March 23rd, 2017 |
It was springtime in Lexington, Virginia—1958—my final months at Washington & Lee University.
Arnold Toynbee, the British historian, who had just written a monumental 12 volume Study of History, was on campus for an extended series of lectures. Being a philosophy major, I was privileged to hear him.
Like all great teachers—maybe preachers and everyone else, for that matter—what I remember most was his presence. Not his obvious erudition. No, it was his humility. I still recall him saying that every door he opened, there was another door facing him.
After classes, I would hustle over to lacrosse practice. My last season of playing a game I had played and loved since I was a young boy. That boy emerges still. Every spring, even now, I feel the urge to pick up the old lacrosse stick in my basement and bounce a ball off any nearby wall. It might as well be spring again.
I did know that graduation was about to happen. In June, I was handed a diploma. Afterwards, a short walk over to Lee Chapel, I was sworn into the Marine Corp. One week later, I was playing lacrosse in the North-South All Star Game in New York City. The next weekend, Judy and I were married.
Two weeks later we were headed to Quantico, Virginia, then on to Camp Pendleton in Oceanside, California. Within the next two years, we had a son, and I was floating around off the coast of Southeast Asia, prepared, if need be, to kill yellow people I did not know.
What did I know about marriage, or yellow people, or war, or raising a family? What did I know about my own country, the American Empire? There was so much more to learn.
So, here I am, still putting the pieces of my life together, past, present, and whatever future I can image, doing time inside the life I love. Still trying to learn, I dig out some Toynbee, from the musty past. Long dead, he still has something to say.
“Militarism has been by far the commonest cause of the breakdown of civilizations. The single art of war makes progress at the expense of all the arts of peace…The only real struggle in the history of the world, is between the vested interest and social justice.”
Toynbee’s Study of History recorded the rise and fall of empires, over 20 of them. The fall of an empire, or its rebirth, was dictated by the responses made at critical challenging moment, tipping points, if you will. For sure, that’s us, right now.
As difficult as it is for some to recognize, we are living in the dying American Empire. Visions of imperial power die a slow death. Martin Luther King Jr. was right when he said, “A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual doom.” Gulp! That’s a hard message to swallow.
How to live lovingly and justly in our dying American Empire, visible in our bloated military budget, is the challenge. The militarism lodged in our way of life, here and abroad, must die. Our task? Bird business. Tending to a phoenix, that unique bird that lived for centuries, then burned itself out on a funeral pyre, in order to rise from the ashes to live into another age. In church-talk, my language, it has to do with death and resurrection. Lent and Easter.
It might as well be spring again.
Entry Filed under: Fig Tree Notes Archives