An uneasy peace with Memorial Day

May 31, 2016 by

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Being steeped in Anabaptism yet greatly appreciative of the liberties secured by the sacrifice of blood and treasure by millions of citizens over many years, I feel mental dissonance about Memorial Day.

I do not desire to dishonor the genuine sorrow of loss, nor the legitimate pride in sacrifice undergone in pursuit of worthwhile ends, nor to tarnish the memory of those who made selfless decisions for the greater good.

On the other hand, how does one reconcile celebration of war with a theology that celebrates the king of peace? It seems that we have perhaps collectively come to some sort of truce with war at least as represented by the sacrifice of the fallen. It is sort of a second-hand celebration, perhaps, but less than a repudiation of the violence our profession would seem to demand of us. Clearly we do not wish to be offensive toward or unsympathetic with those families bereft of loved ones.

But what if there were a celebration of sorts, or a commemoration of, those who engage in other sorts of things we maintain are beyond the scope of proper Christian conduct? What sort of honor would we give to those engaged in sexual escapades of a generally immoral sort? This was a pertinent question in the ’90s and, depending on the outcome in November, may again rise to the level of relevant national discourse. Would we tend to overlook violations of moral probity based on perceived promotion of our particular point of view or agreement with our proposed route toward a temporal paradise? Would we risk the fate suffered by John the Baptist for speaking truth to power on issues having to do with our understanding of religious imperatives?

It is highly unlikely that anyone is going to suffer loss of life for expressing the opinion that any particular office-holder is possessed of insufficient moral fiber, a fact that highlights the conundrum of the day. The liberty to condemn without fear has been attained and maintained by the very activity which a theology of peace calls us to reject.

To the extent the church has embraced the political right, it has also endorsed militarism, a phenomenon Mennonites have not proven immune to. Conversely, those who identify with the political left have a tendency to champion policies that would leave much of the world defenseless before the predations of their more powerful neighbors, solutions to world issues that some would say require the West to abdicate the role given by God to governments to suppress evil by the implementation of violent means.

What is the correct response to a public request for prayer, as I recently heard in church, expressing gratitude for the endeavors and sacrifice of current and past members of the armed services? How does one be a witness for peace while not celebrating that which seems antithetical to the call of the one who instructed his followers to love and do good to those who would mistreat and kill them without being disrespectful and even offensive? Perhaps we need to renew our awareness of the sense that we are not of this world, to more vigorously embrace the call to come out and be separate.

Whether in the temporary grip of either right or left, the political system depends upon the use of violence and the credible threat thereof to maintain its position. This is not wrong in a sense, but it is not Christian either. While the citizenship of nations and the citizenship of Christ’s kingdom overlap some, we may do well to rekindle a sense of distinction between the two, clarifying where it is our ultimate allegiance lies, while appreciating the freedom of expression our system affords us.

Gene Mast is a member of a Conservative Mennonite Conference church in Greenwood, Del.

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  • Pat Penner

    I understand the conundrum that Memorial Day & July 4th creates for Anabaptists. However, I question this comment “while yet greatly appreciative of the liberties secured by the sacrifice of blood and treasure rendered by countless millions of citizens over many years”. I am 68 yo & do not believe any of the many conflicts in which the US has been involved has secured any liberties for me. Do we buy into a lie when we believe that? The military accounts for 54% of the US budget which I believe is immoral at best. You pose thoughtful ideas-ones with which we must carefully continue to process. Because there is not a draft, I fear that our beliefs about war & two-kingdom theology are not being taught in our churches. This is a good starting place. Thanks for your thoughtful comments. — Pat Penner

  • Dale Welty

    Mr. Mast, first, Memorial Day is not a celebration of war as you state, rather it is a day set aside by our government to pay respect to those who have served in the U.S. military to confront the international law breakers. The U.S. military does not promote war, nor does our law enforcement men and women promote crime, nor do our fire fighters promote destructive fires, nor do our doctors, nurses, hospitals and medical clinics promote disease, personal injury and poor health. It is the pacifists like Neville Chamberlain, PM of Great Britain who played a huge role in initiating WW2. Evil appeased is never satisfied. It was not the pacifists who stopped Hitler and his Holocaust violence against the Jews, but it was primarily the U.S. military. Further, no where in the Bible is pacifism taught. Neither did Jesus teach pacifism. Romans 13:1-7 talks about the responsibilities of government. It was pre-incarnate Christ, with his sword drawn, speaks with Joshua as recorded in Joshua 5:13-15, just prior to Joshua receiving instruction for the destruction the men, women & children of Jericho. It was pre-incarnate Christ who also paid an unexpected visit to Gideon as recorded in Judges 6:12. It was God who instructed Saul to destroy all Amalekites, including women and children. It was David who slew Goliath and was a military commander whom God said was a man after his own heart. It was Elijah who slew 450 prophets of Baal. God took him straight to Heaven in a fiery chariot. Remember, Jesus said “I and the Father are one”.

    Jesus did not display any pacifism when he overturned the tables of the money changers and drove them from the temple.In Rev. 19, Jesus comes riding on a white horse to make war with a sword (Word) in his mouth and with it he should smite the armies of the nations and he should rule them with a rod of iron: and he treadeth the winepress of the fierceness and wrath of Almighty God. A Heavenly angel invites all the fowls of the air to come and feast on all the dead men and horses slain in this battle. Dale Welty

    • Gene Mast

      Perhaps, the point was a bit inartfully stated. The day is not a celebration of war per se in a conventional sense, but a day to honor those who participated in something some of us hold to be antithetical to the command to love our enemies. This is not the same as the honor we might accord presidents Nixon and Clinton whose criminality and sleaze, respectively, were incidental to their office. The members of the military that are honored, are honored because they were doing precisely what they were intended to do, that is, inflict lethal harm upon others before the same could be inflicted upon themselves and those they were sworn to protect. From the perspective of a citizen of the nation I find your analysis of appeasement to be absolutely correct and would say as well the abdication of its proper role by the current US government is what has enabled much of the current chaos. Reconciling the violence commanded in the OT with an ethic of love will need to be the province of those more intelligent than I, though I find the idea of spiritual progression to make some sense.
      Whether or not Jesus taught pacifism may depend on one’s definition of the term. Did Jesus teach that His followers should impose, to the extent possible, non-violence on the state? Most certainly not. The disarmament movement arising in liberal western Christianity is utterly misguided. But did Jesus teach his followers to kill others or engage in violence? Again, certainly not. The teachings of the NT seem to be dominated by the idea of love, between God and man and also between the follower of Christ and every other person including enemies. The incident in the temple, which we must be willing to admit we may not completely understand, can not give license to violate the overwhelming message of love. Thanks for your comments.