Memorial Day piety

A meditation on the day's significance

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 15 years alone of U.S. military engagement in these two countries begins, conservatively, at one million, the overwhelming majority noncombatants, consumed in retaliation for the loss of some 3,000 in the 9/11 terrorist attacks on our shores.

        Truth be told, though, Memorial Day piety too 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" (Gen. 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.

        I happen to believe that the failure to love enemies, resulting in the resort to calculated violence, is to hedge your bet on Jesus. Others will argue differently.

        So 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. No one gets more cookies, seating upgrade or pay-for-play access to seats of power. 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 imminent domain (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.

        Moreover, the disagreement is not merely between these two positions but also within each of them. In any given season or circumstance people of equal compassion and courage and intellect can and will disagree over a spectrum of details. None can claim privy access to the will of God, the mind of Christ or the movement of the Spirit.

        The choice demands each person’s studied attention and devoted commitment, assessed, corrected or refined within a community of conviction. Unfortunately, there is no empirical test to verify accuracy prior to risky engagement. However, should convictions shift based on new insight, turning this way or that remains an option. The worst you can do is remain a bystander.

©Ken Sehested @