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    Memorial Day

    Today was a day off for me, but I didn’t do much in the way of celebrating Memorial Day, beyond reflecting a bit. I was reading one of my favorite books, the printed companion to the PBS series The Story of English, which we watched when it was broadcast in the mid-80’s. This particular passage moved me even more than usual:

    Augustine and his monks landed in Kent, a small kingdom which, happily for them, already had a small Christian community. The story of the great missionary’s arrival at the court of King Aethelbert is memorably reported by Bede:

    When, at the king’s command, they had sat down and preached the word of life to the king and his court, the king said: “Your words and promises are fair indeed; they are new and uncertain, and I cannot accept them and abandon the age-old beliefs that I have held together with the whole English nation. But since you have travelled far, and I can see that you are sincere in your desire to impart to us what you believe to be true and excellent, we will not harm you. We will receive you hospitably and take care to supply you with all that you need; nor will we forbid you to preach and win any people you can to your religion.”

    After this, perhaps the earliest recorded example of English tolerance, the liberal-minded king arranged for Augustine to have a house in Canterbury, the capital of his tiny kingdom. He kept his word: Augustine’s mission went ahead unhindered.

    It’s hard to imagine the generosity of character that must have required. The Germanic tribes had gotten to Britain through bloody invasions themselves. They’d begun to build a civilization but were off on a remote island and constantly exposed to the elements; the system of magic and rituals through which their rudimentary understanding of nature was mediated provided their only meager feeling of control over it. It must have had immense psychological importance for them. But here we have the germ of liberty, of the ability of people with fundamentally different beliefs about the way life works to live together. Of course, “English tolerance” has had to take up arms to defend itself a lot since then. But 1400 years later, men are still sacrificing themselves for it, because it’s worth it.

    With gratitude, we remember.

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