Chaplain (Major General) Kermit D. Johnson, USA (Ret.)
In 1982, Great Britain won a military victory over Argentina in the Falkland Islands. Shortly thereafter a memorial service was held at St. Paul’s Cathedral in London. Some people were disturbed by the stress in the service on peace and reconciliation instead of the military victory at the cost of 255 lives. One politician even referred to “cringing clergy” who misused “St. Paul’s to throw doubt upon the sacrifices of our fighting men.” One of the priests was Archbishop Robert Runcie, a tank commander in WWII who was cited for bravery for rescuing a soldier trapped in a burning tank. In his sermon, Archbishop Runcie said, “War’s a sign of human failure, and everything we say and do in this service must be in that context.”
This poses a question for us in the context of Memorial Day: How can we be true to the claims of the gospel of Jesus Christ and at the same time honor the sacrifices of those who have served their country and have been willing to give up their lives?
At one time this kind of a question was quite uncomplicated for people of faith. The sixty-eighth psalm is considered one of the Yahweh war narratives. In it, God is perceived to be a Divine Warrior, the Commander of Armies who wages holy war on behalf of Israel.
In those days war and the religion of Israel were commingled. The only wrinkle seemed to be that, according to the prophets, on occasion Yahweh chose to lead foreign armies against Israel. The withdrawal of God’s presence was a sign of God’s judgment. Needless to say, prophets like Jeremiah who spoke of such judgment were not welcome in the body politic, not when the chariot stickers of that day read, “Judah: love it or leave it.” In this nationalistic climate, the prophets sounded a countervailing theme: Trust in Yahweh alone, not your horses and chariots and armaments.
Indeed, the Christian church has viewed the sixty-eighth psalm not just as a war narrative but as a messianic psalm symbolic of God’s ultimate victory in establishing a universal, peaceable kingdom. The New Testament lessons provide further intimations of this universal kingdom. The miracle in Paul and Silas’s prison experience was not so much the earthquake that unfastened their chains but that a jailer for the enemy, the Roman Empire, after hearing “the word of the Lord,” was set free to become a member of God’s peaceable kingdom. Then, in Jesus’ high priestly prayer, his scope of vision goes beyond his followers to those who would believe on him through their word. His prayer is for “the world,” that it may know God’s love. And then, from the book of Revelation, John envisions this universal kingdom at the Omega point, at an end time, when “everyone” and “anyone” “who wishes to take the water of life as a gift” is welcomed into God’s presence.
But what does this vision of God’s peaceable kingdom mean for us today? When this vision of what God intends for the human family is kept before our eyes, I believe we have to question all war. As Archbishop Runcie said, “War is a sign of human failure,” a breach of that neighbor love we are to have for the whole human family.
War is to be questioned, not just at the political level, but at a very down-to-earth personal level. All wars need to be scrutinized under the searchlight of what the theologian Karl Barth called “supremely personal interrogation.” As a lieutenant of infantry and as a company commander, I experienced this in the Korean War. Men would come to me individually and ask, “Why are we here?” Then, when my best friend and West Point classmate was killed 500 yards from my position, I asked the cosmic question, “Why?” The next day, as I walked through the trenches of his company, I came across a sergeant sitting outside the trench and staring blankly into space. As I approached, he cursed and pointing at another man said, “Why couldn’t it have been that man instead?”—a G.I.’s strange way of expressing respect and even affection for his company commander. “Why are we here?” “Why?” “Why couldn’t it have been that man instead?” Supremely personal interrogation.
One reason for questioning war is that no one questions war more than those who fight it. And we question war because their lives are precious. We shall never cast doubt upon their sacrifices, but we shall cast doubt upon any cause not worthy of their lives. Reinhold Niebuhr alerted us to the fact that it is possible to take some of the highest qualities of individual human beings—love of country, loyalty and patriotism—and these can be transmuted or changed into national egoism.
So we have to ask on behalf of G.I.s whose voices are never heard, “Why should their lives be risked? Do they need to be in the killing fields? Is it a matter of tragic necessity? Is there a better way?”
By asking questions like this, we are rejecting the holy war. The historian Arnold Toynbee noted that war has been regarded as “an act of religious worship.” Have you ever noticed that once a nation enters the cathedral of violence, most voices become hushed. We do not wish to trivialize or to jeopardize the lives of those that have been put in harm’s way. But at the same time, we must not allow another religion to take over obeisance to the cult of human sacrifice.
So today, in the context of Memorial Day, it is not as if we take off a Sunday to pay tribute to another religion, one that takes priority over the peaceable kingdom envisioned by our Lord. But if the Holy War is not an option, neither can we pretend we are first century Christians under the heel of the Roman Empire. We are citizens of a democracy with dual citizenship—free to practice our faith. In such a context, I would like to believe what the pacifist Helmut Gollwitzer said about the use of force, describing it as “that very secular task which requires the greatest love and unselfishness.” We honor those given to this task and their willingness to lay down their lives. We also recognize that members of our armed forces and their families lead lives of enormous personal sacrifice, undergoing the stress of frequent moves and separations as they ricochet around the world.
I would also like to think that these dedicated people are showing us new ways to build world community. They are involved in missions worldwide that clearly transcend the tenets of the old political realism based on power and our nation’s self-interest.
In the global village in which we live, just across the street (or ocean), it is not just one person who has been beaten and left for dead. Just across the ocean in Rwanda over a half million people died and we passed by on the other side. We failed to show neighbor love for those who were the victims of genocide. Are we ready for the mind-boggling idea that armed forces from our nation or collectively in the United Nations can be the Good Samaritans who have regard for the well-being of all members of the human family? Perhaps they will lead us into a new patriotism not only love for our country but for the entire human family. Surely the Rwandas, the Congos and the Cambodias of this world are signs that Jesus’ vision of a peaceable kingdom is not utopian and not a religious platitude but a mandate for life that calls for pragmatic and political embodiment.
Thy Kingdom come. Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Amen.