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We honor the dead with hope for the future

When’s the last time you read the Gettysburg Address? It’s the best reading I’ve found to answer the complex emotions of Memorial Day.

In this compact speech, Lincoln looks back at the country’s founding, and then he looks around at the rubble and the blood-soaked ground of his present. He is there to honor those who have died, and to honor the families still alive, mourning.

And then, after he looks back at the past and acknowledges the present, he does something extraordinary: he looks forward. He says,

It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us — that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion — that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain — that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom — and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.

That’s where we are now. We’re standing on a battlefield. This election has revealed that we’re engaged in the most dreadful thing a country can do: fighting itself. In the literal Civil War, it was obvious that that’s what we were doing. Now we are being told that liberty means the freedom to choose between would-be tyrants. If my child were interested in joining the military, what would I say? Could we trust any candidate to value their lives even a little bit? Is there any grounds for hope for our country?

When we look to the past, and when we survey the present, it’s hard to do anything but grieve — for the unthinkably many lives lost, and for the honor and majesty slipping away from our nation.

But we can hear the Gettysburg Address and take courage. We can see the struggle and grief of our country, wrestling with itself as it now is, and we can look forward. We must look forward. If our ancestors could recover from the fearful, shameful bloodshed of the Civil War, then we can recover from the strife and division we’re enduring now. Those of us who still love the Constitution are the living whom Lincoln is exhorting. We’re the ones who understand that our country is faltering, it’s struggling, it’s wounded — but it’s not over yet. It is still, as Lincoln said, “unfinished work.” And when a project is still unfinished, then there is still hope.

This country is unfinished work. The battle isn’t over yet. If we are here to honor the dead, then we must look forward. We pray for the souls of the dead. We humbly thank their families. And we honor them by redoubling our faith and hope for the future of this country that we all love.

 

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Image: Sunrise over Shiloh National Cemetery by Shiloh National Military Parks by (license)
This essay is a modified excerpt of a post that ran at the National Catholic Register in 2013.

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