Reflecting on the sacrifices of “D-Day,” that infamous moment on June 6,1944, when young men walked ashore to die. They did so because a Nation ordered them to do so, and because they believed that what they were fighting for and would soon die for was a worthy cause. This scene has been repeated religiously in our Country’s short history time and again. I use the word religiously on purpose. As an American I am thankful for the sacrifices these young men and countless numbers of young men and women following them, who have made the same sort of sacrifices for freedom. But as a Christian, as a human, I must recognize that war is never good, and we should always be careful to avoid conflating the death of young men and women, no matter how valiant we consider the cause, with righteousness. We must be introspective enough to collectively evaluate our motives and put them into perspective. What is this propensity to kill and inflict mayhem and death on others simply because we are convinced we are right? And as an American I have no doubt that we were right, but did not our enemies not think the same? And what about those instances in American history when we were wrong?
In her book Searching for Sunday, Rachel Held Evans reminds us of instances in American history when we really thought we were right. Consider that in 1838, the American government, as directed by President Andrew Jackson with military might and superiority, removed more than sixteen thousand Native Peoples form their homes, relocating them west. Thousands died. An event that President Jackson praised in his farewell address by saying, “Providence has showered on this favored land blessings without number, and has chosen you as guardians of freedom…May He who holds in His hands the destinies of nations make you worthy of the favors He has bestowed.” And also, in 1862, Methodist pastor J.W. Ticker told a Confederate audience, “Your cause is the cause of God, the cause of Christ, of humanity. It is a conflict of truth with error -of the Bible with Northern infidelity -of pure Christianity with Northern fanaticism.” Of course, “the cause” Reverend Ticker was defending was the institution of slavery.
My point is that perhaps there have been just as many, if not more instances in American history where we were on the wrong side of a righteous cause. And although I certainly don’t think Normandy was one of those instances, I do think we should be extremely hesitant to repeat clichéd rhetoric that elevates service to our Nation on par with deific sacrifice. It was this concern that led early Pentecostals, of my personal religious heritage, to designate themselves as conscientious objectors. A holiness tradition that is no longer widely practiced. Now it seems we esteem military service as a sacrament of our civil religion.
As James K.A. Smith, writes eloquently in Desiring the Kingdom, “Christianity…has accommodated itself to these American ideals of battle, military sacrifice, individual freedom, and prosperity…Many Christians experience no tension between the gospel according to America and the gospel of Jesus Christ because, subtly and unwittingly, the liturgies of American nationalism have so significantly shaped our imagination that they have in many ways, trumped other liturgies. Thus, we now see and hear and read the gospel through the liturgical lenses of the “American gospel.”
We should thank service men and women for the sacrifices they have been willing to make on our behalf and on behalf of our Nation, but we should not deify them. Reflect on the service of the brave men who stormed the beaches, say thank you, go out of your way to honor them. But do not worship them. Only one is worthy of worship.