On Memorial Days, Honor the War Dead, But Not Religious Propaganda

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Photo Credit: US Army

Nations have liturgies, just like religions. National and religious liturgies often blend together, including during times of war and on their Memorial Days.

Just think of Israel’s history. The people of Israel went out to battle in the name of God, proclaiming that God fought for them (Exodus 14:14; Deuteronomy 3:22). Joshua 10:12-14 reads,

At that time Joshua spoke to the Lord in the day when the Lord gave the Amorites over to the sons of Israel, and he said in the sight of Israel,

“Sun, stand still at Gibeon, and moon, in the Valley of Aijalon.” And the sun stood still, and the moon stopped, until the nation took vengeance on their enemies.

Is this not written in the Book of Jashar? The sun stopped in the midst of heaven and did not hurry to set for about a whole day. There has been no day like it before or since, when the Lord heeded the voice of a man, for the Lord fought for Israel. (Joshua 10:12-14; ESV).

Other nations made similar claims that their gods fought for them against their enemies. Nation states and empires in the modern period may appear more subdued or subtle in their use of religion during times of war, Memorial Days, and memorial sites. Nonetheless, the sentiment is often there in various quarters, sometimes overtly so.

England’s St. Paul’s Cathedral, Japan’s Yasukuni Shrine  and America’s Gettysburg and Vietnam Veterans Memorials all bear tribute to the war dead. Some might balk at the mention of Yasukuni Shrine in this brief list given the intense scrutiny and controversy surrounding it. Others might puzzle over the mention of Gettysburg and the Vietnam Veterans Memorial since they are not technically religious shrines. Yet the Japanese Shinto shrine in Tokyo pays homage to the nation’s war dead, as do many nations’ churches and temples; for their part, the American sites noted here have a mystical and spiritual dimension, according to many experts on religion and culture.

I have visited St. Paul’s Cathedral, Yasukuni and Gettysburg, and have been struck by the religious air or mystical aura at each center which hallows the extreme tribute many souls paid to their respective nations. I still recall the deep and long bows of veneration by some Japanese pilgrims at Yasukuni last summer when I was there. However, the spiritual sentiment at Gettysburg did not stand out to me at the outset of my first visit to the site. It was not until a German traveling companion took issue with the narrative of an audio recording that struck him as reverently recounting providential forces that preserved my nation. No doubt, his own nation’s history and tragedies associated with the use of religion for Germany’s war campaigns made him exceptionally alert and wary of national religious piety in whatever quarter of the globe, especially when it was tied to war.

In the Civil War, both sides of the terrible conflict believed in the same God, used the same Bible and prayed for the Almighty’s aid in destroying the other, a point that President Abraham Lincoln made in his Second Inaugural Address. While President Lincoln’s remarks in his second inaugural were rather subdued, Mark Twain’s “War Prayer” was a literary blitzkrieg against the blinding abuse of religion to carry out war against one’s foes. In the case of Lincoln, religion played a role in his Gettysburg Address and his Second Inaugural, not to beat the drums of war, but to beat into submission human pride and presumption that God is on our side, no matter the side, to destroy the enemy.

As we honor Memorial Day, we remember the extreme sacrifice of those who have given their lives in battle for freedom. Many of us also lament the horrors of war that brought their lives to an end. May we also remember Lincoln’s liturgy at Gettysburg that does not call on the Almighty to win the war for his side, but for everyone to dedicate themselves anew under God to the cause of freedom and peaceful, equitable unity. While his means have been severely criticized in various quarters, Lincoln’s ultimate hope was that those who fought on both sides of the conflict might ultimately deter the living from further destruction, and that together they might pursue a new birth as a commonwealth. I pray with the same hope in mind for this land and our world today as a community of nations. May we not offer up soldiers’ lives as bloody, atoning sacrifices or penal substitutes for ours and others’ sins. Rather, may we look to Christ Jesus’ atoning death as the substitute for every government’s and people’s payment by blood for their trespasses, and pursue a just, equitable, global peace that unites nations apart from war.

Returning home to this country, and to our own Memorial Day for those who fought in wars throughout this nation’s history, I close with Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address. May it along with his Second Inaugural inspire us to beat our religious propaganda and spiritual pride that often elevates us above God into submission under God as a people, and our swords into plowshares:

Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.

Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battle-field of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.

But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate — we can not consecrate — we can not hallow — this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us — that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion — that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain — that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom — and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.

Abraham Lincoln November 19, 1863

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