Memorial Day

This is Memorial Day in the United States.

It’s a great day to be an American. And a dangerous day to be a Christian.

It’s the sort of national holiday that creates remembrance of freedom, celebration of democracy, a reificiation of our identity as A People–A People willing to die (and to kill) in the name of liberty and justice for all.

Well, at least, liberty and justice as we define it for all whom we deem worthy to receive it (and some, against their will).


As Christians in the United States, we should be careful not to take for granted our share in this freedom. None of us worries about being killed on Sunday morning for joining in public worship.

But this gratitude has its own danger.

We might begin to believe that true freedom is gained by the shedding of the blood of our fallen soldiers. We might forget that no, the freedom we enjoy has been gained by us making the other guy shed more of his blood than we have shed of our own.

“No bastard ever won a war by dying for his country.
He won it by making the other poor dumb bastard die for his country.”
–General George S. Patton

This is the story of America. This is the story of Memorial Day.

And it is, at heart, the antithesis to the Christian story. And that’s the danger.

This story of making the other bastard die for his country is precisely the story that the disciples wanted Jesus to play out before them. It was the story Peter was demanding of Jesus when he rebuked Jesus for predicting the way of the cross.

And it is precisely the story which Jesus rejects by telling Peter, “Get behind me, Satan.”

Between the American story of freedom through our fallen (simply because they could not make the other person fall first!) and the Christian story of salvation through the self-giving love of Jesus, there could not be a wider gulf.

Our Memorial Day is celebrated every time we take the bread and pass the cup:

Do this in remembrance of me.

When we take the bread together we remember that our freedom was not a death in war, but a true surrender:

This is my body, given for you.

We remember that we are made a people in covenant with God by blood that refused to be spilled on a battlefield, by the blood of one who would not shed the blood of another:

This cup is the new covenant in my blood.

Let’s be careful how we remember today. Let’s be careful what we remember today. There is freedom that is bought with the price of precious blood.

And it could never be gained by the swords, or guns, of war.

30 thoughts on “Memorial Day”

  1. Thanks for the reminder. Our “civil religion” in this country often times gets this confused. I am as patriotic as any one around but I don’t want to confuse my faith and love for, and devotion to, God with my citizenship in the USA. My ultimate citizenship is in the Kingdom of God.

  2. Thank you for this honest reflection Daniel. These holidays are difficult, because as you mentioned there is no doubt that I benefit from the fruits of our victory in war, yet I am called the be a citizen of the peaceful Kingdom.

  3. Thank you Daniel. When I tell people in my congregation that I would not, indeed, could not, given the “unshakable Kingdom” that I am now part of, ever ask them to give their children’s blood for any “way of life” that has nothing to do with that Kingdom, it is a very uneasy moment, especially when they already have…

    Given this current situation, these are not easy days to bear witness. But they may be the kind of days where we get to participate in the same shame and humiliation that put Jesus on a cross for the sake of God’s enemies – us.

  4. There’s a “not” missing: “… the freedom we enjoy has been gained… ”

    As a Veteran, I feel uncomfortable with Memorial Day. It ought to be like Good Friday, a day of repentance and regret…. Brian, I wonder about those “beneficial” fruits, all things considered. Surely there was a better way that didn’t involve so much collateral damage.

    1. “As a Veteran, I feel uncomfortable with Memorial Day. It ought to be like Good Friday, a day of repentance and regret.”

      Wow…that might be the most profound thing I’ve heard anyone say about this. Thank you for your honesty and willingness to say this. It speaks volumes since you are coming from experience and not outside-looking-in theory like the rest of us. Bless you.

  5. Someone forgot to read the Old Testament. The notion that the American Revolution and other American wars are somehow wide of the intent of Christianity and the Kingdom is simply careless Anabaptist thought. Hauerwas might be proud, but real Protestants know better. I mean, even Bonhoeffer picked up the sword. There are causes worth fighting and dying for in this world intimately connected to what it means to be Christian. If you don’t believe me, read the book of Joshua. Or, Judges. Or, Exodus. Or, Revelation–where our Lord sheds no small amount of blood as the King of Kings. Soldiers should be properly remembered for their sacrifices without pretending that they somehow died outside the concerns of the Kingdom of God. This sort of post mars that memory and is antithetical to today’s celebrations.

    1. Someone forgot the revelation of Jesus Christ. I can only understand “causes worth fighting and dying for in this world intimately connected to what it means to be Christian” as a denial of how God has conquered. Just because humanity offers up warfare to God as an offering does not mean that humanity has made the right offering. Jesus made a so totally different kind of offering. This Memorial Day, may we who believe remember that Jesus actually said the words: “I have overcome the world.”

      1. You forget that in the old days, God actually commanded the children of Israel to go to war with their neighbors and to say otherwise is to misconstrue what is stated very plainly in Scripture. The same God who became the revelation of Jesus Christ is the covenant God of Israel who instructed his people to shed blood on his behalf. This same God also governs the nations whether they believe or not (cf. Jeremiah 51) and I would submit to you that an Anabaptist like view of the Kingdom and its pursuits around this world results in a low view of humanity and flattens our true purpose in this world.

        I’m sorry, but I find it simply incredulous that we as a country should have allowed the horrors of the early twentieth century to go unhindered out of some pacifist concern to maintain false boundaries between the Kingdom of God and this world. Love of our neighbor and protection of the orphan and widow in our world is just as much a just cause for war as defending our nation when attacked. When you realize that the government is a duly appointed minister of God (cf. Romans 13) and not merely some idolatrous institution of a godless world, the understanding of what concerns the Kingdom grows well beyond the limited perspective presented here by you and Dr. Kirk. Additionally, once Christians are in office the concerns of the government immediately transcend mere national interests.

        Furthermore, the notion that Jesus’ rebuke of Peter is somehow to be universally applied to every situation concerning war or Kingdom causes is just an unfounded assertion and what remains problematic with Dr. Kirk’s approach. And, as usual, there is more to the story.

        If war is never to be fought, why didn’t Jesus rebuke the Roman soldiers for their career choice when he ran into them? The statement of Jesus concerning the centurion’s faith being so great would seem quite odd if we are to understand these matters as Dr. Kirk has presented them (Luke 7:1-10). If the story truly is important, then Dr. Kirk needs to explain why the preincarnate Christ commanded bloodshed early on and sponsored and supported the very wars and victories some today seem to blush and hurriedly fan themselves when reading. Then, Dr. Kirk also has to explain prophetic passages like Psalm 58:10-11:

        10 The righteous will rejoice when he sees the vengeance; He will wash his feet in the blood of the wicked. 11 And men will say, “Surely there is a reward for the righteous; Surely there is a God who judges on earth!”

        Dr. Kirk also has to explain why at the end of time we see such strident violence by this same covenanted incarnate God and his armies in the book of Revelation. All odd things if the Kingdom is as you claim.

        No, the real problem here is that the read of Scripture we are being presented with is not a canonical holistic read in line with how major branches of the Christian church have interpreted Scripture for ages. Rather, we are given select testimony in a spirit of postmodern wonder, being told about how Christ changed everything, and then expected to conclude the obvious. I’m sorry, I just don’t buy it.

        1. Believe me, Kevin, I have forgotten nothing. I just happen to be silly enough to confess that Jesus Christ is indeed the Word of God, and that all those texts you so impressively cite mean absolutely nothing apart from his revelation. I just happen to be silly enough to believe that vindication does not take place in the winning of wars but rather in the resurrection of the dead. Is not death and resurrection the way of Jesus Christ? Did we think we would be victorious by some other means?

          1. Ah. Yes. Better known as the Anabaptist Jedi Mind Trick. “These aren’t the Scriptures we’re looking for…move along” — works great on the weak-minded but some of us aren’t susceptible to such things. ;)

            The plain fact is that you can’t define who Christ is and what he has done without the very Scriptures you decry. And, you’re confusing and conflating categories. No one says personal salvation is accomplished through wars but rather God’s Kingdom concerns often involve the work of nations and may on occasion include going to war.

            1. Um, I’m not an Anabaptist although you’ve pegged me as one. Also, Saul read scripture in the manner that you seem to suggest and he persecuted the church. Exodus, Joshua, Judges–he read them all (even Psalm 58) and he believed he was being faithful on his way to Damascus. Being confronted by Jesus Christ changed everything–his whole history, his ancestors’ whole history, the scriptures, who God is. They all get reinterpreted. Now if the apostle Paul is apocalyptic, why are you refusing to be so, Kevin? If the faithful in the heavenly vision of the Book of Revelation are crying out “how long?”, why do you insist on not joining them? In all honesty, Kevin, why are you afraid? Why do you believe in the necessity of the weaponizing of the kingdom? Does Easter have no power for you? Swords into plowshares and spears into pruning hooks–is that all a bunch of hooey? The prophets and the apostles let themselves be killed–why won’t you?

    1. From the standpoint of classical Protestantism, such a description is quite charitable and generous. Anabaptist thinking suffers from a wrongly framed hermeneutic in examining the Scriptures which ignores the full unity of the Old and New Testament inspired as they are by the same divine author. Given this post, it’s ironic that the first real rebaptism of the Radical Reformation was simply civil disobedience and not at all connected to the Kingdom concerns outlined here. Such an event outlines the absurdity of the view and what Dr. Kirk has presented is just more of the same.

      1. Kevin,
        I appreciate your post for pointing out the fact that not only does Dr. Kirk’s post appear to contradict a major stream of Christianity, it also appears to contradict a wholistic reading of Scripture. What I think Dr. Kirk’s post does highlight is the fact that we are not a people defined by an objective reading of Scripture that attempts to make the most sense of all the parts (i.e. wholistic) including all the theo-political wars of the OT. We are a people that is defined by Christ, and that redefinition goes all the way through us and our lives; it even reaches down to determine how we read Scripture. I personally find it very challenging to both support the men and women who protect our political freedom while feeling uncomfortable with how they are trained and commanded to carry out this mission.

        1. Brian,

          The problem here is that we can’t be defined by a Christ that is disconnected from the rest of Scripture. The covenant God of Israel is Christ and as such his nature and acts throughout the entire redemptive history of God’s people are immediately relevant to how we in turn understand ethics and morality. We find his “story” primarily in the Bible as a whole and not merely in the narrative presented to us in the Gospels or the rest of the New Testament books. Then, we also see the story continued in the life of the church and the Kingdom going forward over the last two thousand years. We can’t ignore any of it if we are really to apprehend the story of who Jesus is and the implications for us and others of what he has done.

      2. Kevin,

        Why do you read this blog? I’ve yet to read a response of yours that was in anyway complimentary or sympathetic to the original post. I think everyone here likes a lively debate, but your preaching has become like nails on a chalkboard.

        1. I do have an appreciation, Scott, for narrative theology and for “story” and there are occasions where Dr. Kirk’s method and perspective makes sense. I’m sorry that your level of tolerance for other opinions is on the low end, but I contribute when I feel led and believe the truth is more important for us to consider than how it might be imperfectly conveyed by myself or others.

        2. @ Scot: Scot, I for one appreciate Kevin’s comments. It’s not that I agree or disagree with him either. I think it’s far from preaching. He is laying out a hermeneutic which is cogent. You or I may not necessarily agree with that hermenuetic but nonetheless, what Kevin is suggesting is a largely held view in faith tradition. Your comments are actually more “preachy” than anything else on here. I find it wonderful that Kevin reads this blog.I also find it wonderful how Kevin responded with grace to you below. It’s great to hear different and differing perspectives. Quite frankly, as I read through the comments (after a friend of mine sent this blog to me to read), I was SHOCKED that Kevin’s comments weren’t deleted because they were clearly contrary to the mainstream opinions contained in this blog (as you point out). Thanks for the dialogue Kevin – and others who are contributing. It is a healthy and cogent discussion. Scott, I would only ask you to reconsider that there is a place for alternative positions when stated without ad hominum approaches such as where you seem to be going.

          1. I also appreciate Kevin’s comments. I am not a Biblical scholar but I have been working my entire life to put others first, self second which is what Christ calls us to do. So how is it as Christians that we can sit back and let others go to war to confront evil, and die so that we can have a dialog like this? I thought as Christians we were supposed to put the interests of others ahead of ourselves.

    1. Speak of pacifism is always easy while standing in the far distant shadows of those who valiantly make such talk possible. It is, in many respects, biting the hand that feeds. After all, if all Americans were pacifists, there would be no comfortable offices from which to write about such philosophies–or, at best, the offices would house those who scribble ink in the required language of a conquering dictator who serves as the nations “Big Brother,” censoring everything that he disagrees with (which, ironically, would likely be, among other things, the philosophy of pacifism). I, like most believers, struggle with the concept of war, and I don’t like it. I struggle with it for myriads of reasons. But, one reason is that I am an American expat living under a totalitarian regime, which daily makes me very grateful to those who have provided an earthly country where I have the freedom to express my freedom in Christ. I’m well aware that my comments smack of pragmatism. I admit it; and I struggle with it. Reconciling my deep respect, and desire, for pacifism with the logical results of broad adherence to it (not to mention the desire for my children’s children to live with an earthly freedom that is, at least, far better than much of the world’s)isn’t easy for me. I appreciate Daniel’s heart (a lot), but Memorial Day is not intended as a day to remember Christ’s death. It is not a religious holiday. It is, instead, a day to specifically remember those who died to provide us the opportunity to write and respond to blogs such as these, a right sadly not afforded to the citizens of the country in which I currently reside.

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