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Softly Call the Muster

27 April 2009

Some years ago, at the outset of the war in Iraq, Bishop Willimon rightly questioned the ease with which we justify violence and injustice against others in the pursuit of any number of geopolitical objectives.  Willimon is a pacifist – he came to the Methodist hierarchy from Duke Divinity, after all – but in this essay he left the door cracked ever so slightly for reconciliation with some who hold a different view.  Provided, that is, that we find within ourselves the capacity for regret:

God grant us someone who…has the grace to be “permanently uneasy” about the injustice that infects our earnest efforts to work justice–about, in short, our sin.


This past Tuesday, we were confronted with just such a man in the form of Dr. Robert Gates, our current and past Secretary of Defense, and past President of Texas A&M University.  (His time in Aggieland was cut short by the left’s characteristically rabid, vicious, and wholly unfair demonization of another decent and honorable man, Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, but we’ll save that for another day.)  Suffice to say for now that Gates was brought in by President George W. Bush to salvage what was left behind by the jackals and vultures…and then was asked to remain by President Obama because of Gates’ steady, sturdy loyalty and sure-handed competence.

In his 2009 address to Aggie Muster on San Jacinto Day on the Texas A&M campus, Dr. Gates exemplified the very regret and anguish for which Bishop Willimon was calling.  Gates is a warrior, but he is a reluctant one.  He holds no illusions about his complicity in violence and death.  He knows, like his foil Willimon, that the capacity for regret is central to the capacity to be human in the image of God.  This short speech (18 minutes) is worth watching.


As a faculty member of that institution, I often find it difficult to be as generous about the culture of Texas A&M as Dr. Gates is.  Opportunities abound for cynicism, paranoia, and fantasies of disengagement when I am faced with the mind-numbing inertia, institutional absurdity, and hypocrisy that curse a public institution like my alma mater.

But death has a way of shoving all of that to the back of the mind.  In that way, Aggie Muster is secular humanity’s answer to the Last Supper, a chance to focus the mind and the heart simultaneously on what death means, both to those who have passed and to those who remain in their debt.  Ceremonies and traditions are at their best when they center us on that which is eternal.


“Greater love hath no man than that he lay down his life for his friend.”  And yet even Christ’s sentiment – that truth, as lovely as it is – is not unalloyed, for it too often means that in the process of laying down my own life for my friend’s, I find I must take another man’s father, son, brother – lest my own sacrifice fail to secure my friend’s safety.


So here’s a toast to those who can find within themselves the will to lay aside smug self-assurance and concede that real life is a dirty, rotten mess and that our adversary has made it so, on purpose, so that in our moral ambiguity we are tempted to lose heart, to lose our resolve…the will, in other words, to concede that securing justice is a filthy, but necessary, but filthy vocation.


One Comment leave one →
  1. scot permalink
    30 April 2009 12:56 am

    “permanently uneasy” … I hadn’t read that before, and thanks for posting it. It resonates in many ways. These matters are never clean and comfortable, and maybe they never should be. The resolve must be present, but tempered with the understanding of consequences.

    I raise my glass with you, qb. With some some bitterness and regret, but thankful, and with full knowledge that ultimate justice is in His hands.

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