An American Christian on Memorial Day
Brad Littlejohn | Thank God for the land of our birth and the courage of those willing to die for it
Today, most Americans are celebrating Memorial Day with a barbecue or maybe a boating expedition—ringing in the unofficial start of summer with the traditional rites of recreation that mark our cultural calendar. A smaller, dwindling number are likely to mark the day as Memorial Day, a solemn memorial to the hundreds of thousands of soldiers who made the ultimate sacrifice in service to our nation. Among Christians from more liturgical traditions, yesterday saw the celebration of Ascension Sunday, when the church historically honors the enthronement of the Prince of Peace as ruler over all nations.
This juxtaposition of Memorial Day and Ascension Sunday is apt to give us pause. Is there something wrong, after all, with the swelling pride of patriotism, with the veneration of martyrs to national honor, in a world in which the reign of Christ has relativized all national loyalties and in which the only martyrs who finally matter are those who bear Christ’s banner? Christians have asked such questions for centuries. Today, a rising chorus is prepared to dismiss observances like Memorial Day as jingoistic nationalism, a glorification of violence that Christians should oppose. But this is terribly shortsighted.
Perhaps more than any other holiday, even the Fourth of July, Memorial Day invites us to reflect on the reality of the nation. The former we celebrate as “Independence Day.” Memorial Day, on the other hand, highlights our dependence on the land of our birth (“nation” comes from the Latin word for “birth”). Although some of the soldiers whose sacrifice we honor today were brave immigrants who had consciously chosen to make the United States their home, the vast majority laid down their lives out of a sense of duty to the land that had given them birth. What a strange notion. According to the prevailing 21st-century vantage point, we are encouraged to value only those identities that we have freely chosen for ourselves. Increasingly, the idea that we should value unchosen bonds—and be willing to die for them!—is seen as irrational and suspect. Such “blood and soil” nationalism is blamed for all the evils of the 20th century.
Christianity has indeed long been critical of the native human tendency to invest ultimate meaning in one’s family, tribe, or nation. The Apostle Paul’s admonition that “in Christ, there is neither Jew nor Gentile” was revolutionary and served to undergird the sense of a transnational “Christendom” whose bonds of shared faith were ultimately more important than those of blood or homeland. Today, some Christians draw on the same impulse to call for the abolition of borders and to denounce displays of patriotism as idolatry. But while Christians in the ancient world were called to proclaim that birth doesn’t count for everything, Christians today must remind our rebellious society that birth does count for something.
Each of us is born chained to a particular nature and a particular body, something modern man desperately seeks to deny. We are born radically dependent on our parents and community, with obligations to honor them even though we didn’t choose them—and might not have chosen them had we had the chance. We are born in a particular place, and although we may leave it, it will never entirely leave us—shaped by its rhythms and accents. Even as Christians, our faith is not something we choose for ourselves but a gift of God, and one that is even today most often received through our parents. Over and over, Scripture presents us with the ideal that each generation will pass on the blessings of the covenant community as an inheritance. True, each of us must decide to personally own the faith of our fathers, but too often American Protestantism has made the typical conversion narrative one of rebellion followed by a moment of self-discovery or self-remaking.
There was a time, to be sure, when Christians needed to be reminded that their universal citizenship in heaven transcended the earthly citizenship that we celebrate on Memorial Day. Today, however, in an age in which individuals refuse to recognize any identity they have not created for themselves, the church is under assault every bit as much as the nation. Christian community cannot survive, let alone flourish, without cultivating an ability to recognize bonds of obligation that we have not chosen and a willingness to sacrifice and, if need be, fight and die for those to whom God has called us to live alongside. There is a danger of overly venerating national bonds and national heroes, to be sure. But that is hardly our danger today. As Christians this Memorial Day, let us be on the front lines of those thanking God for the land of our birth and the courage of those willing to die for it.
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