Sunday, May 25, 2014

War and the Christian Faith - Some reflections for Memorial Day (J. Barry Vaughn, May 25, 2014)

The origins of Memorial Day are obscure, but it is likely that it began in the American South after the Civil War and was then adopted by people in the North.


That makes sense to me.  As we all know from high school history, the Civil War took the lives of more Americans than any other conflict because Americans were fighting Americans. It was a war that set brother against brother. Both sides suffered terribly, but the South suffered a disproportionately greater loss.


The total number of deaths in the Civil War was about 750,000 or 4 out of 10 young men. Imagine a war in our time that took the lives of 4 out of ten young men. Would the U.S. public today support a war so costly in terms of human life?


But even though Memorial Day is an American tradition, the meaning of the day really came alive for me when I lived in Great Britain.


It is impossible to live in Britain for long and not be aware of the enormous impact that World Wars 1 and 2 had on that country. Every town, no matter how small, has a war memorial on which the names of the fallen are engraved.


The British people endured far more than the American people in those two conflicts. Great Britain lost almost one million men in World War I, the Great War, the “war to end all wars.” The U.S. lost just over 100,000.


The U.S. lost just over 400,000 soldiers in the 2nd world war; Britain lost only slightly fewer troops.  But Britain lost almost 70,000 civilians in the second world war, because that war touched the British isles more directly than it did the United States. Night after night German bombers rained bombs down upon London in the Blitz.


In the U.S. we celebrate and remember those who have DIED in our countries’ wars on Memorial Day in May, and we honor those who have SERVED – that is, our veterans – on Veterans’ Day in November. In Britain, there is one holiday – Remembrance Day. It is in November, and its origins are the same as our Veterans’ Day: the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month. The hour, day, and month that the armistice ending World War 1 was signed. The Queen lays a wreath at the memorial in the middle of the street in front of the Houses of Parliament and the entire country pauses in silence for 60 seconds. It is a remarkably solemn experience.


A few years ago I was in Israel on the day that they remember their war dead – Yom HaZikkaron, that is Memorial Day or Remembrance Day. Like the British, the entire country pauses for one full minute of silence. I was in Tel Aviv walking down a street. An air raid siren sounded. Fortunately, I was expecting it, so I didn’t dive for the nearest shelter! And not only did every single person on the street pause for 60 seconds, even the cars stopped. It was both eerie and moving.


The British read this poem on Remembrance Day:


They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning,
We will remember them.


We do well to remember those who have died in our wars. It is a noble thing to serve one’s country as a member of the armed services..


But war of any kind should give us pause. In today’s second reading, the author of First Peter says, “It is better to suffer for doing good… than to suffer for doing evil.”


Christianity holds us to a high standard. At the heart of the Christian story is the image of Jesus who died an unjust death, who prayed for and forgave his enemies, who endured suffering without retaliating and who calls us to follow his example and do as he did.


In the gospel reading today, Jesus says, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments.” And there’s the rub, there’s the thing that must give us pause this Memorial Day.


One of the things that Jesus said with perfect clarity was this: “You have heard that it was said, "An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also… You have heard that it was said, "You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.' But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven.”


Could anything be clearer?  Some call this the “counsel of perfection.” Others simply regard it as an impossible standard.


At the time of the Reformation, some of the Reformed Christians went even farther than Luther and Calvin in rejecting medieval Christendom. They took the Reformed principle of sola Scriptura or scripture alone to the extreme and said that Jesus’ counsel of perfection in the Sermon on the Mount should be taken quite literally. So they rejected all cooperation with civil government, reasoning that civil government requires the support of armies and militias and that inevitably involves the use of the sword and the taking of human life. Among the groups who followed this route were the Mennonites and the Quakers.


I find their principles admirable. Indeed, I sometimes think that if I were a better Christian, I would be a pacifist. Perhaps I am not a good Christian, because I do not believe that Jesus’ commandment to turn the other cheek applies in every situation.


One of the great Christians of the 20th centuries was German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Born in 1906, Bonhoeffer grew up in the shadow of World War 1. That conflict cost about 2 million German lives or nearly 4 percent of the German population. Like many German and British Christians in that era, Bonhoeffer was a deeply convinced pacifist. And then Hitler came to power. Bonhoeffer eventually came to realize that there are limits to Jesus’ summons to non-violence. He participated in a plot to assassinate Hitler, was arrested, and executed.


Another great 20th century figure regarded as a saint by many, even though he was not a Christian, was Mohandas Gandhi, who was deeply influenced by the Sermon on the Mount.


Gandhi took Jesus’ summons to non-violence and developed his own philosophy that he called satyagraha, a word that means “soul force” or “truth force.” But at the heart of Gandhi’s philosophy of satyagraha is not nonviolence, but nonviolent RESISTANCE.. Gandhi’s principle of active but nonviolent resistance eventually wore down the British empire and won independence for India. Following Gandhi’s example, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr….


When Churchill met Stalin during World War II, he complained about the problems that Gandhi was causing him in India. Stalin’s advice to Churchill was that he should just shoot Gandhi. I suspect that if the Soviets or Nazis had ruled India, Gandhi’s principles would not have worked.


Jesus was right:  We should always love our enemies and pray for them. Always. No exception. Turning the other cheek or non-resistance to evil should be our default position. But I believe there comes a time when we must resist evil in order to save the innocent.


Our servicemen and women deserve our honor and respect, not only because of their willingness to put their lives between our country and its enemies. In my experience it is those who lead our armed forced who are usually the first to recognize that the use of military force should always be the last option and never the first. A sure way to trivialize the sacrifice of those who have died in military service is to be too ready to go to war, too ready to implement the military option.


I conclude with a short quiz, just to see if you’ve been paying attention! Which president said this?


“Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and not clothed. This world in arms is not spending money alone. It is spending the sweat of its laborers, the genius of its scientists, the hopes of its children. This is not a way of life at all in any true sense. Under the cloud of threatening war, it is humanity hanging from a cross of iron.


The source of the quotation was our 34th president – Dwight D. Eisenhower, who also served as Supreme Commander of the Allied Forces in Europe during World War II.


So this Memorial Day, let us give thanks for those who gave (as Lincoln called it) the “last full measure of devotion.” But let us also remember to love and pray for our enemies.