Service and Sacrifice

Morning Prayers remarks by Jonathan L. Walton, Plummer Professor of Christian Morals and Pusey Minister in the Memorial Church, Holden Chapel, Harvard Yard

As delivered

Every time I look upon the walls of the Memorial Church I am inspired by the 1,113 names engraved upon its walls—men and women who paid the ultimate price in WW's I and II, Korea, and Vietnam. Men like Lieutenant Robert Satterlee Hurlbut Harvard College Class of 1929 and Harvard Medical School Class of 1938. On March 25, 1945 he was the navy medical officer aboard U.S.S. Halligan when the ship struck a mine just west of Okinawa. One surviving officer said of Lieutenant Hurlbut, "Everyone came to Bob when in trouble, mental or physical, and he always provided the necessary words of comfort. We all had the greatest confidence in his medical skill. He stood watches not required of him. He had one of the greatest curiosities and most genuine interests in all that went on about him that I have seen in any man."

There are so many similar stories. Accounts of heroism, selflessness and sacrifice pervade those walls. As a grandson and son of military veterans, I have my own stories that I could share. Stories that impress. Stories that inspire. Just because I am inspired by parts of this history, does not mean that I must remain oblivious to other aspects of history. As President Drew Faust reminded us yesterday, history has many dimensions. Some parts beautiful and sublime and some parts tragic and painful.

For instance, while Lieutenant Hurlbut was serving nobly in the Pacific, something nefarious was taking place on another continent. The U.S. Army executed Private Louis Till, an African-American from Missouri. No details were released from the case, as they were immediately sealed. His wife, Mamie Till, received a simple telegram from Army officials. Her husband, it said, died of the crime of “willful misconduct.”

Details of Private Till’s death only came to light ten years later during the trial of Roy Bryant and J.W. Milam, two white men in Mississippi charged with the gruesome murder of Louis and Mamie Till’s only son, Emmett Till. Bryant and Milam shot the 14-year-old through the skull and dropped his body into a river with a cotton gin fan tied around his neck. Till’s indiscretion was allegedly accepting a pubescent dare to whistle at Roy Bryant’s wife, Carolyn. 

During the trial, segregationist Mississippi senators James Eastland and John Stennis acquired Private Till’s sealed service record and released it to the media. Private Till, the charismatic and well-known serial philanderer was said to have murdered an Italian woman and raped two others. For this crime he was thus hung from a tree. Southern media outlets framed young Emmett Till as the spawn of a serial rapist—the evil seed of those who crave white feminine flesh. Thus, Bryant and Milam were held up as protectors of southern law and order and acquitted on all charges. A few months later they received four thousand dollars from a magazine to provide details of how they murdered young Emmett Till. 

This is proof. Our history is complicated. It is full of inspirational moments and unjust realities; beauty and pain; social progress and willful obstruction; loving compassion and extreme injustice. This is who we are as a nation. We are an exhibit of contradictions. Though it is easy and comforting to smooth over these contradictions, it is also very dangerous. Similarly, to view life along an either/or binary— "you are with us or against us”—makes life simple for some, but is morally vacuous. This is the very definition of ideology—an imaginary way of addressing the very real conditions of life.

Ideology belies Harvard University’s motto of Veritas, the truth. I suspect this is why in Greek mythology Aletheia, the goddess of truth, was often depicted naked holding a mirror. Until we have the courage to bare ourselves fully and look upon both our beauty and imperfections, we will continue to hide behind the masks of our own imaginations. The price of our culture and professed patriotism, then, is a lie.

These are the reasons that I have embraced a new sports hero in recent weeks. His name is Colin Kaepernick, and he is the quarterback for the San Francisco 49ers. He has drawn the ire of many sports fans this season because he remains seated silently on the bench during the singing of the Star Spangled Banner. His aim is to call attention to the unjust policing of communities of color, and how very few are being held accountable for the death of unarmed citizens at the hands of police. 

Some have called him anti-police—as if it is not possible to be a supporter of the police and anti-police brutality at the same time. Others have called him anti-American—as if it is not possible to appreciate one’s country and raise a voice against injustice. 

When asked about claims of disrespecting the military, Kaepernick expressed quite eloquently, “I have great respect for the men and women that have fought for this country…they fight for freedom, they fight for people, they fight for liberty and justice, for everyone. That’s not happening. People are dying in vain because this country isn’t holding up their end of the bargain, as far as giving freedom and justice to everybody.” 

I say we should all respect Mr. Kaepernick’s efforts. Here at Harvard, we encourage our students to stand up for what they believe as well-informed, compassionate moral citizens who promote justice and mercy.  Here at Harvard, we encourage students to sacrifice comfort and convenience in their time, in order to stand on the side of right for all time. And as a nation, we lionize figures like Muhammad Ali, and LGBTQ leaders of Stonewall like Marsha Johnson and Sylvia Rivera for their courage to buck convention in their time. So how dare we grow silent when someone actually seeks to promote justice and mercy by bucking convention in our time?

This is why I want everyone to know that I stand in solidarity with Mr. Kaepernick. I am not interested in affectatious claims of patriotism. There is not a song beautiful enough that should make us ignore the blues of America's oppressed. Nor is there a flag big enough to cover up this nation's injustices. But true patriotism involves having the courage to place the United States of America under the microscope of moral indignation. This is when we are fulfilling our duty as mature, responsible and morally engaged citizens. And this is when we are accepting the civic obligation of a true patriot. For the true lover of this country is willing to rebuke the nation when it is wrong, and do all that is in our power to make it right. Not by ignoring or excusing its sins, but by bringing the nation's sins out in the open. So if this means sitting down during the Star Spangled Banner to draw attention to injustice, so be it. Maybe one day all citizens of this nation just might be able to sing it, and actually believe it.