Honoring the nation’s war dead is discomfiting to many on the pacifist Religious Left. One Protestant theologian’s fairly thoughtful Memorial Day ode to fallen veterans this year hailed their “sacrificial living.” But Bruce Epperly, a United Church of Christ “process theologian” from liberal Lancaster Seminary, cautioned against “American exceptionalism” or “America first” ideologies in favor of embracing the “wellbeing of others, including the planet.” After all, “We can celebrate our nation’s fallen heroes without being nationalistic.” And he concluded: “Memorial Day is about remembering, and then dedicating our own lives to a larger, greater good for those we love, our nation — and this may mean protesting against military action, injustice, and enmity to immigrants — and the planet as a whole.”
Well, maybe. But most of America’s fallen veterans were probably more focused on “American exceptionalism” than “the planet.” Rev. Epperly’s sentiment contrasts with C.S. Lewis’s famous defense of patriotism against abstract humanitarianism. “I may without self-righteousness or hypocrisy think it just to defend my house by force against a burglar,” Lewis explained. “But if I start pretending that I blacked his eye purely on moral grounds — wholly indifferent to the fact that the house in question was mine — I become insufferable.”
More directly critical of Memorial Day than Epperly was a column last year by Episcopal author Diana Butler Bass. “Every Memorial Day, I remember how early Christians almost uniformly rejected any kind of military service — and how little we have learned from their witness to peacemaking,” she lamented. Bass suggested “it may well be good for our souls” to consider “what it means to be both a Christian and a soldier,” which from her apparent perspective, is incompatible. Quoting her own recent book, Bass insisted: “Long before theologians Ambrose and Augustine argued for just war, Christians were not allowed to fight,” and “no record exists that Christians served in the Roman army before 170.” She perhaps overlooked the Gospel account of the Roman officer who sought Jesus to heal his servant, not to mention the New Testament account of Saint Peter’s momentous stay with the Roman centurion Cornelius. There is, at most, insufficient evidence that Christianity in the first 3 centuries had any settled teaching on war, though the Apostles Paul and Peter both described temporal rulers as ordained by God to wield the sword.
Ignoring the historic Christian teaching about war, prominent Minnesota megachurch pastor Greg Boyd several years ago blogged critically about Memorial Day. Formerly a relatively conventional evangelical, he earned a New York Times story when he renounced his own once conservative politics and denounced the Right’s supposed version of “Christian America.” In 2007 he described Memorial Day as leaving him “conflicted.” Boyd appreciated the U.S. military personnel who had “laid down their lives to protect this way of life,” since “I benefit from their sacrifice, so it seems appropriate to remember them.” On the other hand, the “taking of human life” is “demonically arrogant.”
So Reverend Boyd is grudgingly grateful on Memorial Day to military demoniacs. “The fact that I personally benefit from some of the killing, because some of the killing is (at least is theory) supposed to protect the ‘American way of life,’ doesn’t alter this assessment,” he explained. “Jesus is my Lord, not the American way of life.” He regretted that he continues to “benefit” from the “often barbaric and dishonest conquest of my ancestors over the American Indians and the enslavement of blacks.” Boyd offered “solidarity” to families of fallen U.S. warriors. But he wants to “revolt against the demonic arrogance of violent-tending tribalism.” Likely most service families would decline this pastor’s brand of “solidarity.”
Some years ago, prior to the World War II Monument’s dedication in Washington, D.C. on Memorial Day, famed Christian pacifist Stanley Hauerwas of Duke University decried the injustice of the Allied cause because it was a “crusade” involving “intentional killing of civilians” and demands for “unconditional surrender.” Of course, Hauerwas believes every war is unjust, though religious pacifists often exploit their version of Just War arguments. He granted that some soldiers “showed great bravery and attention to duty,” but for a cause that faithful people must adamantly reject. Hauerwas complained that Saint Paul’s admonition to submit to civil authorities was probably equally cited by German Christians to justify service to the Third Reich. He regretted that churches display American flags, in the mistaken notion that war-time sacrifice counts as Christian sacrifice.
In a similar vein just prior to Memorial Day six years ago, Religious Left activist Jim Wallis told his supporters that “even those of us who advocate nonviolence must recognize the humanity of those who, for many reasons, made the hard choice to join the armed forces.” He explained that “as we protest a war and an occupation that has claimed as many as 100,000 Iraqi civilians’ lives, we must have compassion for the suffering experienced on all sides.”
How generous that the Religious Left recognizes the “humanity” of U.S. service personnel and will even reluctantly honor them who have fallen, even as it sees them as primarily victims, if not villains. The Religious Left’s smug pacifism and grim rejection of most patriotism make Memorial Day, and most national commemorations, difficult if not impossible to affirm.
More traditional Christianity of course teaches that believers need not have such contempt for the nations in which Providence has placed them, nor decline military service to them in legitimate causes. Memorial Day was founded after the Civil War initially to honor slain Union veterans, whose “soldier lives were the reveille of freedom to a race in chains.” Freed slaves were reputedly among the most vigorous in commemorating the white and black soldiers whose deaths had lifted their bondage. They understood that wars can have moral consequences, and that fallen warriors often deserve more than reluctant respect.