Veteran’s Day

The organ mimics marching feet, the harmonized singing echoes the call and response of orders and assent. The five verses summon up images of the Civil War, the Spanish-American War, World War I and II, Korea, Vietnam, and Iraq I and II. How clean and pure and melodic it must be for angels to wage war singing songs like this, songs that sing like peacetime parades but conjure up allusions to the battlefield.

Veteran’s Day falls but a week after All Saint’s Day. What uneasy company! The one is to celebrate all those who have died, died working and loving and waiting and worshiping. The other celebrates all those who have rushed laughing and mistaken to the plunge of bullets, deeming their cause righteous enough to kill for, judging their salary a mandate of the people and their victory divine right.

Perhaps instead we should remember all those who we’ve killed in the name of war. There can be no other cause for war than war, and we have certainly killed more than our fair share of the opposition, whether that enemy opposed us or our economy or our friends’ economies.

Like many congregations around the nation, a Methodist church in Brownsville struggles with the Veteran’s Day holiday every year. Inevitably the large cadre of veterans want military songs and salutes, while those who hold Jesus’ message of peace cringe at the thought of a militarized church zone. The same dispute waged years ago over the three flagpoles outside. Many wanted the American flag to fly above the Texas flag and the Christian flag, but many complained, some because they though Christ should be overall, a few who thought Texas should be tallest.

The myth of redemptive violence is alive and well in churches who still speak war rhetoric. There can be no vanquishing of evil, because it is people who commit evil deeds. To vanquish evil is to unconscionably vanquish those individuals who oppose our position, thereby making us evil and vile and worthy or violent retaliation. The cycle goes on and on, with the church’s crusade banner marching on at the forefront.

If the Christian church is to take serious its role in healing the nations, it must recall all hymns which equate holy wars with Calvary. Redemptive violence is not sacrificial love – one invokes suffering on oneself, the other inflicts it upon any who oppose it. This imagery, contrary to some beliefs, is not necessary nor bedrock to the Christian faith. For years we Christians have been slack in our acceptance of war rhetoric. The late Kurt Vonnegut scathingly accused his fellow fiction writers of taking the easy way out by having the good guy kill the bad guy in the end. He writes,

I want to apologize for all of us. We have ended so many of our stories with gunfights, with showdowns and death, and millions upon millions of simpletons have mistaken our stories for models of modern living. We have ended our stories with showdowns so often because we’re so lazy. Gunplay is no way to live – but it is a peachy way to end a tale. (“Address at Rededication of Wheaton College Library, 1973”)

The same sad statement could be leveled at the church, though we have even less excuse than a capitalistic storyteller. Every time Christians support a war, we are admitting that God’s followers are unwilling either to follow his teachings or too impatient to work at the peaceful solution. Every time we give in to violence, we are espousing the dangerous belief that Jesus’s Good News of peace and love does not apply to all men everywhere the same.

Martin Luther King, Jr., was often frustrated with the churches of his time. He saw countless Christians talking about love but then keeping mum about the injustices of segregation and the immorality of Vietnam. In his famous book, Where do we go from here?, he writes,

Through violence you may murder the liar, but you cannot murder the lie, nor establish the truth. Through violence you may murder the hater, but you do not murder hate. In fact, violence merely increases …Returning violence for violence multiplies violence, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.

All too often, we Christians forget that we serve Jesus, the man of sorrows, the Savior who saved by becoming a living sacrifice, a martyr. How can we go on supporting “righteous” violence any longer?

The church is best when it counterbalances and opposes the state. It should provide the moral conscience of our 3-party system; it should be the fourth party, mores so than the media. Instead, we have allied ourselves with soldiers in a time that needs no encouragement for warring. It is high time we took Jesus’ brave stance against violence and began working on problems themselves rather than attacking those who might oppose us. The gospel of peace speaks for itself when it is lived out in earnest.

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