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How a pacifist can celebrate Memorial Day
Self-sacrifice is honorable, and we can honor those who have fallen as having noble intentions, without endorsing the wars the heads of state have waged.
On Memorial Day, Americans remember fallen members of the armed forces. For Anabaptists, and all other peace-loving and peace-making Christians, those Christians opposed to war, I think this presents a conundrum. How can we honor and remember fallen soldiers who fought in wars we opposed? Is celebrating Memorial Day contradictory or wrong for pacifists? My viewpoints on this matter have changed over the years, but as I have befriended members of the armed forces, I have been convicted to have compassion and love for them, instead of judgment or gracelessness.
In John 15:13, Jesus tells his disciples, “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” The late date of John suggests that the writer understood already the theology around the death of Jesus and its propitiation. The writer understood that, in Christian thought, Jesus’ sacrifice atoned for our sins. And so as Jesus predicted his death, the writer uplifted these words as a marker for how God loved us. God loved us so much that God died for us. I think that is a beautiful, powerful, and true image. Any loving parent would do anything for their children, including die for them. The same is true for people the adults we love; we’d sacrifice anything for them. Jesus is naming this fundamental truth, that indeed there is no greater lover than to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. That’s what Jesus is doing and that’s what he calls us to.
Members of the armed forces that die, I believe, are fulfilling this very truth in their hearts and minds. To them, they are laying down their lives for their friends, whether they are in the military with them, or they’re at home. The state gives them a very strong belief that what they are doing is self-sacrificial and others-centered. They think they are fulfilling the greatest love. For the people that protest the wars they participate in, they believe they are fighting for their freedoms. The words of the Lord are powerful and persuasive, in addition to true, and so I see the sacrifice of these fallen members of the military. And I honor them for it. I see their love and I think it is worth remembering.
My own political viewpoints lead me not to fight in wars and to oppose them, but my opposition doesn’t harden me to be without compassion for members of the military. I try to see them and know them, and understand their actions from their vantage point.
I do not believe that they are willfully engaging in immoral acts, and in fact, they sign away their right to even have such an objection. Most of the members of the military that I know are strictly apolitical (at least in public), not by choice, but by obligation. But I do think they are acting in goodwill.
Sometimes people join the military for practical reasons, including health care, better rates on home loans, education stipends, and retirement and pension plans. But even within that framework, there is a notion of being involved in the greater good that is appealing to many of them. In fact, I believe they are actively often engaging in work they think exemplifies the sacrificial love of Jesus. The universality of Jesus’ words exceeds their religious quality, so even individuals who don’t profess Jesus as Lord, might still see the wisdom in Jesus’ saying, or might discover the universal truth in by another route.
I do not think that members of the military’s sacrifice matches Jesus’ atonement, but I see the goodwill and noble intentions, and even as someone opposed to war and military conflict, I believe I can honor them.
While my opposition to war is universal, almost everyone I have spoken to, in the military or not, has found one war or another objectionable. And while they do that, they still find honor in those who have fallen, so my take, that you can honor those who have fallen in conflict you disagree with, is hardly controversial.
It is my belief that the U.S. heads of state exploit the self-sacrificial love within each of us, and they do so, not for the greater good, but for their own interests. We are told that wars are fought for the freedom and liberty of Americans, but they are fought for U.S. power and domination. Whether or not you think that is a good thing or not isn’t the question here, it is the fact that the U.S. convinces us that we are self-sacrificing for a greater good, but it is only within a certain context that we understand that.
Some of you think that U.S. interests are in the general interest of the entire globe and even of humanity. I’m of the opinion that that can sometimes be true. But I am of the opinion that we too often resort to war and violence to advance this dubious greater good. In my view, it is plainly wrong to engage in violence and to send our young citizens to fight and die for their country (which is why arguments for war and violence are very elaborate – because violence is that plainly wrong). We know that violence is wrong as much as we know that such self-sacrifice is the height of love. So, again, we know that sacrificing ourselves for our friends is the greatest love, but we also know sending our friends to die, is quite the opposite of that.
It is my desire for our heads of state then to exemplify that love of Jesus in their choices to participate in and start wars, instead of using that truth to exploit the goodwill of American citizens. Violence and war are too often forgone conclusions in our society, and we should look for other solutions to solve interpersonal and international problems. Of course, proponents of war will often say that the present circumstances necessitate war and it is the only way to accomplish the greater good, but I will keep pushing back against that narrative because violence is often too easy and uncreative. And further, the cost of war, which we also remembered on Monday, is so high that we must exercise caution – at the very least – and, for me, complete opposition, to war. But that does not mean we cannot honor the noble intent of fallen members of the military, even if the state exploits that intent to advance its own interests, while it fails to consider the families and lives of those who are burdened the most.