Faces on Faith: Silence and respect
I used to live in Baltimore, and I have visited Washington many times. But a few years ago, on a cold November day, I finally got there. As my wife and I braved the cold winds we made our way through the impressive grounds. We visited the Kennedy graves, and were reminded of the tragic deaths of John and Robert – as well as the untimely deaths of little Patrick and an unnamed infant. Several quotes from JFK lined the wall that enclosed the graves and the eternal flame, including his well-known call to action from his inaugural address: “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.” (Jan. 20, 1961)
From there we made our way to the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. We passed many graves on the way. A few with family names in our own backgrounds. There are some 35 or so Bradburys, my wife’s family name, buried at Arlington. And close to 20 Danners. No doubt some are kin.
The Tomb of the Unknown is guarded twenty-four hours a day. The guards all undergo a rigorous training schedule before being allowed to “walk” – the term used to describe the half-hour and one-hour time of pacing in front of the tomb. In front of the tomb there is a long, narrow black mat. Guards take exactly 21 steps, click their heels, turn around, wait 21 seconds, and then march back, taking the same number of steps. Twenty-one, “which symbolizes the highest military honor that can be bestowed – the 21-gun salute.” (www.arlingtoncemetery.mil)
At several spots near the tomb, and at other locations in the cemetery as well, one sees signs, embossed with three words: Respect and Silence. And while folks talked quietly as they wended their way among the other graves, the people sitting and watching the guards at the Tomb of the Unknown were absolutely silent. The clicking heels of the guard reverberated across the valley below with nary a word. The ceremony – the walk – was impressive in and of itself, as was the tomb which bears the remains of several anonymous soldiers. But it was the silence that impressed me the most. For we Americans are a rather noisy lot – welcoming chatter and background noise almost everywhere we go. But there at the tomb, folks clearly showed respect as they kept a quiet watch.
Coupled with the Martin Luther King Memorial, and the new World War II Memorial that we had seen the night before, it reminded me again of how important it is that we have such places. Places that remind us of the great price that has been paid by so many who have gone before us. Places that remind us that the highest good is service to others.
The silence at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier was appropriate. What can one possibly say in the face of such sacrifice? Yet the silence is not enough. If all one does is add Arlington to one’s list of tourist spots visited and American rituals observed, it is at best a hollow tribute to the fallen. For ultimately, the Tomb of the Unknown should serve to remind us that we too are called to serve the greater good. We too are called to rise above our own concerns and give of ourselves to others. It may not be in the military. It may be through our church. It may be as part of a civic organization. It may be done with others in a charitable cause. It may be as part of a political party, a union or a professional association. But whatever the vehicle we use for service, memorials like the Tomb of the Unknown call us to realize we are not put on this earth to simply while away our time. We are not put here to simply pursue our own desires. No, we are put here to bring good into the lives of the men and women, girls and boys, who share our planet. We are put here to serve.
The Rev. Dr. John H. Danner is the senior pastor at Sanibel Congregational United Church of Christ.