Memorial Day has always been one of the most important holidays for my family. As I mentioned in a previous blog post, I am from what can safely be called a military family, with my father, one grandfather, and five uncles all serving in our armed forces, representing all four major branches among them. It is on this day each year that we pause to give special thanks to those who have served in our country’s military, according the highest respect to those who have given the ultimate sacrifice of their very lives to secure and protect our freedoms. Given my military family heritage, it is not surprising that I was socialized from the earliest age into an unquestioned, devout patriotism, which was never on display so proudly and publicly as on Memorial Day.
I was home for Memorial Day this year, which allowed me to rehearse many of our family rituals from my youth. My 12-hour day yesterday consisted of two Memorial Day services (with accompanying parades) in two different towns, three picnics, and visits to five cemeteries to lay flowers and pay respects. In many ways, the events of the day were as touching, sincere, and heartfelt as I remembered them. I even shed a tear at one service when the local marching band played the Marine’s Hymn, which brought to mind my Marine father on this first Memorial Day without him.
However, despite recollections of cherished memories, my adult sensibilities intruded, giving me a much more discerning eye through which to observe the day’s events. The patriotic premises I uncritically absorbed in my childhood have long since evolved, tempered over the years by a healthy dose of biblically-informed skepticism of nationalism and militarism. I was reminded that the inextricable linkage of patriotism, militarism, and American Christianity in our national narrative is alive and well – a marriage that I find distressing and theologically dubious at best.
At least in small towns like those where my family lives, Memorial Day services put on display the way in which the Christian faith remains co-opted by the national and military narratives of the American people. Expectedly, both services I attended rehearsed our cherished freedoms and honored our servicemen and women for their sacrifices. But the commendations went much further than that. There were prayers to God for national blessing and undisputed claims of America being the greatest nation on earth. Imagery abounded of America as a distinctly Christian nation and the related need for us to get God back into the public square “where He belongs.” It was implied throughout that God guides our national ship, and consequently, our national causes must be the very causes of God. On this day, unlike any other, we see pastors and soldiers side by side, as if there were no contradiction between the kingdoms of God and America.
What concerns me in this display of Christian patriotism is how easily we think that God is on our side and that what America does may as well be what God is doing in the world – especially regarding our military. It can perpetuate a dangerous “us vs. them” mentality, with “us” always being on God’s side of the ledger and our causes always being just, simply because it involves our troops. Also alarming is the uncritical way in which our American and Christian identities no longer seem separate, making it anathema to suggest that our patriotism might need correction (instead of unabashed support) from our biblical faith.
Like most touchy and complicated issues, nuance is often lost in our world of sound bites, fundraising, and political gain. But I’d like to try and walk the fine line as a reluctant patriot. I want to honor those men and women who have bravely and nobly served our country, for in doing so, I honor my own family. I want to be grateful for America’s successes, not taking for granted the many ways in which America truly has been a noble and even unprecedented experiment in democracy. And I want to acknowledge the freedoms we indeed enjoy, ones only longed for by many in other lands and times. But I want to stop short of worshipping America. I never want to place America where only Christ should be, and I want my allegiances to be properly ordered and never confused.
If I could have scripted yesterday’s events, I would have liked to hear more talk about peace, not war. The fact that men and women of any nation must die in combat reveals that we live in a fallen and imperfect world, one waiting to be redeemed. It reveals what we have not yet learned – not the art of war – but the art of peace. In these times of violence, I would be more comforted by images of swords beaten into ploughshares and spears into pruning hooks, instead of battleships and soldiers never coming home. I would like America to honor our peacemakers as reverently as our soldiers. And if we want to invoke God, I would like to hear about God’s kingdom, the one where the lion lays down with the lamb. And we could rehearse God’s promises – not for military victory (which I don’t find in my Bible anyway) – but about how a suffering servant, who told us to turn the other cheek and offered no word in his own defense before being led to death, has somehow overcome the world. That would be my idea of a Memorial Day.
Bob Francis is the organizing and policy assistant for Sojourners/Call to Renewal.