Memorial Day weekend is upon us. What does it mean to you? For many families, it means little more than another long weekend (always welcome!), the approach of summer, or a chance to barbecue. For others who have lost loved ones to war–or perhaps fear the possibility of such a loss–it’s a chance to remember things that should never be forgotten.
I have no experience of war myself, a fact for which I regularly neglect to be grateful. Both my mother and my wife, by contrast, lived part of their youth in war-torn countries over which the specter of violence and destruction always loomed. My father, for his part, was stationed in Australia during World War II, away from the action. He had originally wanted to be a fighter pilot, as did many other young men of his time.
Had he passed the exam, I might never have been born.
War. It’s been a constant of American media since 9/11, or perhaps earlier, when Operation Desert Storm and the Gulf War became an ongoing television event at the beginning of the 90s. My generation’s war was Vietnam, a long and ambiguous conflict that generated massive street protests during my high school years. Like many of my classmates, I was against the war. Our musical subculture, from John Lennon to Edwin Starr, told us we should be. Did we really know why, beyond the obligatory generic support for peace and love? I doubt it. Well, at any rate I didn’t.
War–the pages of the Old Testament are filled with it. God had made a promise to his people, to give them a land and an inheritance. The Israelites’ subsequent success in battle against superior forces was a sign of God’s amazing covenant faithfulness (e.g. Deut 4:32-39).
And yet there is still something disquieting about the bloodshed. Consider the Exodus, the central paradigmatic event of Israel’s imagination, a story of miraculous rescue from oppression by the mighty hand of God. Listen to how the story ends, after the people have passed through the Red Sea and glance back over their shoulders:
That is how the Lord rescued Israel from the hand of the Egyptians that day. And the Israelites saw the bodies of the Egyptians washed up on the seashore. When the people of Israel saw the mighty power that the Lord had unleashed against the Egyptians, they were filled with awe before him. They put their faith in the Lord and in his servant Moses. (Exod 14:30-31, NLT)
The Israelites saw piles of dead bodies, and feared God. Humble faith was the only reasonable response in the face of such power. This was not a God to be trifled with, but obeyed.
Though war may sometimes facilitate God’s holy purpose, it is not his ultimate will for humanity nor creation. Peace is. Shalom. The word signifies the wholeness and blessedness of creation as it was meant to be. When God chose to reveal himself in person, he came as the One who called himself “gentle and humble in heart” (Matt 11:29, NIV). He welcomed those whom society rejected. He rode into Jerusalem on a donkey, in fulfillment of a prophecy of peace (Zech 9:9-10), not as a warrior, as the people expected of their Messiah-King. He used the power of God not to kill, but to heal.
It was our violence that nailed him to the cross.
True, we are not yet done with war, not until God’s kingdom is fully established. But here’s my fear. In a world broken by sin, it is impossible to draw clear and unambiguous lines between which uses of deadly force serve the cause of justice as opposed to national self-interest. (Wasn’t that part of the background conflict between Jesus and his contemporaries?) For that reason, even if one is able to “justify” a war as necessary in some way, short of being a direct mandate of a holy God (not civil religion!), that justification will share in the world’s brokenness. In the larger scheme of God’s ultimate purposes, war itself is never cause for celebration.
This, I hope, should take nothing away from the sacrifices we remember on Memorial Day. How many of us are willing to put ourselves in harm’s way for something we believe in, for some cause that is larger than our own individual wants and desires? To honor such sacrifice is not to glorify war; it is to give sacrifice a human face. These were somebody’s children, somebody’s mothers and fathers, people with nicknames, odd and endearing habits, and favorite comfort foods. They were people, not statistics, and we owe them a debt.
Jesus has called us to be peacemakers (Matt 5:9), which in turn requires that we rightly mourn sin (Matt 5:4), including the brokenness of the human community that gives rise to conflict of every type and scale. War, as they say, is hell. We should never let ourselves think otherwise.
So let us mourn with the families whose parents and children have been through that hell.
And let us therefore be compelled to work even harder for the kingdom of heaven.