Aunty, should we celebrate Memorial Day in church?
30 May 2022 |
Dear Aunt Sevvy,
This weekend was Memorial Day in the United States, when we are supposed to remember our servicemen and women who died fighting for our country. Every year on Memorial Day Sabbath in my church, an elderly veteran arranges for the uniformed Pathfinders to march in (with barked military style marching orders) carrying the American flag and the Christian flag. Then he gets up wearing his old military jacket and gives a short talk about how he served his country and how sacred it is for people to die in war. Then we sing “God Bless America.”
This year was a bit worse than usual, because he managed to slip in a mention of all the children who died in Texas, as though this were a matter to be solved by more war.
I love my country and have also served it. But I don’t mix patriotism with worship—especially when half the congregation is made up of immigrants. And I don’t see what the events at Uvalde, Texas, have to do with Memorial Day. What happened to Adventists’ peace orientation? What happened to separation of church and state? What happened to worship being directed at God?
Signed, Patriotic, but Not in Church
While Aunty, too, loves her country, the mix of people in her congregation reminds her often that God doesn’t favor any one nation or people. After Peter saw the blanket full of animals let down from heaven (Acts 10) he said: “Now I truly understand that God is not partial, but in every nation the man who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him.”
But what we’re talking about here is not just God’s love for all nations and peoples. It is making a celebration honoring one particular country—and in this case, those who fight its wars—a part of worship. This leaves Aunty disquieted. Yes, it is a great sacrifice to die for your country. But so often, as you experienced this week, the talk slides over into the political. It implies the unbiblical notion that God favors our nation.
And invariably for Aunty it raises questions of the justice and fairness of war.
Your speaker broached a political topic by implying that we counter school shootings in the same way we counter invading enemies. Even more foundational is the assumption that the wars we are celebrating were good wars, commenced for wise and good reasons, and that the young men who lost their lives lost them willingly and for justifiable reasons. There are defensible wars, to be sure, but all you have to do is look at Russia to see that evil men may also use patriotism to force their populace to fight wars.
In fact, the United States has sponsored wars in our lifetime that few wanted to fight except a minority of politicians and defense contractors. Several of our wars were halted embarrassingly short of any victory.
A few years ago, Aunty talked to her pastor about removing the American flag from the church platform, suggesting it was a jarring element in a spiritual setting. (Her church, like yours, has many immigrants.) He agreed to take the request to the church board. The board was furious with him for even suggesting it, and even asked him to bring the flag out of the corner and put it at the front of the stage!
So whenever Aunty sees patriotic celebrations in church, particularly those that evoke military engagements, these questions crowd into her head, and she quietly leaves church and goes home.
Have our people not learned from prophecy? The image in Daniel 2 was meant to teach us that nations rise and fall—the more successful, powerful, and wealthy a nation, the more in danger it is of falling. Our church pioneers were deeply suspicious of government power, even assigning the United States of America to the second persecuting beast in the 13th chapter of Revelation. Adventists have always fought overly close cooperation between church and state, because of threats to our unique beliefs.
We shouldn’t forget those who fought and died for us (some of them unwillingly, because they were conscripted). But while there may be necessary war, there is no good war. “War,” said Civil War General William Tecumseh Sherman, “is hell.” But many haven’t read the paragraph he appended to that:
“I confess without shame that I am tired & sick of war. Its glory is all moonshine. Even success, the most brilliant, is over dead and mangled bodies […] It is only those who have not heard a shot, nor heard the shrills & groans of the wounded & lacerated (friend or foe) that cry aloud for more blood & more vengeance, more desolation, & so help me God as a man & soldier I will not strike a foe who stands unarmed & submissive before me but will say ‘Go sin no more.’”
No matter how noble our dead soldiers, can we put an end to glorifying military action in worship?
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