Memorial Day is weird for me. I’ve never been accused of being a patriot. I guess I love this country? I don’t know…. It could be a whole lot worse. I think I love the idea of this country–That the people have the power to change things. But that power is only worth something if the people are educated and informed, and that is not currently the case. I don’t even say The Pledge of Allegiance…. I believe we only have one allegiance to give, and it’s not to a flag nor a republic for which it stands. For Christians especially, if we are putting our hand over our hearts and pledging our allegiance to something, it’s not going to be a country–no matter how nice a place it is to live. Memorial Day is weird for me….
Please know that I’m not trying to be disrespectful…. My issue is certainly not with fallen soldiers–It is with the country they fell for. And even then, my issue is not so much with America (nor any of its enemies) as it is with a whole way of thinking that is embraced and celebrated on days like today. My problem is with the Myth of Redemptive Violence. It is the idea that violence needs to be met and dealt with by more violence, and for many, it is the real religion of this land. It is the sort of deeply troubling logic that Shane Claiborne speaks of (while speaking of Gulf War Veteran Timothy McVeigh) when he wrote, “He comes back from war, mentally deranged, and continues to kill. And then the government that trained him to kill, kills him, to show the rest of us that it is wrong to kill.” It doesn’t make any sense.
On Memorial Day we remember those who gave their lives for this country, and we tell their stories. But the powerful stories of heroism in war–the ones that inspire me and stir my soul–are the stories of people laying down their life for a friend. There is nothing uplifting to me about “killing them before they kill you.” I find nothing inspiring about young men and women dying for something as empty as “patriotism”–Patriotism for a country that asks those same young men and women to sacrifice the part of themselves that knows that killing people is wrong. A country that asks its poorest kids to be willing to kill strangers so that a few rich, powerful men can stay rich and powerful–All in the name of something as empty as “patriotism.” And as veterans are killing themselves at unprecedented rates (as many as 22 per day), the country who always finds the money to go to war can’t seem to find the money to spend on fixing these sons and daughters that it has broken. And then we take a day off from work, we put up flags in our yard, and we go shopping because TODAY, SOFAS ARE 40% OFF!!!
We can honor their bravery without legitimizing and perpetuating the means by which they attempted to achieve peace. Our soldiers were told a story, and we continue to be told the same story today. We are told a story that says “The only thing that can stop a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun.” Well that story is a lie. It’s a story that responds to school shootings by passing laws to give teachers guns and putting armed officers in every school. It is a story that says, “We need to bring back the electric chair, just in case we run out of the drugs necessary to kill the criminals on death row” (as Governor Haslem has just done here in Tennessee). It’s a story that says, “Sure, that ‘Love your enemy’ stuff might work in personal relationships, but if you think that stuff would work in the real world, you’re naive or crazy or worse.”
We can honor our fallen soldiers without passing along that same old story to our children. People have believed these false stories, and what someone believes to be true becomes true for them. We keep telling this same story over and over, and all it leads to is more death and war and violence. I believe the best way we can honor the memory of those who died fighting in America’s wars is to work to dispel the myth of redemptive violence. Very few of us–even those of us who follow the Jesus who commanded us to love our enemies–can even IMAGINE another story. But we HAVE been given another story.
It’s a story that starts out with “You have heard it was said…,” but it is followed up by a very important “But I tell you….” “But I tell you: Do not resist an evil person… Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you… Be like your father in heaven… Do not repay evil for evil… Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good!” But I tell you we can let go of this paradoxical idea that the only way to achieve peace is through war. But I tell you we can let go of this twisted idea that the way to deal with people who kill people is to kill them. But I tell you that you can let go of this incongruous idea that a sane response to school shootings is to have more guns in schools.
I think a better way to honor the dead is to work to make the world a place where we don’t have to play by the same rules that we have been playing by for so long now. Not to turn the brave men and women, sons and daughters into heroes for dying, but to acknowledge the illogical tragedy of a way of thinking that cannot imagine an option other than meeting violence with violence–What a memorial THAT would be.