Well, it’s only the evening of the first day and I am already unglued. Eight years ago today, Franklin Delano Roosevelt stood in the amphitheater at Chautauqua, the place I was sitting, to deliver what came to be known as the “I Hate War” speech. Tonight the program interspersed anthems and hymns with recorded segments of that speech.
I had spent the hours before the program writing about my ancestors, the ones who fought in the Civil War for the South and the ones who fought in World War II, the war looming as President Roosevelt spoke. The very first anthem sang of the high-minded pathos of war – the fallen son addresses his father: “Tell him we will meet again where the angels learn to fly; tell him we will meet as men for with honor did I die.” Becoming a man, dying with honor … I was caught up in the pathos and at the same time protesting that this sort of thing keeps war going.
The next anthem was a prayer for the children of Bosnia. No dying with honor there, just heart-breaking longing for the morning light – “Empty eyes with no more tears to cry, turning heavenward toward the light.” This is the price that is supposed to be worth paying but “Can you hear the prayer of the children?” Somehow we are to know, as Martin Luther King said, what we are willing to die for and at the same time protect the innocent.
And then we were all singing about homeland and giving whole, pure service, “the love that asks no question, the love that stands the test,” and it seems to me we have to ask questions, that maybe there is a love that is greater than homeland, even though we all sang together about wisdom and compassion.
At the end there was “Now the Day Is Over” and I felt a kinship with those relatives again, the old school Methodists in the tent revivals my grandfather led, or in the little country church in Rural Retreat where I would play the hymns when I was there, or the little college where my parents met founded, like Chautauqua, to enrich and improve the human spirit.