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The Problem of Incomplete Liberation

After a yearlong Covid imprisonment, Americans are celebrating liberation over Memorial Day in 2021. Masks are coming off, signs tell us businesses are hiring, and confidence is growing that the emergency is over. We celebrate because we think liberation is upon us—but the party has started before the victory is secure.

Memorial Day is a time for remembering past sacrifices. This year it is also important to remember that victories can be lost when success appears to be in sight.

The history of the twentieth century was shaped in part by two incomplete victories. An armistice halted the slaughter of World War I before victorious armies entered Germany. A vengeful treaty imposed reparations and penalties that undermined the chances for democracy and resulted in popular support for Hitler’s claim that Germany was betrayed, not defeated, as proved by the fact that enemy armies never penetrated the homeland. The success of this lie prompted Allied forces in World War II to insist on unconditional surrender and occupation before hostilities ceased in Europe.

The Second World War was yet another incomplete victory. Fascist totalitarianism was defeated by an alliance of democracies with communist totalitarianism in Russia. Although military combat ended, the war did not end but entered a forty-five-year stand-off punctuated with limited outbreaks of hostilities in Korea and Vietnam. The world lived in fear of a Third World War which would have been a deadlier resumption of World War II. The Helsinki Accords, signed by thirty-five nations in 1975, became a kind of agreement moderating hostile relations in Europe. Nevertheless, persistence was required as the Cold War continued until near the end of the century when the Soviet Union and its empire collapsed.

On this Memorial Day, Americans can find valuable guidance in the archetypal liberation story in the book of Exodus. As we all know, Passover is a celebration of escape from bondage that is perpetuated by retelling the story in Jewish families as they have a special meal. A notable feature of the original Passover was that it was a special banquet to celebrate a liberation that had not yet occurred. The banquet itself is constituted in a way to remind participants that victory is still on the horizon.

The account in Exodus is clear that the meal was in two parts that followed separate rules (Exodus 12:1-28). Non-Jews were among those who left Egypt following Moses and special rules applied to them for each part of the meal. Sacrificial meat was eaten in the one part and unleavened bread was at the center of a second part of the celebration. Getting ready for a sudden and unplanned departure was symbolized in the bread and the hardship to be encountered was anticipated with bitter herbs. Americans who grill meat for party consumption are replicating the enjoyment of one part of the Passover meal. But the Hebrews in Egypt were fueling themselves for a journey, not celebrating final victory. Unleavened bread is a perpetual reminder that liberation had not yet been attained just because prospects looked good.

Leaving Egypt was the beginning of a series of trials as a water barrier and the Egyptian army were overcome in order to face the arduous crossing of the Sinai desert. Mounting hardships led to complaints that a better life, even in slavery, had been left behind. The escapees lost resolve as they had to cross yet another water barrier to enter the land they were seeking. This phase of the story ends in failure of a generation of Hebrews through loss of courage and persistence.

On this Memorial Day hope is abroad. A new president is guiding us out of pandemic and following a bold plan for rebuilding the American economy. The plan sets us on a course for several decades as the more serious crisis of environmental change is being targeted. It would be far easier to focus on restarting the economy rather than overhauling it. The voices of opposition were overcome initially, but they are being amplified by voices of caution that would slow down implementation of the entire plan.

An incomplete liberation at this point in history would resume the Reagan era status quo that generated near economic collapse in 2008 and a pandemic and recession in 2020. It would be the equivalent of the incomplete victory in 1918 that led to a deadlier war twenty years later. Failing to tackle the climate crisis now could be wasting our last opportunity to head off an apocalypse that could surpass the dreaded World War III of the twentieth century.

The United States established a wonderful precedent by rebuilding our enemies after World War II and turning them into friends. The investment in the Marshall Plan and in transforming Japan has more than paid off. Comparable generous investments in the future are now required. Making justice and equity central to economic transformation is essential. Some are calling for reparations to African Americans as part of rebuilding. Although serious injustice to African Americans is undeniable, they are not the only peoples of color who have been victimized. A far better approach is to invest in all who suffer poverty and injustice in a new kind of Marshall Plan for an inclusive America. The desired outcome should seek to realize the Beloved Community and its blessings for everyone in our country, irrespective of their legal status.

Celebrating Memorial Day combines party activities with rituals to honor sacrifices that made our way of life possible. Like the original Passover described in Exodus, it should be a time of dedication to the future when liberation from the pandemic and recession are to be complete. It is a time for dedication to pursue the full blessings of the Beloved Community. We must also fortify ourselves for the struggle to overcome the growing climate crisis that threatens life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness of all the peoples of the globe.

Edward G. Simmons is a Vanderbilt Ph.D. who teaches history at Georgia Gwinnett College. He is a Bible scholar, Unitarian Christian, and Sunday School teacher in a Presbyterian Church. He is the author of Talking Back to the Bible and two chapters in The Spiritual Danger of Donald Trump: 30 Christian Evangelicals on Justice, Truth, and Moral Integrity edited by Ronald J. Sider.

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