Memorial Day is the major holy day of American civic religion. More than Presidents’ Day, more than Labor Day and even more than Independence Day, Memorial Day is set apart for a service of commemoration of a particular narration of what has made America America. The power of the saluting rifles, the glory of the roaring F-16s, the waving red, white and blue, and the parading military is public liturgy, evoking worship from each citizen. Although the celebration feeds the acceptance and perpetuation of the largest military the world has ever known, the focus of this worship service is the memorial for the fallen soldiers. My question is: should we as Christians participate in Memorial Day?
A few months ago, I was asked to write a letter to my grandfather to honor him for his service in the army during World War II. As a Christian, I wrestle with the reality of violence and its correlates of war, nationalism and soldiers. This is not a new struggle for we know that the early church debated whether one could be a Christian and still be a soldier. But I do realize that we live in a violent world and that our actions and reactions are not always black and white. Although my views on my grandfather’s military service are certainly different than his own, I wanted to honor him for risking his life, for fighting for something greater than himself, for the suffering he witnessed and experienced in his body and soul. And I honored him for surviving and for living his life as a veteran by trying to honor those who did not survive.
There is something to be said for committing to care for one’s place, to one’s community and to one’s people. E.M. Forster said that if it came to a choice between dying for his country and dying for his friend, he hoped that he would have the courage to deny his country. However, Alasdair MacIntyre criticized Forster, saying that if anyone can formulate such a contrast, they have no country and that they are a citizen of nowhere. Still, a major problem with our commitment to country, to friends, and to citizenry is the increasing tribalism, which grounds its collective identity through the exclusion of others. This is easily visible on Memorial Day as we honor our victims of war but not their victims of war. As a Christian participating in the Memorial Day liturgy, I think the honoring of the victims of our “collateral damage” would be a good start in differentiating ourselves from non-Christian commemoration. After all, we are the “holy people” that is called to love the strangers and even our enemies.
This can be a first step but not the last, as the waters of this strange baptism of the military run deep. A dear Christian lady that I know attaches to the signature of all her correspondence this declaration: “Only two defining forces have ever offered to die for you. Jesus Christ and the American GI. One died for your soul, the other for your freedom.” Sadly, the enshrinement of soldiers alongside Jesus is not uncommon.
This not only wrongly legitimizes the American military, it is also heretical by projecting salvific power onto the American GI. Here the soldier is not only an American idol; they are also the sacrifice placed on the altar of American claims to power. As Christians, we say that all power, honor and glory belong to a slain Lamb – an image that counters and subverts all worldly idols and their claims to power.
Also, Christians do not understand freedom and conferred by the State but rather by Christ. He whom the Son sets free is free indeed. That is why the heroes of the church are the martyrs: those who are free to lay down their lives for others. It is a little disturbing that many churches set aside time during their worship services to honor the soldiers who have died but do not set aside time during their services to honor the Christian martyrs, who lived and died as examples and witnesses to our faith.
The major irreconcilable difference between the American GI and Christ is that the soldier is commissioned to kill for the American people, while Jesus chose not to kill but rather to die for me and for all peoples, while we were still his enemies.
Ultimately, for Christians, America’s Memorial Day must be subordinated to the Church’s “Memorial Day,” which we celebrate every time we partake of the Eucharistic liturgy: taking the cup and the broken bread in remembrance of him who chose to die for us rather than to destroy us. We remember, ingest and proclaim his death until he comes. That is a Memorial we can truly celebrate.