“Have you thanked a soldier today?”
My friend asked me this question on Memorial Day several years ago. No, I hadn’t, actually. I hadn’t come across anyone who was serving in the military that day. I felt a little guilty when she asked me, especially because I knew her dad was in the military and she would probably be shocked at my lack of thankfulness, but I had been preoccupied with the excitement of being done with school and getting together with friends for a picnic. After that conversation, though, I did look out for someone I could thank so I could report to her later that I had indeed thanked a soldier.
Of course, I was missing the point of thanking a soldier. Even if my motivation for shaking someone’s hand and saying “thank you” had been right, I still would have fallen short of what it means to celebrate Memorial Day and honor the soldiers who have died in service. In fact, I think our Memorial Day traditions often fail to get at the essence of what it means to remember soldiers’ sacrifices for our country.
So how do we thank the ones we are remembering?
We need to think about two factors of our current situation affecting how we celebrate Memorial Day. First, we live in a very divided country, and that division invites the question of whether the sacrifices were and are really worthwhile. No matter what your political views, you probably believe that America has some (many) faults. And yet many people have died fighting for or on behalf of it.
The second factor is that we, as Christians, owe our ultimate loyalty to Christ and His kingdom, not the U.S. However, this loyalty doesn’t mean we shouldn’t also honor and thank our soldiers’ for their sacrifices — if anything, it should make us want to give honor where it’s due. So, how can we remember and honor soldiers’ deaths while giving the ultimate glory to Christ?
In essence, I’m asking, how should we, as Christians, respond to fallen soldiers’ decisions to give their lives for a country with so many faults?
Our Christian faith can actually enlighten the way we can honor soldiers who have died for a broken and divided country. In many ways, soldiers’ deaths resemble Christ’s. Soldiers willingly go into battle for something that is imperfect (no country is perfect) and makes many mistakes. Similarly, Christ died for something imperfect; in fact, He died for something that actually deserved to die. Christ gave His life for His people, knowing fully how evil they were (yes, that would be us).
Perhaps we can learn how to celebrate Memorial Day by looking at how we celebrate Christ’s death. Here’s three ways we’re called to respond to Christ’s sacrifice.
1. Thank you!
Christ died for us! Obviously, we should respond with thanks. Of course, Christ is alive and can hear our thanks. Fallen soldiers do not hear our thanks, but thankfully acknowledging their sacrifice for us is still certainly appropriate. And just as we thank the Father for sending His Son as the ultimate sacrifice, we can thank God for sending soldiers to make a significant temporal sacrifice on our behalf. And we can thank their families.
Christ did not die so that we could keep sinning. He died so that we could see the seriousness of our sin and turn away from it. I’m willing to bet that the vast majority of soldiers who died fighting for the U.S. knew that it had many significant flaws — yet they were willing to fight for it. I’m also willing to bet they didn’t give their lives so that the U.S. could keep its flaws: they died to give the U.S. a chance to recognize and change its faults. So, honoring their sacrifice involves looking at ourselves and our country and recognizing our own faults. As Christians, we should be seeking to do this anyway! Recognizing our own sin is a necessary part of our lives.
3. Live Obediently
The next step after repentance, of course, is obedience. Christ not only died for us, but He lived the perfect life so that when we recognized and repented of our sin, we could look at Him as an example of how we should live our lives. As U.S. citizens, rather than merely recognizing the faults of our country, we should be seeking to fix them, starting with changing ourselves. It honors the soldiers who died for the country when the members of that country seek to improve themselves and their country.
So let’s continue to reflect on Christ’s sacrifice as we think about how to remember and honor the soldiers who have sacrificed for our country. And let’s make this an everyday thing. While we may get together with friends for a barbecue and games on Memorial Day as a celebration, our actions in our everyday lives are what honor soldiers and give meaning to their sacrifices. And indeed, since our ultimate hope is not in America, we can be courageous and active even when our country makes mistakes. Our King will never make mistakes, and our loyalty to Him pushes us to serve and be faithful, even in a flawed country.