Memorial Day has been treated as a sacred holiday in many communities and in many congregations as well. Remembering those who have given their lives in war is a solemn and serious matter. Not to do so suggests that the suffering and deaths of those on the battlefield are undeserving of attention and honor. But whether Memorial Day should be treated as sacred in church is another matter.
As a minister who is a pacifist Memorial Day has frequently been a challenge. It is among my firm convictions that national holidays should not be celebrated in the worship of the church. The church body is not rightly defined by national identity, regardless of where a particular congregation is located or the nationality of its membership. Consequently, I have resisted any attempt to incorporate the celebration of Memorial Day into a service that aims to praise the God revealed in Jesus Christ.
Further, honoring those who have died participating in an activity Christian pacifists intractably oppose, armed conflict, presents an additional difficulty. Doesn’t the celebration of Memorial Day somehow affirm the nobility of fighting in war? And doesn’t honoring the war dead commend their behavior to those who are younger, inviting them to emulate those who lost their lives even as they were involved in activities which would take the lives of others? I am not interested in doing either of these things.
Still, I have to ask, for a pacifist is there anything worth remembering on Memorial Day? I think that there is. While I don’t commend going to war, those who sacrifice, suffer and give their lives for their convictions are worthy of honor. Too few in our time seem to be willing to give up even a small part of their comfort in order to advance any cause greater than their personal satisfaction. Those who face life-threatening hazards for something in which they believe should be recognized. Their willingness to put their lives on the line for something bigger than themselves provides a counter-witness to the prevalent self-absorption found in our society.
The war dead should not be equated with Christian martyrs who have given their lives for Christ and his cause. But neither should they be regarded as little more than violence-prone gangsters who became hapless victims in a turf battle. For the most part they were ordinary men and women who were thrust into situations that were anything but ordinary. They were not looking for a fight but because of their beliefs and sense of responsibility they felt compelled to enter the fray. My father and most of my uncles served in the military. Earlier generations in my family did as well. They did what they believed the circumstances of their time demanded of them. They suffered, they sacrificed. Though none of my family members died in war so far as I know, they were very much like many of those who did so.
While I cannot support participation in war nor commend the inevitable violence of the battlefield, I can and do applaud the sacrifices of those who follow their convictions even when it leads to their own graves. Too many of us claim to have convictions but spend little or nothing of ourselves to advance them. Not only will we not risk our lives for what we say we believe is true, good and beautiful, we won’t even risk facing the ridicule or rejection that may come our way if we speak up with clarity during a time of crisis and controversy. So I find myself preferring the humble courage of the reluctant warrior to the timidity of the safely closeted and silent “supporter” of peace and justice.
Craig M. Watts
Royal Palm Christian Church