On Memorial Day we honor the American combatants who were killed in one of our many wars. In various places we have memorialized the war dead with statues and plaques and stained glass windows.
Daily we pass these pieces of stone and metal and glass, largely oblivious to what they signify.
Occasionally we may pause on our hurried way to lend more than the cursory glance. But for the most part these monuments fall into the background as we focus elsewhere.
They do not seize our attention and lead us to reflect on great questions like war and violence, justice and courage, peace and sacrifice.
We say that we want to provide a fitting memorial to those who have died in combat. And yet we recognize that these mute fixtures in town squares and overgrown battlefields and beautiful church buildings fall short of our aim.
And of course they do.
Deep in our souls we yearn to demonstrate to ourselves that these men and women did not die in vain. Their deaths bear enduring significance.
And so we set aside a day. Memorial Day. The nation celebrates the lives lost in our various conflicts. Parades, concerts, picnics, and festivals.
These are good things to do and they’re a lot of fun. But aside from the single prayer or the song designed to instill national pride, events like these are mere entertainments. Leisure activities designed to fill the empty hours of a civic holiday.
Some cable channels—AMC and TCM, for instance—will run war movie marathons. For the most part these films valorize war in order to portray a glamorized image of courage.
Valorizing war dishonors the war dead, combatants and non-combatants alike. To honor those laid low in war, we must first be honest with ourselves about war itself.
For instance, in our war in Afghanistan, nearly 1,100 American combatants have died. This is a ghastly figure, and yet this number is a small portion of the human cost. War-related violence has killed more than 26,000 civilians and wounded nearly 30,000 more. The death toll mounts to over 91,000 when we include Afghan soldiers and militants.
The indirect effects of war have taken as many as 360,000 lives. This number only hints at the orphans, the widows, the mourning parents, and the bereaved siblings. It does not include the thousands left homeless and sent fleeing for refuge in strange, foreign, unwelcoming lands.
When many of our service women and men return home, they do so with shattered bodies and hearts and souls. A tidal wave of disabled veterans is crashing against our shores.
Images of the visibly wounded appear on screen and in print with some frequency. But this tsunami consists of thousands of the invisibly wounded.
War is not the simplified morality play of good guys killing bad guys and bad guys killing good guys. It is sheer havoc. Indiscriminate devastation.
Valorizing war dishonors those who have fallen. And so how do we honor the war dead?
Before I offer my answer, I’m going to ask you to do something that the moral theologian Stanley Hauerwas challenged us to do. Remember that you are a Christian first. An American only second.
So the question before us is this: How do we as the Body of Christ honor the victims of war’s appalling destruction?
We remember God’s Dream, and we live our lives in determined, unrelenting pursuit of and devotion to that dream. Only that dream can redeem suffering, sorrow, and death.
We will beat our swords into plowshares and our spears into pruning hooks. (Isaiah 2:4) We are the Body of the Prince of Peace.
This is a challenge for us, the world’s largest exporter of weapons. We export more machines of war than the second, third, and fourth place countries combined: Russia, China, and France.
In our pursuit of peace, we remember the biblical vision that peace is justice, not merely the cessation of hostilities.
We are certainly each responsible for our actions. Accountable to God and accountable to each other.
But we are also responsible for the well-being of our neighbor. Too frequently we Americans focus on individual freedom and yet forget that God also created us to live together in mutual support as family, as children of God.
When God asked Cain about his brother Abel’s whereabouts, Cain asked, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” This did not go well for Cain. And we should not expect our refusal to be our brother’s or sister’s keeper to go well for us, either.
Jesus himself said that whatever we do to the needy, the helpless, the oppressed, and the marginalized we do to him. We are our siblings’ keeper. Our own well-being is bound forever to the well-being of everyone. That’s what it means to love our neighbor as ourself.
And so, let’s look at how our siblings are doing. Their condition will help guide us in the pursuit of God’s Dream, the divine vision of peace and justice.
The United Ways of Louisiana produced what is called The Alice Report: Asset Limited, Income Constrained, Employed. In other words, they studied how hardworking, fully employed people are doing across Louisiana.
Forty percent of working households struggle to afford housing, food, childcare, health care, and transportation.
These are working people whose wages are so low that they cannot reliably access the basic necessities of modern life.
That’s 695,719 households on the verge of falling through the cracks. They are cashiers and auto mechanics. Landscapers and bank tellers. Child care workers and librarians. Food service personnel and bank tellers.
These men and women struggle to make ends meet. They dream of making a better life for their families. But they are one illness or one car repair or one harsh storm from eviction and homelessness.
To borrow a phrase from our Presiding Bishop Michael Curry, when so many work so hard and yet face perpetual deprivation, God’s dream is beginning to fade into our nightmare. As one commentator put it, we know that our economic system is deeply flawed when a maker of coats cannot afford to buy a coat for herself or her children.
As the Body of Christ, we can insist that work—every kind of work—brings dignity with it. Work should provide for a decent living for workers and for their families.
Proper education, secure housing, adequate nutrition, and reliable healthcare are not luxuries. They are what is due to those who have worked hard.
As the children of God, we owe these necessities to our disabled, handicapped, aged, and infirm brothers and sisters. When our holy siblings are temporarily down on their luck, we owe them a hand up so that they can get back on their feet. And when we find that our social and economic and political systems have erected walls that prevent any group from thriving, we must tear those walls down.
We honor those who have fallen in wartime by seeking to shape this world in accordance with God’s Dream of peace and justice. We honor combatants and civilians. We honor friend and foe.
In Jesus Christ, God raises up what has been cast down. And we are the Body of Christ. We are his hands and his feet. And through our hands Jesus is making a New Heaven and a New Earth. That is the fitting monument to all who have suffered and fallen to the unspeakable violence of war.
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