Dissonant memories and conflicting mandates

A meditation on the US Memorial Day

by Ken Sehested

My question is not whether we should mourn, legitimately and unreservedly, the loss of our war dead on Memorial Day.

Yes. A thousand times yes.

My question is, on what day should we also mourn the loss of others’ war dead? Indeed, one of Memorial Day’s stories of origin traces to April 1866 when a group of women in Columbus, Mississippi, decorated the graves of Confederate solders. Noticing the nearby barren graves of Union soldiers, the women place flowers on those as well.

Do we have no time or occasion, for instance, to mourn the loss of Afghanistan’s and Iraq’s casualties, the young and old especially, the women and children and all others whose only misstep was being in the wrong place at wrong time? The body count over the last 20 years of U.S. military engagement in these two countries begins, conservatively, at half a million and multiplies many times when accounting for the indirect fatalities due to war’s impact on access to food and potable water, poor sanitation, and minimal health care.

All of this, officially, in retaliation for the loss of 3,000 U.S. citizens in the 9/11 terrorist attacks on our shores.

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“Those who died in war were better off than those who died later,
who starved slowly to death, with no food to keep them alive.”
—Lamentations 4:9

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Truth be told, though, Memorial Day piety often serves to rally the emotions of national vanity and stoke the flames of vengeance. In doing so, we are caught up again in the logic of Lamech’s contention.

In the book of Genesis, immediately following the story of Cain's murder, is a brief genealogy of five generations of Cain's descendants, culminating with Lamech. The only thing we know about him is his hot pledge: "I have killed a man for wounding me; a young man for striking me. If Cain is avenged sevenfold, truly Lamech seventy-sevenfold" (Genesis 4:23a-24).

By chapter six, the relation between sin and violence is summarized in concise and explicit terms: "Now the earth was corrupt in God's sight, and the earth was filled with violence" (6:11). The presence of physical violence is the unmistakable indicator of spiritual corruption.

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“This is the word of the Lord to Zerubbabel:
‘Not by might, nor by power, but by my spirit,
says the Lord of hosts.’”
—Zechariah 4:6

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A very recent news story illustrates the danger of nationalism’s seduction.

Several acclaimed authors whose books have been published by Zondervan, a division of Harper-Collins, have issued a statement opposing the publication of “God Bless the USA Bible” in its New International Version, whose cover features an American flag, and including texts of the U.S. Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, the Bill of Rights,  the Pledge of Alliance, and the lyrics to “God Bless America” and Lee Greenwood’s popular hit, “I’m Proud to be an American.”

The 25 May statement says “American nationalism is its own civil religion, where America rather than Jesus is the center of attention.  Instead of Jesus and the Church being the light of the world and the hope for humanity, America becomes the Messianic force in the world. . . . It has its own theology —manifest destiny, the doctrine of discovery and American exceptionalism.  And this is precisely why it is dangerous to mesh patriotism with orthodox Christian faith. “ —read the entire letter, “Why We’re Glad Our Publisher Isn’t Backing The ‘God Bless The USA’ Bible,” by Shane Claiborne, Doug Pagitt, Lisa Sharon Harper, Jemar Tisby and Soong-Chan Rah

As biblical scholar and activist Ched Myers notes, “Of the 41 appearances [in the New Testament] of the Greek verb eulogeoo (literally ‘speaking a good word’), only twice do we find it in the imperative mood. In neither case does it involve God. It does, however, involve us. In Jesus’ famous sermon he invites his disciples to ‘Bless those who curse you’ (Matthew 5:44 & Luke 6:28). These instructions are later echoed by the apostle Paul: ‘Bless those who persecute you, bless and do not curse (Romans 12:14).’” —“Mixed Blessing: A Biblical Inquiry into a ‘Patriotic’ Cant

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“Some trust in chariots and some in horses,
but we trust in the name of the Lord our God.”
— Psalm 20:7

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One of the unintended consequences of our nation’s all volunteer military is that the visceral sting of war—the death of someone you know—is born by a tiny fraction of the population.

On top of that is the fact that the cost of our post-9/11 military adventures were put on the nation’s credit card. The tally to date is $6.4 trillion, which rises to $8 trillion when factoring in the interest on those loans.

We need a reminder that Congress’ 2001 “Authorization for Use of Military Force,” the legislation entitling the president to deploy the military, was specifically aimed at the Taliban and al-Qaeda. That authorization has now been contorted to launch 41 combat operations in 19 countries; and even with recent reductions, Special Operations forces are currently deployed in 62 countries.

Since World War II, the U.S. has deployed armed forces abroad more than 200 times without once declaring war.  Current military theory now speaks of our nation’s “Multi-Domain Battle” doctrine and an open-ended world of “competition short of conflict,” i.e. low-intensity undeclared armed conflict.

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“What causes wars? Is it not your longings and lusts?
You desire and do not have; so you kill.
And you covet and cannot obtain, so you wage war.”
—James 4:1-2

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The failure to love enemies is to hedge on Jesus.

Let’s be very clear about this: The disagreement between proponents of just war and those of principled nonviolence does not include competition for divine affection. God is utterly beyond such partiality, and nothing we can do will tip the scales of beloved attention.

The contrast in opinion is not a contest over who excels in moral heroism, superior courage, or intellectual rigor.

The difference isn’t over virtue and decency but vision and discernment, discernment of the shape of God’s claim of imminent domain over the earth (aka what Jesus named as the kingdom of God) based on what God has done in the past, on what God has promised for the future, and how those of us on the Jesus Road can best align ourselves to that direction.

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“Do you think that I cannot appeal to my Father,
and he will at once send me more than twelve legions of angels?”
—Matthew 26:53

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Participation in calculated violence is, I believe, evangelism for the devil. In its stead, ours is the Gospel of grace—not of religious sentiment but the power of disarmed hearts and hands to confront and unravel the rule of hatred and hostility. The profession of Jesus-oriented faith is hinged on the conviction that the future belongs to this sort of insurgency against the present reign of rancor.

At its core, the question is what to do with dissonant memories and conflicting mandates.

The church’s memorial day occurs every time we observe the ritual of Communion. The occasion is not only an rehearsal of transcendent allegiance but also a proximate pattern for life. When we hear the invitation to the Lord’s Supper—“do this in remembrance of me”—the “remembrance” is not simply reminiscence. It is professed allegiance to the mandate Jesus set before us, what Clarence Jordan called “the God Movement.”

If next Sunday’s benediction doesn’t at least imply this mandate, ask why.

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©ken sehested @ prayerandpolitiks.org