A sermon for Memorial Day

The Battle of Iwo Jima, February – March 1945, was enormously bloody for Americans as well as for Japanese, who waged a suicidal defense. When it was over, Rabbi Roland B. Gittelsohn (1910-1995), the first Jewish chaplain the Marine Corps ever appointed, was asked by the American commander to speak at a unified memorial service.  The Christian chaplains refused to participate in a service led by a rabbi, so Gittelsohn spoke to a very diminished gathering. His ecumenical sermon became Marine Corps legend and were widely published.

His sermon complements the words by Frederick Douglass spoken in 1869 about America being a “composite nation.” The following are excerpts.

Here lie men who loved America because their ancestors generations ago helped in her founding, and other men who loved her with equal passion because they themselves or their own fathers escaped from oppression to her blessed shores. Here lie officers and men, Negroes and whites, rich men and poor . . . together. Here are Protestants, Catholics, and Jews together. Here no man prefers another because of his faith or despises him because of his color. Here there are no quotas of how many from each group are admitted or allowed. Among these men, there is no discrimination. No prejudices. No hatred. Theirs is the highest and purest democracy …….

Whosoever of us lifts his hand in hate against a brother, or who thinks himself superior to those who happen to be in the minority, makes of this ceremony and the bloody sacrifice it commemorates, an empty, hollow mockery. To this, then, as our solemn duty, sacred duty do we the living now dedicate ourselves: to the right of Protestants, Catholics, and Jews, of white men and Negroes alike, to enjoy the democracy for which all of them have here paid the price.……

We here solemnly swear that this shall not be in vain. Out of this and from the suffering and sorrow of those who mourn this will come, we promise, the birth of a new freedom for the sons of men everywhere.

(Thanks to Rabbi Dov Taylor)

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