Friday, September 2, 2011

Rights for Veterans' Burial Rites?

When both the Heritage Foundation and the New York Times wonder if religious liberties are at risk, you pay attention.

Yesterday, I received an e-mail from the ultra-conservative Heritage Foundation entitled "Religious Freedom Threatened at Veterans' Burials."

This is how it read, in part:

"The rifle salute, the solemn playing of Taps, and the presentation of the folded flag to family members are important, iconic rituals of a military funeral. During many veterans’ burials, volunteers from the Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW) will also include recitation of a prayer and express condolences to the families of the deceased. At the Houston National Cemetery, however, mere mention of such unauthorized religious sentiment is being met with increasing official hostility and censorship.

"The VFW District 4 performs the core elements of a traditional military burial during dozens of veterans’ funerals at the Houston National Cemetery each month. Recently, however, the cemetery’s administrators have balked at the VFW’s recitation of a prayer that has been part of the Burial Ritual for almost 100 years. Only family members, according to new cemetery policy, may request that a prayer be said at a burial and, even then, the recitation must be approved by the cemetery’s director.

"Likewise, the cemetery’s administrators prohibit volunteers from the National Memorial Ladies (NML) from handing out condolence cards to families that include the phrase “God bless you...” Antagonism by cemetery administrators to religious sentiment forced at least one woman to move her husband’s funeral to a private chapel so that the VFW could perform the full burial rites..."

Later in the day, I came across the topic in an article by the New York Times, which pretty much confirmed everything Heritage says is taking place in Houston and other national cemeteries, albeit without the blatant pro-religion sympathies.

The VA Bungles Yet Again

Indeed, the liberal-leaning Times and the Heritage Foundation aren't joining forces, but even the Times appears to have been struck by what's taking place in Houston:

At a government-funded funeral at a government facility for a deceased soldier who served under the flag of the United States; invoking God is now verboten?

Well, yes and no. The Heritage angle makes it appear that God has been deemed offensive at these funerals, but the Times - and other news sources - suspect that what's being curtailed is the perfunctory incorporation of age-old prayers and rites when the deceased family has not requested it. Granted, it doesn't sound American to deny even the perfunctory incorporation of "God" in military funerals, but the Veterans Administration insists that if a family specifically requests a religious funeral, then the government won't prevent officiants from reading scriptures and prayers invoking the name of God.

However, that's not what seems to be shaking out in practice. Apparently, some veterans organizations take it upon themselves to appear at funerals without actually being invited by families, even though most families will assume representatives of those organizations will attend and even participate. It does seem, even from the Times piece, that the government is trying to extricate those veterans organizations from the funeral process, while not doing a very good job of educating family members of what options are available to them.

Also unresolved is an apparent confusion over whether God's name can be incorporated at all. The Heritage Foundation references a bereaved widow who had to move her husband's service to a private chapel so she could have the religious references included. At least two lawsuits have been filed over the Houston cemetery's lack of clarity on this issue, with at least one judge issuing a restraining order prohibiting the VA from censoring a pastor's prayer.

Personally, if how military funerals have been handled in the past has not been a problem for anybody, I don't understand why anything needs to be changed now. Have families of deceased soldiers with faiths other than Christianity begun complaining that Christ's name is included in the military prayers?

Creating the impression that cemetery officials want to approve prayers read at funerals is bad enough, whether it's true or not. And what makes this an even more excitable matter is the fact that most funerals - military or otherwise - don't usually occur months after a loved one's death. They're not like weddings, where the participants can take as long as they like in planning, preparing for everything to go the way they want it to.

Particularly for military funerals, families are being jostled between jaded government bureaucrats and harried funeral directors, even while trying to come to terms with their grief. And at most national cemeteries, funerals run concurrently throughout the day in a very rushed and impersonal scenario. It's stressful any way you look at it, and our military bureaucracy is not known for its sensitivity.

What's Wrong With Rote Rites?

Nevertheless, even if I take the VA's word that this really is all one big misunderstanding, I'm not certain that evangelical Christianity is suffering very much by having the government imposing new guidelines on the use of rote prayers and rites during military funerals.

How can I say that? Well, have you ever read the wording of these prayers and rites? Doctrinally, at least for evangelicals, they're not entirely accurate, and that should be reason enough to wait and see what other parts of this story need validation before we cry religious persecution.

Consider these excerpts from various prayers and rites furnished by the Times:

"As a brave man, he marched away with an abiding faith in his god, his country, and his flag."

"As the years roll on, we too, shall be laid to rest and our souls follow the long column to the realms above, as All-enfolding death, hour by hour, shall mark his recruits."

"May each of us, when our voyages and battles of life are over, find a welcome in that region of the blest where there is no storm tossed sky/sea, nor scorching battlefield."

"Our comrade is in the hands of our Heavenly Father and 'God giveth His beloved sleep'... Let each one be so loyal to every virtue... not in doubt, but with faith that the merciful Captain of our Salvation will call him to that fraternity which on earth and in heaven remains unbroken."

Taking the Lord's Name in Vain?

Obviously, if the deceased was a believer in our Lord Jesus Christ, there's little wrong theologically with these recitations and prayers. And I trust that believing family members of these fallen service members derive considerable consolation through these reminders of how God redeems His people to Himself through salvation on this Earth, and through death into His presence in Heaven.

Yet, like so many religious formalities, these poetic themes of eternal salvation ring hollow - both figuratively and literally - when recited at funerals of people who did not follow Christ. It's a false hope indeed that a few trite words at somebody's funeral will be enough to guarantee their soul's safe passage to anyplace but Hell.

I'm of the firm conviction that believers should not tolerate such platitudes wherever they crop up in our society, because they besmirch the integrity of such rites for true believers in the eyes of the world. Assuming salvation by any means other than personal commitment to Christ as Savior may be normative in our culture, but should Christians encourage it or lament its lack of use in, say, funerals conducted at national cemeteries?

Having such a blanket practice face new restrictions may not bode well for religious freedoms in the United States, but neither might it be entirely bad for true faith, either. After all, not only has the military not come out and said religious references cannot be incorporated into military funerals, they've actually said such references should not be incorporated without each family's consent.

For some people, this will be a fine line in sand already mussed up by too much cultural ambivalence over all things religious. And I agree that taken at face value, it certainly looks like we're standing on the brink of a slippery slope towards religious oppression, at least in national cemeteries.

But my faith is not in a religion, but a Person. And I actually appreciate a bunch of faceless bureaucrats for trying, however inadvertently, to make religious jargon and formality mean something in modern funerals.

After all, many so-called churches end up doing much less every Sunday, don't they?

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