It's Memorial Day here in the United States. Which is kind of a weird day for me. It's a day that we set aside to honor persons who have died in the Armed Forces. We do this, of course, by not going to work on Monday and cooking meat over fire. Also, frequently beer is involved. Usually cheap beer. Because 'Merica.
So we celebrate in slightly strange ways. And perhaps a better celebration, which many of my friends on Facebook seem to have done, is to visit local monuments that honor locals who have died while in the Armed Forces.
Seeing those lists of names, especially if some of them share names with you, makes one feel the weight of their sacrifice in a much more real way than putting out a flag one Monday morning.
For folks who are not regular readers (welcome!), I am a pacifist who is highly suspicious of any kind of nationalism, especially in the church. I do not think that the United States is a Christian Nation, or that we have some kind of mandate from heaven to spread our way of life throughout the world. So Memorial Day, when our culture celebrates death as a glorious sacrifice on the altar of freedom, is a little difficult for me to get behind.
For much of my life, the cultural call was to "Support the Troops." I've never had any problem with that. I think it should go beyond bumper stickers and flag-shaped lapel pins to things like veterans benefits and body armor, but that's just me. In my experience, supporting the troops often meant unquestioning support of their mission, whatever it may be. Without naming any specifics, I've got to say there have been some missions on which we have sent our troops with which I disagree.
If "Support the Troops" means that we assume they can do no wrong, then I cannot do that. Soldiers and their commanders are people too, and people mess up. The nobility of soldiers is in their willingness to sacrifice themselves for others. Those who have done so are worth honoring.
But every time a soldier dies, either in combat, or as a homeless veteran on the street, or anything in between, we as a society have failed them. Every time a soldier is burdened with the responsibility of doing violence to another human being, we as a society have failed them. Perhaps our weightiest failure is that rather than paying for our own failures, we ask the military and their families to bear the burden of paying for our lifestyle with their lives.
So perhaps the best way of honoring those who are willing to sacrifice their lives for our national ideals is to no longer ask them to do so.
I am very grateful that there are men and women who are willing to die and to kill for the idea of America, and that the sacrifice of those who have gone before us makes our lifestyles possible. My prayer is that we will not treat the soldier's noble selflessness as a tool to spread our ideology, but as a cost too dear to be asked lightly.