Memorial Day is approaching. Students are looking forward to “warming-up” for summer vacation, and families are anticipating weekend festivities around beaches, swimming pools, and backyard grills. American flags will be prominently displayed, and most U.S. citizens at least intend to demonstrate appreciation to military veterans at some point during the weekend.
Most churches in the U.S. are also gearing up for the holiday, planning special services that pay homage to service men and women. The Sunday before Memorial Day, veterans and active service people will be asked to stand for a round of applause. Worship musicians will lead patriotic hymns, American flags will become the focal points of stages, pastors will preach patriotic messages, and prayers will request special blessings on those who are doing God’s work of U.S. military service. All of this comes on the heels of the National Day of Prayer, when Christians across the country, once again, plead, “God, bless America.”
The church to which I belong – the church I love – is not any different from the ones I have in mind. Several times each year, I too attend a service in which nationalism and patriotism take center stage. During such festivities, I cannot help but be moved to tears, though not because of overwhelming displays of patriotism. I feel a weight of conviction for those who are forgotten.
During the Philippine-American War, Mark Twain wrote “The War Prayer”, a short story that describes the scene of a church service in which young soldiers and good Christians are commissioned in faithfully doing their respective parts to bring about the military victory that must be the will of God. During the pastor’s culminating “long” prayer, a stranger walks on stage claiming to bear a message from the Almighty. The message is that the prayers being prayed have an unspoken component: “O Lord our God, help us tear their soldiers to bloody shreds… wring the hearts of their unoffending widows… turn them out roofless with their little children to wander unfriended in the wastes of their desolated land in rags and hunger and thirst.” Twain’s story was not published until more than a decade after his death.
I am grateful to live in the United States. I am grateful for the freedoms I enjoy, not least of all the privilege to worship in a church without fear of government or terrorist persecution. I am grateful that people of other religions – and those of no religion – have the freedom to choose according to their beliefs as well. Whether war is immoral or justifiable is a debate not likely to be settled any time soon. Regardless of one’s position on the issue, the wars of U.S. history, and most certainly the men and women who were and are involved, are immeasurably significant to what our nation has become. The U.S. would be a very different phenomenon if not for their bravery and sacrifice.
And yet, I cannot remember the American dead without thinking of the non-American dead. I am moved to tears in remembrance of the “enemies” killed in the name of political ideals and national interest. I imagine the faces of the many children condemned to suffering, orphanage, and death under the label of “collateral damage.” I do not know whether I am very good at keeping Jesus’s command to love my enemy, but I do hope that we will not forget to love those neighbors we call non-American “casualties of war.”
In Perpetual Peace, Immanuel Kant writes, “At the end of a war… it would not be unfitting for a nation to proclaim… a day of atonement, calling upon heaven, in the name of the state, to forgive the great sin… of the barbarous means of war.” I would like to humbly propose that as we continue to celebrate our freedom, we will lovingly honor all of those who were sacrificed toward that end. Perhaps if we turn our attention beyond ourselves, we will come to love everyone who is beyond our nation’s borders. Maybe then we will find ourselves one step closer to an authentic peace, praying not “God, bless America,” but “God, bless every person of the world.”