I enjoy Memorial Day. As an American, it feels right to remember and celebrate the sacrifices of our soldiers. As a Christian, however, I feel ambivalent about this kind of celebration. Pageantry, uniforms, parades, and the rhetoric of civil virtue — all of these things are seductive. It is so easy to fall into idolatry, to equate my polis with the City of God. I wonder whether any Christians cheered during Titus’ triumphal procession through Rome in 71 A.D., after his armies had destroyed Jerusalem. Here is how the Jewish historian Josephus described it:
Now it is impossible to describe the multitude of the shows as they deserve, and the magnificence of them all; such indeed as a man could not easily think of as performed, either by the labor of workmen, or the variety of riches, or the rarities of nature; for almost all such curiosities as the most happy men ever get by piece-meal were here one heaped on another, and those both admirable and costly in their nature; and all brought together on that day demonstrated the vastness of the dominions of the Romans; for there was here to be seen a mighty quantity of silver, and gold, and ivory, contrived into all sorts of things, and did not appear as carried along in pompous show only, but, as a man may say, running along like a river.
Among the spoils Titan carried into Rome were the treasures of the Second Jewish Temple:
But for those that were taken in the temple of Jerusalem, they made the greatest figure of them all; that is, the golden table, of the weight of many talents; the candlestick also, that was made of gold, though its construction were now changed from that which we made use of; for its middle shaft was fixed upon a basis, and the small branches were produced out of it to a great length, having the likeness of a trident in their position, and had every one a socket made of brass for a lamp at the tops of them. These lamps were in number seven, and represented the dignity of the number seven among the Jews; and the last of all the spoils, was carried the Law of the Jews. After these spoils passed by a great many men, carrying the images of Victory, whose structure was entirely either of ivory or of gold. After which Vespasian marched in the first place, and Titus followed him; Domitian also rode along with them, and made a glorious appearance, and rode on a horse that was worthy of admiration.
For all the excitement of Titus’ memorial parade, it must have been a frightening and sad day for Roman Christians, most of whom likely would still have thought of themselves as Jews. Indeed, the Biblical book of Revelation reflects Christian attitudes towards the Roman polis of this time:
After this I saw another angel coming down from heaven. He had great authority, and the earth was illuminated by his splendor. With a mighty voice he shouted: “Fallen! Fallen is Babylon the Great! She has become a home for demons and a haunt for every evil spirit, a haunt for every unclean and detestable bird. For all the nations have drunk the maddening wine of her adulteries. The kings of the earth committed adultery with her, and the merchants of the earth grew rich from her excessive luxuries.” Then I heard another voice from heaven say: “Come out of her, my people, so that you will not share in her sins, so that you will not receive any of her plagues; for her sins are piled up to heaven, and God has remembered her crimes. Give back to her as she has given; pay her back double for what she has done. Mix her a double portion from her own cup. Give her as much torture and grief as the glory and luxury she gave herself. In her heart she boasts,’I sit as queen; I am not a widow,and I will never mourn.’ Therefore in one day her plagues will overtake her: death, mourning and famine. She will be consumed by fire, for mighty is the Lord God who judges her. (Rev. 18:1-8)
Why are things so different for American Christians? Here are some snapshots of Church groups marching in the Hawthorne, New Jersey Memorial Day parade.
The first two show the representatives of the local Catholic parish:
The next is from a Reformed church:
Here is the Episcopal parish:
And a nondenominational evangelical church:
It’s interesting to note how each of these local church bodies expressed their differing relationships to culture through these marchers. The Catholic entry was old-school Northeast Italian Catholic: American civil religion as generational heritage. The Reformed church’s float offered an integration of the cross and the flag: American civil religion as common grace. The Episcopal church knit together themes of peace, prayer, flags, and troops: American aging hippie counterculture meets civil religion. And the independent evangelical church advertised its gospel outreach through “vacation Bible school” (complete with a web address): American consumer culture meets civil religion.
In contrast with Revelation 18’s sentiments towards Rome, the fact that such a variety of Christian congregations all participated without irony in a parade honoring armies and wars seems striking. Of course, there are two thousand years of history between John’s Apocalypse and Memorial Day 2010. The Constantinian Settlement, Christendom, the Reformation, the Enlightenment, and the close connection between Protestant Christianity and the founding of the United States, all help explain the difference: America in 2010 is not first century Rome, and our wars are not Rome’s wars.
And yet…. Has every American war been manifestly just, a clear defense of ordinary, peaceful people against oppression? Certainly not. Even if we concede that the “just war” criteria are universally valid (a concession I’m not prepared to make in light of other alternatives, such as the “just peacemaking” approach), many American military conflicts fail that test. It’s painful to remember that so much of United States territory was taken from Mexico and from native peoples by illegitimate force. World War I, in retrospect, seems like a pointless waste of millions of lives, fueled by stupidity and pride. The conflicts in Korea and Vietnam remain controversial, and there seem to be very strong arguments that the present Iraq War was initiated on false pretenses and contrary to international law. Even the American Revolution appears ambiguous when judged by “just war” standards. Would the Church today sanction violent revolution over unfair taxation? I hope not, given the ludicrous amount of property taxes we pay in New Jersey.
World War II, the “good war,” seems like the only modern American conflict that clearly was just in its inception. But even with the good war, there is the problem of how the fighting was carried out. The fire bombing of Germany and Japan, and of course the atomic bomb, introduce grave moral ambiguities into the story of the greatest generation.
So, I celebrate Memorial Day. I sincerely salute the veterans as they march or drive by my lawn chair. I eat hamburgers and drink iced tea. I remember the truth that “greater love has no man than this, that he lay down his life for his friends.” (John 15:13). I give thanks to God for freedoms of religion, assembly and speech, and for the prosperity of economic freedoms. But I wonder whether our religion has become perhaps just a bit too civil in the face of war.