Anyone looking for the high-church rites of American civil religion need only pay a visit to Arlington National Cemetery, where the symbols of government, power, duty and sacrifice are blended into the religious traditions of those who have died.
The same thing happens in major cities, especially in New York, when police officers and firefighters die in the line of duty. This is made perfectly clear in a lengthy and fascinating news feature from the metro desk of The New York Times, following the stunning execution of officers Wenjian Liu and Rafael Ramos.
All of the political intrigue is included in this story, of course, amid the rising and very public tensions between the city's police and Mayor Bill de Blasio. If you have not already seen it, watch the video at the top of this post for one of the key events.
But this story focuses on the next step -- the funerals. Will the mayor speak? What happens if he chooses to do so? The mayor has already stated that he will attend both events.
"Events"? How about "worship services"? This is where the story, briefly, gets very interesting:
... (The) backgrounds of both officers diverge from the Irish and Italian roots of the department, which has rapidly diversified over the last decade. Where once services could be counted on to be held in Roman Catholic churches, the venues now more closely mirror the cultural complexities of the city, and the world.
For Mr. Ramos, 40, the services will be in a Protestant setting, the Christ Tabernacle Church, in Glendale, N.Y., with a wake Friday and the burial Saturday.
For Mr. Liu, 32, who did not attend a formal religious institution, preferring to pray at home, the logistics of finding a large enough space for his funeral are still being worked out. Both are awaiting relatives from outside the city: Mr. Liu’s will arrive from China, with the help of officials securing travel documents, and Mr. Ramos’s from Puerto Rico, where his roots lie.
“This department was a very Catholic department many years ago,” said Lt. Tony Giorgio, who, as the longtime leader of the department’s Ceremonial Unit, has orchestrated hundreds of funerals since the late 1980s. “Over the years, we have had to diversify the unit, get to know these other religions,” he said. “We have to know those services. Sometimes they’re in Hebrew. Spanish. It could be an Asian language.”
Now, when I read this I thought several things.
(1) The roots of one of the officers were in Puerto Rico, but he was Protestant rather than Catholic. Surely the leaders of the police department's ceremonial office were familiar with Catholic rites in a Latino setting, as opposed to an Irish or Italian parish?
(2) So what was being said here? Maybe this was hinting that the mayor and other civic officials could face the challenge of visiting a charismatic or even fully Pentecostal congregation? That could be interesting, for both spiritual and political reasons. Might a Pentecostal pastor feel led to deliver a prophetic message to this particular mayor, in the presence of the press?
(3) Also, if Liu was, to use a common press term these days, a "none," what might his non-traditional service look like?
The story does make it clear that, one way or another, the service will be packed with intentional and unintentional symbolism. I thought this passage was striking:
Often, contradictions abound at such affairs. Inside churches or other houses of worship, words of praise and healing are spoken. Outside, officers stand in white gloves and blouses, sometimes in the wicked cold or summer sun, all through such ceremonies, sometimes grumbling about what they see as departmental shortcomings or political hypocrisies. There is crying, and there is rage.
And also this, at the very end:
To be laid to rest, the officer is dressed in a blue uniform, the shield pinned to the chest. At church, the coffin is borne by a set team of officers who are trained in the task, not any who knew the officer.
After the ceremony, two buglers play taps as officers form ranks outside. The department’s official flag -- or an American flag if the officer is a veteran -- is folded and handed to the family. The officer’s shield is removed, put in a box and stored. The number it bears is never used again.
P.O. Liu: 2118. P.O. Ramos: 6335.
As I said, this is a fine story. But what is missing? Once again, this is a story that focuses on "events" that are actually liturgical rites of one kind or another. Might the members of the Times team have dug a bit deeper into the religious content of the story? I am sure that they would have found more poignant details and even a few potential landmines.
Call Ramos' pastor. Now.
UPDATE: Minutes after clicking "publish" on this post, I saw the following link in the Religion News Service morning e-newsletter. There is another strong religious theme in the Ramos tragedy:
NEW YORK -- One of the two New York City cops murdered in an ambush was just one hour away from graduating from a volunteer chaplain program when he died, according to the interfaith organization which trained him. Officer Rafael Ramos, a married father who recently celebrated his 40th birthday, had spent ten weeks studying to become a certified chaplain with the New York State Chaplain Task Force, according to the group's president, Rev. Marcos Miranda.
Gunman Ismaiiyl Brinsley shot Ramos and his fellow officer Wenjian Liu in the head at around 2:47 p.m. on Saturday. Ramos' chaplain class was scheduled to graduate at around 4 p.m. that day, Miranda said, adding that he was not sure if Ramos had been planning to attend the commencement ceremony. Miranda described Ramos as an "amazing" man who was excited to become a chaplain, telling NBC News that the officer had mentioned going into full-time ministry after retiring from the New York Police Department. He said his organization hopes to present Ramos' chaplain credentials to his family at the officer's memorial service.