Monday, May 26, 2008

Reimagining Memorial Day

Memorial Day is a day that captures well the central narrative that constitutes the American identity. It is not only a day to remember those fallen in combat, but a ritual that sacralizes the American narrative and creates a people named American. In this way the day is deeply religious, and serves to both celebrate national loyalty as well as imbue the American conscience. So it is no surprise that today millions of Americans will gather on parade routes, waving flags, applauding military personnel, and wearing shades of red and blue. This ritual is a sacrificial ritual, as the death of those in battle is cast as such, in the name of freedom, patriotism, protecting one’s nation, and so on. And this is precisely why the day is problematic for Christians.

Nonetheless, many Christians will don the red, white, and blue and join their fellow Americans in telling the story of American war casualties as we have been taught to tell it. That we have been taught to tell this story this way ought to remind us that remembering and storytelling are moral activities. Alasdair MacIntyre, and Hauerwas under his influence, have been incise in pointing to the connection between narrative and identity. Our identity is constituted by the narrative(s) that inform our life. We are who we are because we have been born into traditions that make us into the people we are and are becoming. The problem, thus, with Christians telling the American story the way Memorial Day asks us to tell it, is that it is a story that should not be ours, and is a story that seeks to undermine the narrative proclamation of the fourfold witness of the Gospel.

That Christians insist on participating in national rituals like Memorial Day suggests that in the hopes of transforming America we have instead found ourselves transformed by it (Stanley Hauerwas has insightfully shown how and why this is the case particularly in his book “After Christendom?”). But I would suggest that Memorial Day also affords Christians with the opportunity to resist the American myth precisely within the practice of remembering. The practice of the Eucharist is the central ritual that forms the worship life and identity of Christians. It is in the Eucharist that we learn how to remember, and that remembering is embodied in the concrete practices of partaking of the body and blood of Christ. It is the Eucharist that reminds us that Christ is the end of sacrifice, and all alleged sacrifices must be cast in relation to his. Therefore, when Christians call the death of American soldiers sacrificial, we are using language that undermines our belief that Christ’s sacrifice is the normative sacrifice.

Of course, Christians have not bought into this idea senselessly. I suspect we really do believe that American soldiers have sacrificed themselves in order to defend our freedom, or to ensure that we are enabled to live the lives we have been taught to live. I also suspect most Christians would wholeheartedly applaud President Bush’s speech at Arlington National Cemetery, wherein he said, “I am humbled by those who have made the ultimate sacrifice that allow a free civilization to endure and flourish.” American society, founded as it was on philosophical and political liberalism, has and always will be dependent on its war-making character. A civilization like American does need people willing to make “the ultimate sacrifice” in order for it to exist. That this is so should make Christians pause before we herald the freedom such deaths allegedly ensure. After all, Christians believe that we have been made free by the life, death, and resurrection of Christ, not the death of soldiers.

Bush concluded the above quotation with the following: “It only remains for us, the heirs of their legacy, to have the courage and the character to follow their lead and to preserve America as the greatest nation on Earth and the last, best hope for mankind.” Such a statement should appear odd for a Christian to utter, as there is nothing in it that is not idolatrous. It is not the role of Christians to preserve the American nation. But even more explicitly idolatrous is Bush’s claim that American is the last and best hope for mankind…what, might I ask, does that make Jesus? If Bush is a sincere Christian, which I suspect he is, then how can we interpret this statement? Has Bush so intertwined America with Jesus that to speak of one is to implicitly speak of the other? Has Bush positioned America over and above Jesus or does he really believe that the American project is indistinguishable from Jesus as the hope of mankind? By what standards is Bush able to say American is the “greatest nation on Earth,” and how then does he understand the inevitable rearranging of international power relations with the “rise” of China?

Equally disturbing is the observation that many Christians would not blink an eye at Bush’s claim. I am not confident that Christians will recognize the idolatry of such a statement as long as we continue to think that freedom of religion, in the way it currently operates, is a good thing. Freedom of religion has functioned to create a space called “private,” to be distinguished from the “public” in order that democracy can work. Many of the founding fathers assumed that in order for a peaceful society to exist religion had to be relegated as private. Considering the centuries of religious wars in Europe, this assumption was not without basis. The great irony, of course, is that while Americans no longer kill in the name of religion they are more than ready to kill in the name of the nation.

Yet Christian salvation is political, and this politic is embodied in the existence of the church. That Christ is Lord means that Caesar is not, and thus national loyalties are always kept in check by the lordship of Christ. For Christ is not Lord over some space we call “private,” but is Lord over the entire cosmos. Therefore, Christians must imagine a way to tell the story of American deaths in war in a way that does not make those deaths relative only to their lives as soldiers. It is not the case that we seek to condemn those who have died in war, or to dishonor them for their involvement in the politics of the world that are judged by the politics of Jesus. Rather, perhaps their deaths serve to remind us of our own complicity in the war-making character of this society. Perhaps their deaths can move us to repentance, and usher us to the table of the crucified one. I am not sure the best way for us as Christians to do this, but I think it can be done. After all, the conviction that we worship a crucified God requires that we be brought into a story that strikes all as foreign. And it is, for this is not a God we can know apart from this God making himself known. Nor is God’s way or ruling the world able to be surmised by political and military tacticians.

A good place to start is to refrain from the pomp of the Memorial Day parades, and perhaps instead to bow at the Eucharistic table of the Lord who refused to accept the politics of this world as his means of establishing the Kingdom of God. What if while many Americans observed silence for the death of soldiers, Christians were at the same time found in sanctuaries, observing silence before the table of the Lamb of God, who is the Lion of the Tribe of Judah, and who has conquered by being slain? What if we refused to accept the story of these soldiers’ deaths told by those who would seek to make both their lives and deaths meaningful in relation to their identity as soldiers?