Harvard’s Memorial Church

How can you have a memorial to members of your community who fought for your enemies? What does that signal? How can justice and mercy co-exist?

I was surprised to learn of how Harvard honored its WW1 Veterans who had been students and who fought on both sides of the war at Memorial Church. After 20 years of reflection on it, I published a best-selling novel about it. This post focuses on the Memorial’s meaning, not the novel.

I found at Harvard a bridge between a community broken by war to a future where all people were welcome, as long as they renounced violence. The bridge is in the form of a memorial plaque in a shadowy corner of Harvard’s Memorial Church. The plaque remembers four German students from Harvard who had fought for the Kaiser during World War I. I had never seen anything like it, and I’ve seen my share of memorials. I’ve since learned it’s rare but not unique.

To include both sides of a horrific war in the same memorial takes courage and vision beyond our abilities.  Yet there are places, including Harvard’s Memorial Church, where reconciliation occurs in stone. And there are others—such as Harvard’s Memorial Hall, not two hundred yards from the church—where it does not.

It is hard to argue against either case.  It is not all right to start a cycle of violence. These cycles draw the victim in, and more often than not turn the victim into a perpetrator.  How do we interrupt vicious cycles which can last in families, communities, and countries for centuries?

My own life has been marred by violence. And yet, I have also lived in places where there is a fresh imagination about interrupting cycles of violence. I have been taught by leaders who walked with Martin Luther King, Jr. I have worked with leaders who have been decimated by unjust terror, including the atrocities of Uganda’s Lord’s Resistance Army. These friends have taught me what it means to have the gift of reconciliation while still demanding justice. They point to a new future of peace in spite of the wounds of the past (which do not go away with a peace treaty.)

In 1991 Harvard University’s Reverend Peter J. Gomes delivered a sermon entitled, “The Courage to Remember” that inspired me and set me on a 20 year path of exploring reconciliation in our world. It points to a path to restore connection. Here is a portion of what he said:

 Over on the North Wall, in the far back is a plaque in Latin, which most of you will be unable to read.  In translation it says this, “Harvard University has not forgotten its sons, who under opposite colors also gave their lives in the Great War.” And then there are listed four German members of the University who died in the service of the Kaiser in the First World War.  This is one of the more extraordinary memorials in this church.  You will notice that it is separated by a vast acreage from the memorial to the war dead of the first War in the Memorial Room. This was a controversial matter in 1932 when this church was built.  And the University authorities said that they could not in good conscience include the war dead of the enemy in the same place as the war dead of the Allies.  And it was my predecessor, the Chairman of the Board of Preachers, Willard Sperry, who with his colleagues said this is wrong.  “We cannot contravene the President and Fellows of Harvard College, who are we against them?” But we could improve upon their narrow vision and in this church we shall remember them.  And we did and we do and there they are. A reminder of the fact that humanity transcends the sides and there are no victors ultimately; there are only those to be commended to God.

This sermon became the basis for The End of Innocence, a book about learning to build a world where a community can heal after war. For more on the novel, go to http://www.allegrajordan.com.

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