Some Brief and Scattered Thoughts for (next) Memorial Day

The High Holy Days of the American calendar sneak up on me more often than not.  By the time I’ve realized that Mother’s Day is upon us, I’m usually scrambling to find an occasion to sneak into Barnes and Noble (the last bookstore with greeting cards left in our area) to pick up a handful to distribute to the women in my life.  (I’m talking about my wife and mother and grandmother, O ye suspicious!)  Likewise, I’m usually too busy getting a batch of Buffalo chicken nacho dip ready to think much about Independence Day, and there are years when I only find out about Veterans’ Day when I show up at church for the Sunday just before.

For some reason, perhaps because it usually falls just after my school year ends, I’m usually more aware of the approach of Memorial Day.  I know that it’s perhaps the most fervent expression of America’s civil religion, and I always anticipate that some human-sacrifice language is going to show up on the Internet venues that I frequent.  (This year, predictably, it ramped up early Sunday morning.)  And despite the fact that I saw it coming, I often find myself on Memorial day wishing that I had taken some time to think more systematically about what troubles me so much about this particular holiday.  Think of this essay as my attempt to get next year’s Memorial Day thinking done early so that I might have something intelligent to say.

I should start by noting, for the sake of my friends from the late nineties, that I’m nowhere as strident about such things as I was then.  Perhaps that’s my own betrayal of the principles that drove me then.  I can grant that.  But as the years have passed and I’ve come to respect and love my Christian sisters and brothers who were and are military personnel and military widows, I’ve become less inclined to rant against “Caesar” without noting the nuanced distinctions that separate the Caesar of Jesus’ day and the global-political realities that define our own.  Because I pay more attention to history I’m more inclined to see the intellectual questions of military service as more complex, neither conceding that the American right wing is right in its “support the troops” vision of civic life nor willing to scorch the earth just to make sure that the right wing isn’t right.  (If anything, I’m less afraid of the right wing now than I was then.)  And in reality, the ethical deliberations surrounding military service proper belonging to the young, those who still have the choice to fight or not to fight, not to the old, who have made their choices and should receive at least the respect that I accord to all people willing to die for principles.  Again, I’ll grant that such a change might reflect my own failure as a young radical as youth has departed me.

Even without that youthful certitude, though, I’m troubled by much of what I see and hear approaching and including Memorial Day, not from military personnel but from civilians around whom I spend my days and weeks.  (Although we do have active military in our church family, most of them actually show up in church once or twice a year.)  And although I’m not nearly as sure that I’ve got any answers, I do still find myself with questions about how we Christians relate to such national holidays.  And I think that those questions should begin with some thinking about government, country, and state.

Christians and the State

I hope that some readers looked at that last list and thought I was naming synonyms.  In some sense I am.  But in rhetorical terms, there are significant and sometimes violent differences among those three terms.  Any right-wing politician can spend months talking about how rotten “government” is, how the aim of a good leader is to reduce the power of “government,” how “government” is a power that is ruining human lives.  Change that term to “country,” and you’re speaking heresy.  Irrespective of the content of one’s political philosophy, in order to wield any influence in twenty-first century America, one must demonstrate that all of one’s intellectual and practical endeavors happen in allegiance to one’s “country.”  What’s “good for the country” must trump any obligation to any neighbors outside the borders.  To convince the public that one’s opponent would be bad for “the country” trumps any considerations of philosophical complexity, sometimes even any considerations of moral right and wrong.  (Behold, for those who doubt this, recent debates on torture and on drone strikes against American citizens declared threats to “country.”)  Although the entities to which one refers overlap significantly (What is the U.S. Army if not the armed service of the “government”?  And what is the IRS if not that agency which acquires money so that the “country” can persist?), as linguistic phenomena, they’re two sides of the reality of State that are crucial to understanding Memorial Day and the dangers of national holy-days.

State is a word I choose for this essay because its linguistic roots are distinct from “government” and from “country.”  I do so without a strong commitment to Hegel’s particular conception of State or to subsequent technical definitions.  But I do stipulate that “State” should stand for that reality that encompasses both “government” and “country” and all of the contradictions that rise among them.  State is both the mechanisms of rule and the grand narratives that make people willing to be ruled.  It’s the rational system of selecting the guardians of the city and the noble lies that those guardians maintain so that people remain content when political deliberation turns against this or that individual.

In short, State is the complex reality with which Christians have always lived, whether State meant Rome or Constantinople, London or Paris or Washington.

There’s no singular and immutable State, not even when that State tells stories about its own persistence across historical eras.  In fact, sometimes stories of persistence are just what the State needs in order to maintain legitimacy in the wake of radical change.  (If America before and after the Civil War is too close to home, consider London before and after the Glorious Revolution or Paris before and after Napoleon.)  This is neither a conspiracy in the conventional sense nor a coincidental collision of individual wills but something that Walter Wink calls a power or a principality, a spiritually significant entity, ordained by God to serve humanity but always tempted to seize for itself whatever it can grasp.

Christians and Memorial Day

And that’s where we come back to Memorial Day: in its early years as Decoration Day, there seems to have been a stronger sense that those who killed and died in the Civil War (and later in the Great War) were somehow involved in tragedy, a collision of historical forces that rendered the young men on the front lines something other than free historical agents.  The honor bestowed upon those young men was certainly genuine, but that genuine honor happened in the context of a larger hope that the next generation’s elders would weigh carefully any deliberations that would put another young man (or, more and more in twenty-first-century wars, another young woman) in the grave at such a young age.  But the documented proof of such an earlier state ultimately stands secondary: whether we’re recovering it or inventing it where before it did not happen, I would contend that we Christians need to be at the forefront of introducing (or re-introducing) a sense of the tragic to Memorial Day and to military life more generally.

My unease with the way people talk about Memorial Day recently has not to do with any hatred for the human beings in military uniform or even a problem with people’s paying honor to those who died but with a sense that there is no tragedy any more.  Certainly we can say that the power/principality that we call America stands to be good, but when we elevate those who kill in behalf of that principality to sainthood, we lose the ability to distinguish between those moments when the principality acts in accord with what God ordains and when it rebels against the same.  And Heaven help us when we make the claim that we can only be Christians because these men were willing and able to kill on the orders of that State.  Whether the offense to Christian martyrs in times of persecution is greater or whether the damage to our own sense that God is greater than any nation suffers more is up for debate, but both become realities every time someone renders those who kill in behalf of the State unimpeachable.  If all wars make saints of those who kill in war, then there is no place any more to distinguish between wars.

If I could offer some place to start thinking more clearly about Memorial Day, I’d begin with a call for Christians to frame our place in particular nations within the larger, world-historical story of the Church and not vice-versa.  The Way was around and witnessing to Christ for nearly two millennia before the Declaration of Independence, and moreover, those places that persecute Christians have the same kinds of armies, with the same kinds of young men, with the same sorts of weapons (minus a few trillion dollars of spending, but that’s another story) that America has.  We can love our country because of the particularities of its history, and we ought to pay respect to those who work to maintain the existence of that nation, but when it becomes ultimate and the Body of Christ secondary in the story we tell about the world, we’ve become merely one “religion” that the State tolerates so long as we don’t become trouble. To take such a path is to say that God needs America more than America needs God, that any act that the State undertakes is by definition a good act, that there is no higher arbiter than “national security” when it comes to saying “right” and “wrong.”

Instead, I would call for a reinvigoration of the concept of Kingdom of God (sorry, Tripp Fuller), a sense that wherever the Body of Christ gathers around the Eucharistic table, the true authority in the world is there, whether “there” is in the United States of America or in the current sworn enemy of the United States of America.  Thus to love a country (I’m shifting back into that register) is not to shout down any statement that the State is misbehaving but to open one’s eyes and to speak truth, to let the world know it’s the world, to paraphrase Stan Hauerwas.  (Sorry again, Tripp Fuller.)  To take this direction, which would in turn open up the doors to a reinvigoration of Just-War thinking and all sorts of other good Christian intellectual traditions, seems out of reach even as I write these words.  But the way I figure, Christ is best at showing up in places that are supposed to be out of Christ’s reach.  So there’s hope still, if we keep the faith and love our neighbors.

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