Memorial Day, Turner Field style: Some ambivalent Christian reflections

Memorial Day brought a big show of honoring the troops at Turner Field in Atlanta. Was it acceptable that I cared?

So here is an itemized list of everything the Atlanta Braves and Turner Field did to mark Memorial Day on Monday. I was there:

• Troops from a wounded warrior recovery center unfurled a huge flag, almost as large as the entire outfield.
• Distinguished leaders from each of the five major armed services were introduced and featured.
• The flag of each of the five services was displayed.
• Troops lined each base path before the game.
• Braves and Red Sox players were then interspersed between military members.
• Several videos featured pictures and footage from U.S. wars.
• A large part of a speech by President Ronald Reagan was played, with military footage as backdrop.
• The National Anthem was sung by a soldier currently in Afghanistan.
• Two moments of silence for our nation’s one million American war casualties, before the game and then at 3 p.m., were observed.
• Braves players offered taped testimonials to their respect and admiration for our nation’s military, played between innings.
• Four fighter jets flew over in formation during the National Anthem.
• Every between-inning event featured members of the military.
• Every crowd shot featured members of the military.
• Both Braves and Red Sox players played in uniforms altered for a military look.
• I assume that the brilliant Timothy Miller sang his goose-bumpy God Bless America during the 7th inning stretch; we had left by then.

And here is a list of messages that most people would have been sent or received during the day of patriotic festivities:

• The U.S. is the greatest nation on earth.
• U.S. people have the freedom to do things like play and watch baseball because of the sacrifices of our troops.
• We are a peace-loving people, but our troops are there to protect our freedom when it is threatened.
• Every member of the military is a hero, regardless of the form or context of their service.
• Military members risk their lives for us and deserve to be honored for this.
• Military people do what they do out of a sense of calling.
• We are proud to be Americans; we are especially proud of our troops.
• Love of country is closely connected with love of the military.
• The flag, troops, National Anthem and other patriotic symbols must be treated with respect.
• No dissent from any of the above was visible; the entire experience appeared to be a matter of common consent.

I know many Christian theologians, ethicists and pastors who would have turned up their nose at this entire experience.

Some would have dissented out of a Christologically based suspicion of all national loyalties, at least for those who claim to be followers of Jesus.

Some would have dissented because they believe that the United States is an imperial power rather than a virtuous peacemaker.

Some would have dissented because they believe that the threat and use of force violates the way of Jesus and thus cannot be honored by Christians.

Some would have dissented from particular claims made during the day, such as the grandiose affirmations related to the greatness of the United States.

Some would have dissented based on life experiences in parts of the world where the United States has played an ambiguous or destructive role.

Some would have dissented based on generational experiences such as the Vietnam War.

Some would have dissented because they are suspicious of emotional appeals that create mass group-think experiences such as this one.

I have always been ambivalent in the face of such patriotic displays, rather than totally with the crowd or totally against the grain.

I am ambivalent on the “Yes” side because both my father and my late father-in-law served in the wartime military of the U.S., and I am loyal to them;

And because I believe that the display of honor to those who serve a nation is preferable to the display of contempt or indifference, especially if Romans 13 is read as justifying some necessary security role for state officials, which is how I read it;

And because service, courage, sacrifice and other-regard are indeed virtues worthy of elevation, especially in our narcissistic society, which is all about the unfettered Self;

And because I do believe that it is appropriate for Christians to have a measured loyalty to nation and people as long as it is subordinate to loyalty to Jesus Christ (a very hard achievement, to be sure);

And because every society needs a public square in which to celebrate and reflect on matters communal, and I would rather it be the baseball stadium than the local church.

I am ambivalent on the “No” side because I believe in scrupulous regard for the truth, and much that is said about U.S. virtue, peacemaking, greatness and so on is vastly overblown at such patriotic events;

And because I am disturbed, precisely as an American, by the elevation of military might and service to the center of our understanding of patriotism and national identity;

And because the treatment of every military career as heroic, equally a desk job or five combat tours in Iraq, strikes me as seriously misguided, perhaps reflecting a profound civilian guilt complex;

And because I wonder whether public displays of honor function as a kind of substitute for adequate care for wounded veterans or adequate diplomacy to prevent overuse of the military.

And because patriotic displays do not encourage us to think about these issues, but instead to feel certain feelings — unless, perhaps, there were some others in that stadium and around the country today thinking about precisely such issues today, rather than just feeling the prescribed feelings.

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