Can You Be Loyal to God and Country?
By Logan Mehl-Laituri
May 25, 2012
Memorial Day is a time to remember those who have died in war. As a soldier-turned-pacifist, I have mixed feelings about the national holiday—and you should as well.
Originally known as Decoration Day, Memorial Day was inaugurated by freed black slaves in South Carolina honoring Union soldiers who died before the end of the Civil War. The day of May 30 was chosen specifically because it was not the anniversary of a battle. It was a day to mourn, to reflect and to move forward with the past in mind.
The National Holidays Act of 1971 moved Memorial Day to the last Monday in May, effectively reducing it to merely mark the onset of summer. In 2002, the Veterans of Foreign Wars issued a statement decrying the “nonchalant” observance of Memorial Day. No longer tied to a specific day of the month but a whole weekend, Memorial Day seems to have become an excuse to huddle around the grill or watch the Indianapolis 500. This is not, however, the origin of my mixed feelings.
As a veteran, I am a member of a particular (martial) community with which I strongly identify. When I became a Christian and laid down my weapon, I did not ask to leave the military. Though this might seem like I was not committed to the pacific convictions that emerged as a result of my conversion, Christian convictions should make us very uneasy about the supremacy given to war and those who fight therein. Does honoring warriors give unwarranted credence to war? I can say with confidence that it does not, but my confidence comes from knowing many of those who have fought, which is a luxury not every Christian (or American, for that matter) is afforded. Fewer and fewer are being asked to fight more and more while we share less and less in common with those who have served.
It takes no shortage of character to face the trials and tribulations of war. It certainly is hell, no doubt. Throughout history, war has been waged with the help of conscription—most recruits have been draftees. Today that isn’t the case, and sometimes because recruits join of their own free will, pacifists like myself can mistakenly attribute to them the evils of the wars in which they fought. But their choice illustrates the very reason they are deserving of honor, since they knew the risks and faced the threat by their own volition. They believed in something that was worth a heavy sacrifice, and that belief moved them to act.
However, not everyone believes in the same things. For example, many Christians believe war should not be the primary means of conflict resolution and honoring fallen soldiers for them feels contradictory. In those cases, can a person still honor others who have followed their convictions to their graves?
As early as St. Stephen, Christians have been willing to die for what they believe in, often under circumstances they could have easily avoided. With all their heart, they committed to follow Jesus to the ends of the Earth, and sometimes the end of their lives. It is this same sense of loyalty and service that fuels many soldiers. Having this appreciation for the martyrs helps us understand what drives soldiers.
It is not beyond the imagination to be able to distinguish service and sacrifice from the expectation to kill our enemies. Soldiers and martyrs are very distinct from one another, but in some ways they are very alike. The hearts of martyrs and soldiers relate in some ways, even if what they do with their hands are very different. It is not beyond our means to honor soldiers’ willingness to sacrifice, even learn from it, without agreeing about the wars in which they fought. You can honor the warrior without necessarily honoring the war.
The question of respecting soldiers while being critical of war is incredibly timely. Memorial Day is supposed to be a solemn day of reflection. Christians reflect with prayer and fasting, not in self-indulgent feasts. When we mistreat Memorial Day with nonchalance or celebration, it does not go unnoticed. It tells those who do serve that their sacrifice will be glossed over (“dog-and-ponied up,” soldiers say) or slip by unobserved. We’ve been at war longer than ever before in our nation’s history. Soldiers and veterans are committing suicide at greater rates than we’ve ever recorded. It is an ominous indication that something has gone terribly wrong, and apathy multiplies the tragedy.
So, what can we do?
Break down the barriers between veteran and civilian. Go to the local VA Hospital or Vet Center and volunteer. You might hear some incredible stories of fallen friends and enemies that will make your heart sink (or soar). Those we memorialize should have names and faces.
Visit a national cemetery if you can. 3pm local time is the designated hour for reflection, but even five minutes is better than nothing. Find the time to remember those who gave up their lives for their friends and fellow citizens. Pray that their memories are not reduced to merely another cry for war.
Let service members dictate how their memories are articulated. Consider not asking them to stand and be recognized; their wartime service may have been traumatic. Take the time to approach them personally and ask how they would prefer to remember their service and have their memories shared.
Ask to see who in your extended family has military service, and learn more about their time in uniform. The familial connection may prove profound, but use caution and be sensitive to cues that suggest a memory is off limits.
As citizens of a kingdom that knows no boundaries, make this Memorial Day one that also celebrates our nation’s enemies who have died in war. Undo the dehumanization that so often occurs in combat by recognizing that there may be justifiable motivations they hold.
Honoring people and their service, even those who are no longer with us, helps shape a culture that cultivates people serious about their convictions and prepared to see them through. The sacrifices made in war are not the same as Christian sacrifices, but we can learn much from the self-subordination and commitment to a cause that soldiers embody.
Remembering is central to our two-thousand-year-old faith. Sometimes it is a chore, and sometimes it is a joy. For a great number of soldiers and veterans, the pain associated with remembering their fallen comrades is great, and the burden is heavy. Don’t force it upon their shoulders alone. More importantly, it is remembering that we perform at communion, which for many traditions is the central act of faith. By remembering those in our Body (especially soldiers, on Memorial Day) who are often marginalized by either their undesired elevation as heroes or their being a mere ornament to the Memorial Day parties, we are re-membering our dismembered body of Christ.
Logan Mehl-Laituri is the author of Reborn on the Fourth of July: The Challenge of Faith, Patriotism and Conscience (InterVarsity Press).