May 29, 2005
Today is Memorial Day weekend – a civic holiday, not a religious one. It was first observed in honor of the Union war dead following the Civil War, and now honors all those who have died in our country's uniform. It's not one of the real, big civic holidays – more people are talking about the Indy 500 today than finding and decorating veterans' graves – so we often overlook it. But we are engaged in ongoing military operations overseas these days, and I just didn't think we should pass the occasion by this year . . .
So I want to say a few words today about the Xtn view of War – and of the Warrior. That would seem very odd to the first Xtns, who would have nothing to do with war. They were complete and utter pacifists. Old Testament Israel had a king and an army, and territory to defend; the Xtn Church had none of these.
But not only would the early Xtns have nothing to do with war, they would take no part in public life at all. They were like the Amish, who swear no oath, hold no public office, will not sue in court, will not attend public amusements like the theater, will not serve on a jury. The early Xtns viewed all government as coercive, and they would coerce no one: new souls for Xt could not be won by force of arms nor by writing laws, but only by the love of God in Jesus Christ converting the sinner's heart. Not only that, but the Xtns were profoundly counter-cultural: they viewed this world as going to hell (literally), and themselves as having been called out of it, to live apart from its values.
In all this, they make a marked contrast with the conscientious objectors of the 20th & 21st Centuries, many of whom have been deeply involved in public policy; they just don't like the military.
Anyway, all this began to change in the 4th Century: Xtny became a legal religion, and the persecutions ceased. Even the Emperor was a Xtn now! Bishops were honored, and their advice sought by officers of state. And new converts poured into the Church. A new thought had to be thunk – what would happen when a sufficient number of people became Xtns? Who would run the government and care for the public duties, if the Xtns exempted themselves? And so Xtns began to take part in public life, began to serve in office, even began to serve in the army.
This is the age in which St. Augustine began to formulate the idea of the Just War. For nobody could imagine a state that gave up the power to wage war; to do so would be to invite others to take over that state and make its peoples the subjects of another. But if war had to be waged, then it should be waged for a just cause, and it should be waged in a just manner. And these are still the tests that we apply to the conduct of our armed forces and those of other nations today.
This is why so much passion was spent – and is still being spent – on our invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq. Was it a "just cause?" And this is why so much hubbub is made over the abuses at Abu Ghraib – and the alleged abuses at Gitmo – because we hold ourselves to the standard that even war should be waged in a JUST manner, not by any means we can think up or desire at the moment.
Even though America is not, in any real sense, a "Xtn" nation, we are largely a nation of Xtns, and our laws and traditions are those of the culture that Xtny influenced the most. And these ideas are deeply held and respected by the American people, the American government, and the American military.
But there's no getting around it: armies and navies KILL people when they fight. The sticking point for Xtns, even after one has carefully gone over and over the theoretical ground, is that we are saying that one is sometimes justified in killing another human being – and I can understand if some people just can't wrap their souls around that one. But if war is a permitted activity of the state, and (especially in America) we ARE the State, then we need to think about what it means to be a Xtn Warrior.
One thing that it does NOT mean is a "warrior for Xt." As I said, Xt's kingdom is not maintained by force of arms, and it is better to die a martyr than to kill for Jesus. But a warrior in a just cause – or even, if you will, a warrior who is oneself a follower of Xt – is another thing: and what shall we say about these men and women?
Well, I like what Sir Arthur Harris of the RAF said once: the soldier does not exist to slay, BUT TO BE SLAIN. That is, the essence of soldiering is sacrifice. Sure, if it is your duty to kill, you must kill – though only according to the laws of war – but you could soldier along your whole career and NOT be asked to do that, y'know?
In WW 2, we had 16 million men under arms, but only 1 million saw actual combat; of those, probably half never fired their weapons in any given engagement. Back in the 18th Century, successful generals were notoriously reluctant to ruin their highly-trained (and irreplaceable) first-line troops, so most military activity consisted of marching and counter-marching, to force the enemy to recognize his disadvantaged situation and withdraw. The fact is, you could serve for 20 years as a soldier or sailor, and NEVER fire a weapon at an enemy, just like you could serve for 20 yrs as a police officer, and never fire your weapon at a suspect. That would not be unusual at all.
But when you join up, you accept certain risks on behalf of us all – this vast country of 280 million neighbors. You volunteer to go wherever you are sent, even into dangerous places – to do your job, even if you get killed doing it. Risks are all around, and the warrior accepts the risk of defending his neighbors and their homes and the territory of their government. The warrior fighting in a just manner even accepts the risks of defending civilians who happen to be in the way, and of enemies who have surrendered - not to mention the risk of disease or injury that has little to do with combat.
My father survived many dangerous bombing missions, and was finally invalided home from WW 2 because a wall of sand bags fell on him. He was lucky not to be killed, I suppose, but meanwhile, Gen Patton was killed in a TRAFFIC ACCIDENT after Germany surrendered! Our men and women are sometimes killed in training accidents, or by friendly fire, and every loss is a loss of the whole world – to the one whose life is ended. And so, today we honor those who went to war and did not come home to their families again.
Not all of them were heroes – at least, not as we commonly use that term. Hey, not all of them were even nice people. But all of them WENT – and these are they who did not come home again. We are all the beneficiaries of their sacrifice.
For those who died in Xt, we pray that perpetual light may shine upon them. And for those who died without confessing Xt, we pray that the God who promised to remember every cup of cold water given in aid will judge them with the same love and justice and not forget their reward. Beyond that we cannot go. We can honor them, but only God can judge them – or us – or anyone.
The least we can still do is to see that those who go off to serve in our country's uniform are remembered while they live – that they are prayed for - and supported. And we can pray for those who serve as chaplains to shepherd this flock of warriors, that their ministry will be fruitful.
And having said all this, let me return to Psalm 144; for this is not a bloodthirsty psalm, actually. The main thrust of the psalm is not about deeds of arms, but of other matters: listen again.
Blessed be the LORD, my rock,
who trains my hands for war,
and my fingers for battle;
my rock and my fortress,
my stronghold and my deliverer,
my shield and he in whom I take refuge,
who subdues the peoples under him.
God supports the warrior in the just cause.
O LORD, what is man that thou dost regard him,
or the son of man that thou dost think of him?
Man is like a breath,
his days are like a passing shadow.
That warrior puts that life, that can be so easily snuffed out, at risk. And that life is as precious to God as the lives the warrior goes off to defend.
Bow thy heavens, O LORD, and come down!
Touch the mountains that they smoke!
Flash forth the lightning and scatter them,
send out thy arrows and rout them!
Stretch forth thy hand from on high,
rescue me and deliver me from the many waters,
from the hand of aliens,
whose mouths speak lies,
and whose right hand is a right hand of falsehood.
I will sing a new song to thee, O God;
upon a ten-stringed harp I will play to thee,
who givest victory to kings,
who rescuest David thy servant.
Rescue me from the cruel sword,
and deliver me from the hand of aliens,
whose mouths speak lies,
and whose right hand is a right hand of falsehood.
Do you hear that? It's not about force, or violence, or even WINNING: it's about establishing justice, about defending truth, about being willing to die but wanting to live.
And then comes this prayer:
May our sons in their youth
be like plants full grown,
our daughters like corner pillars
cut for the structure of a palace;
Oh, the pride that is shown here in those who go off to defend us! We have given the best we have, you know?
may our garners be full,
providing all manner of store;
may our sheep bring forth thousands
and ten thousands in our fields;
may our cattle be heavy with young,
suffering no mischance or failure in bearing;
may there be no cry of distress in our streets!
Happy the people to whom such blessings fall!
Happy the people whose God is the LORD!
And the result of their offering of themselves is our peace, our safety, our prosperity, and the chance for others to grow up and be everything that those who didn't make it home could never be.
Death comes to us all, sooner or later, and how one dies is, I suppose, of not very great moment in the long run. But how one lives: that's a different thing. How one lives changes the meaning of death and remembrance. Today, we remember all those who died in uniform – who lived to serve us, their neighbors, and who did not come home again.
Some of them we hope to see again, in the new Day that Xt will bring in when he comes. But of them all, we can say,
They shall not grow 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.