Help us to use this moment for self-reflection,
that we might grow and evolve.
Urge us to take this opportunity
to rededicate ourselves
to justice and compassion for all:
help us to end terrorism
by ending the injustices which fuel it.
Let us honor this Mother’s Day
as if it were your own Mothers’ Peace Day.
Let us honor mothers of all kinds,
and those who serve as mothers,
and those who would be mothers,
by creating a more just and peaceful world
for all children.
So may we be.
Yesterday I drove down to my cousin’s funeral service and I witnessed there a mother’s grief. My cousin was a veteran of the gulf war, he came home with (among other things) PTSD. My cousin had depression before going to war, so I won’t lay the blame all at the feet of war. And he believed in the war he had fought, believed he was making the world safer for freedom and for peace. The hell of war did not kill him, but the hell that lived in his head following the war did. My cousin received military honors at the graveside yesterday; they presented the flag to his father and mother in gratitude for his service to our country.
Motherhood is about creating a peaceful and healthful world in which your children can grow. Julia Ward Howe wanted to expand that compassionate sensitivity to all the world. “Women of one country will be too tender of those of another country to allow our sons to be trained to injure theirs.” “Arise, Arise, then, women of this day,” and “Let us take counsel with each other as the means whereby the great human family can live in peace.”
There is a movement afoot to bring the Original Mothers’ Day vision of Julia Ward Howe back into practice: to make the day one of activism and witness. While I was at my cousin’s funeral yesterday, there was a group back here in Binghamton gathered to commemorate that original vision and its call to peace.
I have a modest proposal. Rather than trying to reclaim the holiday, let us add to or adjust the current practice with a growing amount of activism and work to make the world a better and more peaceful place. Sort of like how at Christmas many people give with a social conscience. Some support the Heifer Project as a gift to friends and family, other shop at environmentally friendly stores. It is sort of like the way we have added a hands-on justice-making component to our UU Pal Sunday. We don’t need to stop doing the kind and enjoyable, fun and family-focused holiday activities we have grown to love and expect on Mother’s Day. But we certainly can augment the holiday with a thoughtfulness toward justice and compassion for the whole world.
As with every holiday, there are those for whom Mothers’ Day is not a joyful day for one of several real possibilities. Might this be a way for everyone to take part? Can we expand the day, allowing the honoring not only of each individual’s mothers but also of Motherhood and creation and peace? Can all of us honor Motherhood as a force of creation and as a drive to create a peaceful and healthful world in which the children can grow? Make a donation in honor of your mother, do something kind for children on the other side of the world or in your own neighborhood. Use your imagination. Dream.
Give some thought to it today and perhaps put it into action next year. What could be added to this day that would not detract from the wonderful displays of gratitude and love children offer? Mothers’ Day has been domesticated from its early wild ways. What can we do to unleash it again a little and allow the wildness in its eye to lead us closer to a world of love?
In a world without end,
May it be so.