Odds are that you won’t be going to a Memorial Day celebration of any sort…unless you think going to stores for the sales counts. You might be among the relatively few who attend a Memorial Day parade or community ceremony. However, for the last few decades a declining number of people attend such events. Nevertheless, if you attend a church in America your chances of being exposed to some kind of Memorial Day ritual greatly increases. It often happens in worship.
Memorial Day is a specially designated occasion for honoring the people who died while serving in the military, particularly in war. It originated in the aftermath of the Civil War, first in the South and shortly thereafter in the North. Originally called Decoration Day, this was an occasion for recognizing the Civil War dead and for placing flowers on their graves.
In the twentieth century and since the focus of Memorial Day broadened to honor all Americans who died while in the military service. The primary purpose of the holiday is to hold in thankful memory the freely given sacrifices of the soldiers for the good of the nation. These sacrifices are lifted up to be honored and, when necessary, emulated by those who are still living.
From the beginning Memorial Day was more of an expressly spiritual affair than Independence Day. The somber parades have generally had religious overtones and speeches given at community gatherings frequently have had references to scripture. This nationalistic spirituality is heightened in tone and content when Memorial Day celebrations are brought into worship. As with Independence Day, the many churches that observe Memorial Day display the American flag, sometimes having the congregation stand to recite the Pledge of Allegiance. Patriotic music is included in the service as the voices of the worshipers are joined in singing lyrics that extol America and ally God with the nation.
Sermons for the day are characteristically filled with expressions of thanks for the soldiers who died in war and declarations about their heroism. Messages commonly honor the sacrifices of the fallen by linking battlefield deaths with the self-denial Jesus called his disciples to practice. Sometimes the sacrifices of soldiers engaged in warfare are even compared favorably to the sacrifice of Jesus Christ. But as this is done, a full-fledged and faithful expression of Christian faith gets undercut and other interests than glorifying God are served.
To a great extent nationalistic claims merge with claims of Christian faith in Memorial Day sermons so that the distinctiveness of Christian faith is blurred. Preacher David Whitten compared death of soldiers to the incomparable sacrifice of Jesus: “Thank God for those who died to make us free….Similarly the price Jesus paid afforded our salvation.” Similiarly? Such a comparison diminishes the astonishing nonviolent, self-giving act of God in Christ in order to bestow exaggerated honor on those who died in bloody conflict.
But such comparisons are a regular feature in Memorial Day messages that issue from pulpits. Despite the fact that freedom of religion was not at stake in a single American war, Whitten declared, “Because men died for this country we have a right to preach God’s word freely.” Yet freedom of religion for Americans has not been at stake in any war the nation has fought. Misleading assertions of this sort are not uncommon in Memorial Days sermons.
After making some blatantly slanderous claims about the aims and intentions of antiwar activists in a sermon titled “So Much to Remember, ” preacher Jerry Shirley insisted, “We should make much of our war heroes before our children….We are proud of our heritage and those who have so honorably defended our freedoms.” Instead of fostering affections for peacemakers who deplore war, the preacher urges Christians to instill in the hearts of the young national pride and foster a disposition to support those willing to make war.
The church has a particular responsibility to remember truthfully, not in a way that fosters either national pride or the demonizing of others. As we gather for worship the memories we lift up are those that call us to be attentive to the working of God, lead us to seek the comfort of God, and move us to be more gratefully faithful to God, not to any other power. Michael L. Budde observes that “the control of death’s presentation and meaning remains central to reinforcing the claims of modern citizenship above all other allegiances and identities.” (The Borders of Baptism: Identities, Allegiances, and the Church , 184.). For the church in worship it is the Christian story, not the American story, that sets the context of our presentation of death and its meaning.
Memorial Day exercises in worship, like those in non-church settings, are all too often exercises in false memory. While lost loved ones are rightly grieved and courageous and sacrificial actions are justly admired, it is definitely not true that all American wars have been for just causes or fought in a just manner. All who have served in the armed forces are not heroes by any reasonable definition of the word. To “remember” in a way that suggests otherwise, as many sermons have done, is deceptive and destructive, bestowing honor where honor is not due and illegitimately glorifying, not only warriors, but American wars.
Memorial Day rightfully is America’s holiday. But it is not one of the Church’s holy days and it should not be treated as though it is. It is no part of the church’s purpose to celebrate the wars or the war dead of any nation. Christians come together in worship as a transnational community of faith bound together by Christ, not nationality.
The church has set aside a time for remembering the dead. That time is All Saints Day. This celebration of remembrance is not for those who died for the nation in wars, but for those who died in Christ from all nations. On this day we honor those who went before us on the journey of faith and who are examples for us as we endeavor to walk in the way of the Prince of Peace. The church in America needs to keep its memories straight by keeping the story of Jesus at the forefront all the time, even on Memorial Day.