Remembrance is a necessary and natural practice that helps form and define human communities. Without remembrance, we have few other means of locating ourselves within a larger narrative that tells us who we are. Indeed, memory helps us to construct our identity and thus, too, our reality. For Americans, Memorial Day is an important day of remembrance. It is a day set aside for publicly and privately remembering those men and women who have fought and died on behalf of their country, as well as those currently fighting in war. It is a day of ritual importance; without it, the American story would have few other rituals by which to make some worthwhile sense of its existence. Indeed, Memorial Day is a sacred day in the American liturgy—one which, along with Independence Day, is comparable to Good Friday, Easter, or Christmas for the Christian liturgical calendar.
In order to remember well, however, we must be willing to tell the truth about ourselves and the stories we find ourselves in. So what does truthful remembrance look like on Memorial Day? For starters, there are the basic facts: throughout the history of America, millions of its citizens have signed up to serve their country by fighting a distant enemy in war. For many of these millions, the tragic result has been death. There is no question either: all of these men and women exhibit immense courage while engaged in battle. For this, they should certainly be remembered. Perhaps even more, however, each one who has died with the intent of serving her country was one who bore the imprint of God deep within. For this above all, they should be remembered. They were fathers, sons, mothers, daughters, husbands, wives—they were children of God. For this, they should be remembered.
However, another question that we may ask is this: what does the manner of our remembrance on Memorial Day compel us toward? Does it compel us toward love of our enemies or toward our further disdain of them? Does it compel us toward pride or does it compel us toward mourning and repentance not only for our loved ones lost, but for our failing to choose, as so many faithfully have, something beyond mere violence or passivity?
Let us turn now to Christian narrative. What does the Christian remember? The Christian remembers that she is a child of God. She remembers the prophets who called the people of God out for failing to enact God’s justice. She remembers the birth, the life, and the death of Jesus. She remembers the resurrection of Jesus. Because we actively wait “between times” (Christ has brought the kingdom into our midst, but we still await its fullness) the Christian “remembers the future”, as John Zizioulas has said. In other words, we remember the death and resurrection of Jesus not merely as a far-removed fact of history, but as a present and future reality made manifest in the fullness of God’s reign on earth as it is in heaven—that for which we hope and toward which we strive as one body.
So far, I have spoken in somewhat broad terms, allowing ‘American’ and ‘Christian’ to peacefully coexist. But if we are to tell the honest truth about ourselves, we must examine this too. There are few who would disagree that the road of Christian discipleship is narrow—it is clearly stated in the scriptures, after all. But how we define this narrowness—or, rather, how we define what fits into this narrow passage—has long been up for discussion. But the fact remains: the road is narrow and those who enter are few. In addition, we know that Jesus asks us to take up our crosses, signaling that the result of our following him will inevitably cause us suffering, perhaps even death.
Allow me to put it another way. God does not desire a mere portion of our spirits, our bodies, our minds, our allegiances—he desires everything. In other words, as Robert McAfee Brown has said: if we are to give our whole Yes to God, then we must give our whole No to that which asks for a share of our loyalty or allegiance. Thus, if the Christ who taught us to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us demands our Yes, then what will we say to a nation that asks for our unquestioning allegiance—a nation whose very existence depends upon the drawing of imaginary borders which inevitably leads to the cultivation, not to mention the destruction, of enemies? I believe that if this God demands our Yes, then a nation which acts contrary to the character of God as revealed through Christ, a nation that demands the bodies of our brothers and sisters in war-making, must receive our unequivocal No when it comes to such violence.
But wait a minute. Have I been so numb as to forget that it’s only because of the wars my country has fought and won that I have the freedom to even speak publicly of the Prince of Peace in the first place? I do not believe I have been numb at all. My freedom—my true, deep spiritual and corporal freedom comes from God alone, through Christ, who upon the cross revealed that the powers do not have the last word, that their violence is only impotence, who in the empty tomb revealed that the power of death has forever been undone. It is simply false to suggest that my freedom to express faith depends not upon the just God who created me but upon a nation-state that so often ignores that which God demands of his children, namely that they enact authentic justice, show mercy to the marginalized, and quit killing—yes, even creating—enemies.
Be careful to hear what I have and have not said thus far. I have said that those who have fought in our country’s wars deserve our utmost respect—because they, too, are our beloved brothers and sisters. Is it possible for a Christian—she whose ultimate allegiance belongs to a just God—to give honor on Memorial Day? Absolutely. But it will inevitably be a different sort of honor. It will be honor for all human persons—those who have fought and died for their country and those who have died as a result of that violence. A Christian has no other choice but to honor both. In fact, the honor given by a Christian on Memorial Day, if it is grounded in the cross and resurrection of Christ, will be one that honors human life so deeply, that it can no longer condone war. It is, indeed, possible, even necessary, to respect those who have died courageously without condoning the context and overall action in which that bravery and death occurred. These men and women are, after all, individuals of great faith and courage. It is another force altogether which keeps us from seeing that violence or passivity are not the only options at our disposal. It is another force altogether which causes us to believe that we must kill for peace. As Martin Luther King, Jr. said the night before he was assassinated, it is no longer a matter of violence or nonviolence; it is a matter of nonviolence or nonexistence.
On this Memorial Day, Amos House, in the midst of a great cloud of witnesses who have gone before and who strive ahead even now, gives its No to the moral failure of war. It gives its Yes, however, to the path Jesus set before us: the path of suffering love for all persons—love, even, for enemies. Thus, we give our Yes to the God-given dignity of men and women who have fought in war, and thus our own honor and respect. We give our No, however, to the wars to which they have been summoned. We give our Yes to the families and the unequivocal emotional, spiritual, and physical support of families whose loved ones are at war this very moment. We give our No to the powers who sustain a complex system in which war is offered as the only viable option. As William Stafford has said, “violence is a failure of the imagination.” We give our Yes to the story of God’s redemption of the world exemplified and initiated in Jesus. We give our No to the story of a nation bent on violence, domination, and a general disrespect for human life in its entirety. We give our Yes to the hope that even these powers will one day acknowledge the God of justice. We give our No to despair and resignation in the face of current injustice. And finally, we give our Yes to our remembering, in word and deed, the ultimate sacrifice of Jesus. Thus, we give our No to the proposition that any more sacrificing is necessary to welcome the shalom-filled kingdom of God on earth as it is in heaven.
So this Memorial Day, we mourn those who have died. This Memorial Day, we mourn the reality of the war which has asked for the lives of our brothers and sisters—family, friend, and enemy. We celebrate the bravery of individual persons, but pray that such bravery may one day soon be used not for war but for proclaiming the earthly reign of a God who loves justice, whose son taught us that we must love our enemies, not because it makes sense, but because in the kingdom of God, if we would only acknowledge it in our midst, there are no “enemies”, only brothers and sisters.
Therefore, let us remember not only those who have died, but the ultimate reality of the past-present-future reign of God in which all of our swords will be beaten into plowshares, where the lion will lie down with the lamb, where we will learn war no more.