Congress declared Memorial Day a Federal Holiday in the United States in 1968. However, the tradition of remembering soldiers who died in battle extends back to the Civil War. This honoring in Christian circles often draws comparisons between soldiers and Jesus, both of whom laid down their lives for others.
But there are underlying assumptions behind this rhetorical move, assumptions that contradict Jesus’ Gospel of the Kingdom. But rather than ignoring the behind the scenes problem or simply rejecting Memorial Day altogether, I wonder, is there a better way for those who are both citizens of the United States and the Kingdom of God to remember on Memorial Day?
Assumption 1: Grief and Glory
Originally, both in the historical practices and in the creation of the holiday, Memorial Day is about remembering American soldiers who died in battle. This remembrance involves a blend of grief and glory. Grief over those who made the ultimate sacrifice, but also glory because the individual died fighting for a noble cause. This nobility requires an assumption that the United States functions, as the American Navy self-advertises, “a force for good.”
For the Christian, there is only one true good, because only God is good. Therefore, when and where God rules and reigns, things are good. Moreover, God’s rule and reign is one of love, so where love rules, things are good.
Under this framework, does the assumption that the United States is a force for good hold true? Was the United States isolating itself as Hitler marched across Europe, waiting until Pearl Harbor to enter the war, a country operating as a force for good or based on self-interest? The Vietnam War was, to say the least, controversial. How about the Clinton years where many saw the American military functioning as the global police? Then there’s ignoring other humanitarian crises because there was no national interest to defend. What about preemptive shock and awe? Or the selling of arms to those responsible for supporting terrorism throughout the Middle East?
America isn’t perfect. Our current administration openly echoes the view of many who have gone before, frequently basing decisions on “America’s interests.” Such a focus on the benefit of one group of people, a “national self,” directly contradicts the Kingdom’s call to love your neighbor. And that’s before we enter the debate if the actions taken are beneficial for all Americans, or just the political powers and the pockets that back them.
Ultimately, if a Christian sustains the glory of the soldier who died for a noble cause, it is accompanied by a blind patriotism assuming that beyond what we can see, America acts as God’s right hand.
Assumption 2: Glory in Violence
A second assumption finds glory in the violence of war. This too is problematic for those following Jesus as, in the First Century, violence defined the way of the Roman Empire. Peace through power and the sword fueled the response, “Caesar is lord.” Rather than the words, “Fear not!” the chorus of the Empire was, “Fear Rome.”
Jesus’ Gospel of the Kingdom undermines the fear and violence of this age. On the cross, Jesus reveals the futility of violence. Jesus takes violence to the grave. Therefore, for the Christian, there can be no glory in violence.
If American’s soldiers are remembered because they gloriously died on the battlefield, then it can only be because they gave their lives defending a new kind of Rome.
Memorial Day: A Different Perspective
So how can you and I remember those who have fallen on Memorial Day, while embracing Jesus’ Gospel of the Kingdom?
I would propose, instead of a turn towards nationalism or the glory of violence, we remember, examine, and pray.
We remember that we live in a world opposed to the Kingdom of God. One where self-interest all too often rises above the good of our neighbor. A world where power through might is on display far more often than power through service. Those lives that ended on fields of battle are abundant evidence that God’s Kingdom has not yet fully come on earth.
Second, we examine our own lives and neighborhoods. Where, in the places where we live, is this same void of the Kingdom evident? We can start with our schedules and move on to our family budgets. From there we can consider our homes . The next ripple would include our block and the one after our neighborhood. We won’t need to extend beyond those bounds to find ample opportunities to function as the people of God seeking to come alongside Jesus who is already at work in those spaces.
Finally, we pray. As Jesus taught. “May your Kingdom come and your will be done.”
That’s how Christians can remember on Memorial Day.