My question is not whether we should mourn, legitimately and unreservedly, the loss of our war dead on Memorial Day.
Yes. A thousand times, yes.
My question is this: On what day should we also mourn the loss of others’ war dead?
Indeed, one of Memorial Day’s stories of origin traces to April 1866 when a group of women in Columbus, Mississippi, decorated the graves of Confederate soldiers. Noticing the nearby barren graves of Union soldiers, the women placed flowers on those as well.
Do we have no time or occasion, for instance, to mourn the loss of Afghanistan’s and Iraq’s casualties, the young and old especially, the women and children and all others whose only misstep was being in the wrong place at wrong time?
The body count over the last 20 years of U.S. military engagement in these two countries begins, conservatively, at half a million and multiplies many times over when accounting for the indirect fatalities due to war’s impact on access to food and potable water, poor sanitation and minimal health care.
All of this, officially, in retaliation for the loss of 3,000 U.S. citizens in the 9/11 terrorist attacks on our shores.
Lamentations 4:9 comes to mind: “Those who died in war were better off than those who died later, who starved slowly to death, with no food to keep them alive.”
Truth be told, though, Memorial Day piety often serves to rally the emotions of national vanity and stoke the flames of vengeance. In doing so, we are caught up again in the logic of Lamech’s contention.
In the book of Genesis, immediately following the story of Cain’s murder, is a brief genealogy of five generations of Cain’s descendants, culminating with Lamech.
The only thing we know about him is his hot pledge: “I have killed a man for wounding me; a young man for striking me. If Cain is avenged seven-fold, truly Lamech 77-fold” (Genesis 4:23a-24).
By the sixth chapter, the relation between sin and violence is summarized in concise and explicit terms. “Now the earth was corrupt in God’s sight, and the earth was filled with violence” (Genesis 6:11).
The presence of physical violence is the unmistakable indicator of spiritual corruption. Thus, Psalm 20:7 asserts, “Some trust in chariots and some in horses, but we trust in the name of the Lord our God.”
One of the unintended consequences of our nation’s volunteer military is that the visceral sting of war – the death of someone you know – is born by a tiny fraction of the population.
On top of that is the fact that the cost of our post-9/11 military adventures were put on the nation’s credit card. The tally to date is $6.4 trillion, which rises to $8 trillion when factoring in the interest on those loans.
We need a reminder that Congress’ 2001 “Authorization for Use of Military Force,” the legislation entitling the president to deploy the military, was specifically aimed at the Taliban and al-Qaida.
That authorization has now been contorted to launch 41 combat operations in 19 countries; even with recent reductions, Special Operations forces are currently deployed in 62 countries.
Since World War II, the U.S. has deployed armed forces abroad more than 200 times without once declaring war.
Current military theory now speaks of our nation’s “multi-domain battle” doctrine and an open-ended world of “competition short of conflict.” In other words, low-intensity undeclared armed conflict.
“What causes wars? Is it not your longings and lusts?” James 4:1 asks, with the answer following in verse 2. “You desire and do not have; so you kill. And you covet and cannot obtain, so you wage war.”
The failure to love enemies is to hedge your bet on Jesus.
Let’s be very clear about this: The disagreement between proponents of just war and those of principled nonviolence does not include competition for divine affection.
God is utterly beyond such partiality, and nothing we can do will tip the scales of beloved attention.
The contrast in opinion is not a contest over who excels in moral heroism, superior courage or intellectual rigor.
The difference isn’t over virtue and decency but vision and discernment, which considers the shape of God’s claim of imminent domain over the earth (what Jesus named as the kingdom of God).
It is based on what God has done in the past, on what God has promised for the future, and how those of us on the Jesus road can best align ourselves to that direction.
Participation in calculated violence is, I believe, evangelism for the devil.
In its stead, ours is the gospel of grace – not of religious sentiment but the power of disarmed hearts and hands to confront and unravel the rule of hatred and hostility.
The profession of Jesus-oriented faith is hinged on the conviction that the future belongs to this sort of insurgency against the present reign of rancor.
The church’s memorial day occurs every time we observe the ritual of Communion, the occasion is not only an enactment of transcendent allegiance but also a proximate pattern for life.
When we hear the invitation to the Lord’s Supper – “Do this in remembrance of me” – the “remembrance” is not simply reminiscence. It is professed allegiance to the mandate Jesus set before us, what Clarence Jordan called “the God Movement.”
If next Sunday’s benediction doesn’t at least imply this mandate, ask why.
Curator of prayerandpolitiks.org, an online journal at the intersection of spiritual formation and prophetic action, and author of, most recently, In the Land of the Willing: Litanies, Prayers, Poems, and Benedictions. He was the founding director of the Baptist Peace Fellowship of North America and founding co-pastor of Circle of Mercy Congregation in Asheville, North Carolina.