If you have ever been to Washington D. C. I’m sure you’ve seen and experienced the Vietnam Veterans War Memorial. It was designed by a young woman, from Chinese descent, named Maya Ying Lin. That mirrorlike wall of black granite contains a roll call of deceased soldiers. Every name beckons you to touch it and in reaching see relected your own image in the polished granite.
When Maya Lin's design was first unveiled, the backlash took everyone by surprise. One veteran called it "a black gash of shame." Another called it called it "the most insulting and demeaning memorial to our experience that was possible," Another noted that the design was a "nihilistic statement that does not render honor to those who served." It was alleged that the selection panel was infiltrated by Communists. Some veterans groups lamented the fact that the Lin design didn't hoist a flag. Of Chinese descent, Lin had racial epitaphs hurled at her - slurs filled with hatred and insensitivity.
A controversy over the appropriateness of the memorial had begun. The government stepped in, appointed a committee and with the decisiveness of a bureaucracy muddied the water further by authorizing the commissioning of a second memorial - call the "The Three Servicemen," which was a more traditional, oversized, statue of three soldiers much along the lines of the Marine Corps Monument, with its bronze soldiers raising the flag over Iwo Jima.
For more than three years the fight raged over these two memorials. Maya Lin fought the concept of a "second" memorial”. She thought it was unnecessary. Politics. When it became clear that the issue had become such a political hot potato that the only way to get Lin's sculpture built was to put in the other one, the question was where. Opponents wanted it placed in the vortex of the V-shaped wall, with a flag stuck on top. In a moving speech before the government commission, Lin stood her ground and refused to change her design. Finally Lin agreed to this compromise: Go ahead and install "The Three Soldiers" near the entrance to the memorial site; but don't invade the wall's space and give people room to experience, participate, and interact with the monument. And that's what happened.
The rest is history. The outpouring of emotion that greeted Maya Lin's memorial continues to this day. It has done more to heal the oozing wounds of the Vietnam War than any other single thing. The Vietnam Veterans Memorial collection now contains more than 250,000 items, artifacts, and mementos left behind by pilgrims to the wall. Ironically, Lin's greatest critics have now become her greatest fans. Vietnam vets now see her as one of them, and every major veterans group has passed resolutions either apologizing for their earlier treatment of her, or thanking her for hanging in there when their own members mercilessly attacked her.
This snapshot is a mini-case study of America and the perils and promise of freedom.
America desired to do something good - to honor fallen service men and women. But good intentions often gets intertwined with the deceitfulness of the heart. Thus the debate that freedom mandates is sometimes filled with tension, rudeness, misunderstanding, racism and compromise which doesn't always lead to what's best but rather what is expedient. It gets messy. For those of us who like things neat and clean freedom is problematic. .
The woman who designed this memorial intrigues me. She had deep convictions that withstood deep attack. She didn't back down in the face of almost overwhelming obstacles. She also had an interesting slant on what a memorial should be - she wanted her tribute to be interactive. That tells me she understood something about the true heart of America. Our history, I believe, tells us that people need to be involved and engaged in order for our republic to work. And their hearts touched.. That's what happens at the Viet Nam memorial. If you've ever been there you see a living drama - where those who come to visit - become, in a sense, part of the memorial.
Freedom is like that. It needs to be engaged. It's an interactive experience, not passive. Freedom is at the core of both the American experience and the Christian life. We are free to choose … it's a God given gift that needs to be EXERCISED thoughtfully and prayerfully - for Freedom, outside the context of moral law, is nothing more than a license to do one's own thing even at the expense of others. That kind of freedom honors no one.
On the 4th of July we celebrate our freedom, our nation, and our citizenship. They deserve to be celebrated. Understand this though. Even though our country has roots deep in Christian thought and experience we are not a Christian nation. The reality is that we live in a multi cultural, pluralistic country. We are one among many. Our country allows for diversified expressions of thought, of worship, and of practice. There are those Christians who don't like that reality but it is a reality. And on this 4th of July questions of how we live, work, and witness within an increasingly pluralistic culture deserve reflection.
Some people choose to live with the pluralism in our midst by withdrawing. Driven by fear. Many Christians advocate this position. Let’s eat at Christian restaurants, have our tires changed at a Christian garage, get in shape at the Christian health club and buy our books and videos at the Christian book store. Somehow, I don't think we honor God when we retreat into a Christian sub-culture that proclaims the message "you're bad-we're good". Hunkering down, doing our Christian thing and pointing fingers at the rest of society is, at best, counterproductive.
Others dive headlong into the cultural delights of this day and age without reference back to the authoritative voice of Jesus. That becomes dangerous.
There is another way. A better way. It is basic to the freedom we enjoy as Americans. It is also at the heart of the biblical message. What is it? With the Holy Spirit as our guide we are to be engaged and to be involved - striving to be God’s agent within this culture.. When we are engaged and involved we begin to better understand the obligations that free people must attend to in order to live as responsible citizens both in our country and in the kingdom of God.
When I was in college Spiro Agnew was Vice-President of the United States. He argued against anti-War activists and in particular the press corps that he considered partisan calling them "nattering nabobs of negativism". He thought they were emblematic of but a tiny, insignificant minority who paled in comparison to the "silent majority" supporting our involvement in that war. It was that silent majority, Agnew believed, that was the true heartbeat of America.
The Vice-President, I believe, was sincere in his belief but failed to understand a fundamental democratic principal. When silence becomes apathy that silence thwarts the debate, engagement, and involvement freedom demands. Those who remain silent lose ground to an active vocal minority.
The silent majority in the Revolutionary War, for example, did not want to fight the British. An active minority won the day. Many of whom, by the way, were Christians. And the United States was born.
In the 1960's a silent majority of people cared little about Civil Rights. A movement started, deep in the south, by a band of determined men and women …an active minority, literally putting their lives on the line, that took a struggle for freedom to center stage and men and women of color took their rightful place on the American landscape.
In this time and place we live in a world beset with issues. There is Terrorism. Poverty. Racism. Right to life and right to die concerns. Broken families. Educational reform. Health care reform. Business ethics. Welfare issues. Crime. Immigration. And the scope of the problems we face in the days and weeks and months ahead dare not be underestimated. These are issues that have both international, national and local impact. It’s big stuff. Complex.
Sometimes we are guilty of wanting to provide the quick fix to complex and substantive issues. Let's just get a famous personality to go to schools and tell them not to do drugs. Let's get everyone to sign an abstinence pledge and then we’ll never have to worry about teenage pregnancy. Let's put the Ten Commandments up in every classroom and behavioral problems will disappear. Let's bring back prayer to the schools and little Johnny and Suzy will have the moral compass that is lacking in their life.. Let's point a finger at Hollywood and boycott everything that appears sleazy and America will be OK again.
It's not that easy. Sin is too deeply rooted in our culture. No, the answers lie in a more intense and relational approach. These issues before us will be discussed and policies formed not by a silent majority but rather by active and committed people willing to make their voice heard. The resolution of big issues will call for good people to log quality time at the decision making tables. That begs the following questions. Are the variety of Christian voices in our culture poised to make an impact in relational ways? More importantly … Are you, Christian, willing to do your part? If yes, remember this.
When we choose to be engaged and involved there will be battles won and battles lost. That’s what happens in a republic like ours. But if we are not at the table we lose by default. That’s not a great way to lose. Too many Christians leave the table before the main course. They give up …pointing fingers, getting involved in the pursuit of our own pleasures …retreating to our religious ghettos -hoping God will make all the yucky stuff go away or that somebody else will do our dirty work for us.
It doesn’t work like that. It’s about engagement and involvement - it’s about long obedience and staying at the table even when it feels we can’t take it any longer. But when we stay at the table we get sharper, we listen better, we win the right to be heard, you influence decision making and you often learn to love people you thought were your enemies. And God smiles. Without a place at the table our voice won't be heard. And perhaps even more importantly we won't be able to listen. When we don't listen we don't understand. When we don't understand we battle stereotypes and caricatures. And then we battle shadow and not substance. And there is just too much substance, these days, to be wasting our time fighting boogeymen.
I wrote this several years ago. I don't have my original notes anymore. Some of the info about Maya Lin and the controversy surrounding the Memorial comes from an original source that I no longer can find but I wish I could because I'd like to give credit where credit is due. Although I doubt that I'm quoting anything word for word I just wanted to acknowledge that I wish I could cite the original source inspiration for the first four paragraphs./strong>