Memorial Day, though it’s not a Christian holy day and though we won’t change out the paramant colors to observe it, it’s a tricky time for preachers of the Gospel. It’s tricky not because the valor of the fallen lacks honor but because the story of America, particularly when its cast in terms of those who’ve died in its service, is a story that is more powerfully felt by many Christians than the Gospel story. You don’t need sociological surveys on the Nones to give you a picture of religion in America; the fact is (and maybe always has been) many of us are more moved by the love of those who lay their lives down for their countrymen than we are moved by Christ who lays his life down not for his neighbors and nation but for the ungodly.
War, as Stanley Hauerwas acknowledges, is beautiful in the noble and heroic virtues it can call out of us and therein lies the danger for Christians for it presents a powerful counter-liturgy to the eucharistic liturgy.
Like all liturgy, the liturgy of patriotism forms us. It’s meant to form us. And, especially, our children.
Just a few weeks ago, I attended the Nats home opener with my boys. The entire field was covered, like a funeral pall on a casket, with a giant flag. Wounded warriors were welcomed out and celebrated. Silence was observed. Colors were processed in with priestly soberness. Jets flew overhead and anthems were sung. There was even organ music. People around me in the stands covered their hearts and many, I noticed, had tears in their eyes. If there’d been an altar call my boys, my wife and I, and the Mennonite family 3 rows up would’ve been the only ones left in the stands.
It was a kind of worship service, a liturgy, that was discipling us into being certain kinds of people who view the world through a particular narrative. It was preparing us, equipping us, to respond ourselves in a certain way if/when called upon.
(My friend tells me this ‘liturgy’ is even thicker at NASCAR races, which I take to be ironic since only Southern Baptists go to NASCAR and they’re all on record as loathing liturgy. But maybe it’s just the Christian liturgy they’re against.)
I’m not suggesting (as some might do) that there’s anything wrong with any of the above. I’m instead suggesting that Christians (at least those in America) must be mindful about seeing in it a temptation that is ever before us; namely, the lure to make our national story more keenly felt than our Gospel story. Just because golden calves seem stupid doesn’t mean we’re any more immune than Israel from offering God a qualified obedience. If we can’t serve God and Mammon, as Jesus teaches, then why are we so cavalier about God and Country?
The Christian ‘We’ can include but never necessarily so the American ‘We.’ God has called not our nation but first Israel and now with it the Church to be a light to the nations. The Church, not our nation not any nation, is the means by which God has elected to finish his New Creation. As a leader of the Church, I think it’s a dumb strategy too, more so even than you, but as a preacher in the Church I’m stuck with the message I’ve been given to relay.
Christians, after all, are not, from the vantage of the fullness of time, invested in democracy. We’re not republicans or democrats. We’re theocrats. We live in America, yes, but we belong to a Kingdom. We may vote for a president (or we may not, Christians are free of any ‘duty’ to vote), but by our baptism we pledge allegiance to the Prince of Peace. And that peace, we believe, is wrought not by the sword/gun/battleship/drone but was wrought by the cross.
If you doubt the danger I’ve posed actually exists, consider how no one in our country thinks it unusual to raise their children to love their country, to serve their country and even to die for it- that’s what the ‘liturgy’ of the baseball game intends. They even sing the National Anthem at my boys’ swim meets. Fine.
Except…people do think their kids loving God, serving God and possibly suffering for God should be left up to their own ‘choice.’ The only convictions we’re willing to inculcate into our children for which they might one day have to suffer and die is not our Christian convictions but our American ones. It’s just such a prejudice that produces nonsense like the statement: ‘I believe Jesus Christ is Lord…but that’s just my personal opinion.’ And its just such nonsense that makes one rightly wonder if the Church is really the entity the separation of Church of State is meant to protect and serve, for so long as my faith is relegated to the private/personal then the State will always be the beneficiary of any such separation.
The Church is called to reframe everything in light of the Cross and Resurrection, even our patriotism, and then to submit it to the Lordship of Christ, and ‘Lord’ of course isn’t Jesus’ last name or even a religious word.
It’s a title: King.
And so on a day like Memorial Day that call upon us doesn’t mean we dishonor the sacrifices of the fallen or beat our breasts and pretend that America is anything but a unique nation among nations (because no matter what the Huffington Post says, it is).
It instead means we hold fast to our commission to proclaim the Gospel, which in this instance on America’s calendar means we proclaim that the sacrifice offered by the fallen was not, in fact, the “ultimate sacrifice.”
The ultimate sacrifice was made by God himself, in Jesus Christ, on Golgotha, a death delivered up by the best and brightest of the Church, and the State, and the Military, for the ungodly.
‘Ungodly’ happens to be a border-breaking (Don’t tell The Donald), multinational, trans-historical catch-all category of humanity.
On Memorial Day Weekend preachers of the Gospel remind adherents of the Gospel that Jesus
made is the Ultimate Sacrifice, that he is, as scripture attests, the Sacrifice to End All Sacrifices (including the sacrifice of war), and that Good Friday 33 AD, not all our battles and victory days, is the date that changed the world.
We preach the Gospel and, I think, we search for ways to make that story register as deeply as the story I saw felt in section 136 at Nationals Park.