My Backstory series offers stories about my upbringing and background. You can find the whole series under the category “Biography,” if you’re interested.
Memorial Day was never complicated when I was a kid.
We lived on top of a mountain in Appalachia in the middle of the woods. Flagpoles weren’t part of the natural landscape, but my mom had inherited her mom’s 48-star American flag (so – pre 1950?) and bought a bracket for it one year. Dad found a pole, strung up the flag, and installed the bracket on a tall tree that flanked the gravel pathway from our circular driveway up to the house. It was a huge flag and I don’t remember how it came into our family. I’d guess it could be from World War 2. I wish I’d asked.
But it was cool to see that huge flag wave in the breeze among the trees. We eventually stopped putting wear and tear on the 48 star specimen and switched to my maternal grandfather’s funeral flag, with its crisp white edges and all 50 stars.
Dad was a Korean War era vet, so he was particular about the flag’s handling — he never left it out in the rain or overnight and folded it carefully back into its triangle at the end of Memorial Day and 4th of July.
I always liked the rhythmic visual symmetry of the 48 stars even though the flag was technically “out of date.” A holdover from when life seemed simpler, to my young mind wrestling to pin definitions on the words my dad used when ranting at the news about “commies,” “pinkos,” Democrats, Reagan, union-breakers, and Japanese steel imports (which to his mind were entirely responsible for destroying the Pittsburgh steel industry, not the failure of the unions to negotiate within a realistic understanding of a global economy.
But church on Memorial Day and July 4 and Veterans Day always themed around America, blending together Jesus’ sacrifice and the soldier’s. We sang the Battle Hymn with no sense of irony:
I have seen Him in the watch-fires of a hundred circling camps,
They have builded Him an altar in the evening dews and damps;
I can read His righteous sentence by the dim and flaring lamps:
His day is marching on.
I have read a fiery gospel writ in burnished rows of steel:
“As ye deal with my contemners, so with you my grace shall deal”;
Let the Hero, born of woman, crush the serpent with his heel,
Since God is marching on.
In the beauty of the lilies Christ was born across the sea,
With a glory in His bosom that transfigures you and me.
As He died to make men holy, let us die to make men free,
While God is marching on.
It wasn’t until I got to college that I met anyone who even began to question the easy elision of Christ and Country. Early in our dating days, it came up that Coart would not sing the Battle Hymn out of principle – not a Southerner’s simmering rage at the War of Northern Aggression, but because he could not sing words that suggested America’s bloody history of war and violence were the same as Jesus’ work of redemption.
Honestly, I’d never even realized what the hymn was saying, linking the Union war against Southern slavery to the advancement of God’s Kingdom. Or that God would judge people based on how they reacted to “his contemners.” It was awkward and uncomfortable and eye-opening. If you have to kill 700,000 of your own citizens to bring them God’s Kingdom, you might be doing it wrong.
I was raised in a Christian school and community and household that thoughtlessly linked America and God, placing us without question on the same side of all issues. I’ve since come to realize that the landscape is more complex.
It wasn’t until I got to Presbyterianism that I discovered people who refused to say the Pledge of Allegiance. In fact, I taught in a school where no one said the pledge ever, it seems. We experimented with pledging to the American flag and Christian flag at some early assemblies and ceremonies, but that fell aside quickly. Presbys understand that we are citizens of another country, and they mean it enough to risk (or enjoy) being “unpatriotic.”
But I’m not really happy with that approach either. Is the Pledge really that big of a deal? My dad and hundreds of thousands of other men and women have dedicated themselves to preserve an idea of an America where freedom matters, where people have chances, where democracy takes root and thrives.
It’s not an accident that I was born in the United States and not Zimbabwe, Peru, Denmark, or Thailand. God placed me here, in this nation, to be good at both Kingdom work and civic virtues.
American Christianity, at least the Evangelical flavor, could use a dose of wisdom and discernment to separate their American ideals from what the Bible teaches. With no apologies to my friends, I cannot see Capitalism as a biblical virtue. (I’m not saying it’s evil; I’m saying it’s a system that’s just as broken as the humans who inhabit it.) War is not a virtue either — it’s the last resort of sinful, broken people in a world that’s so twisted by sin that we couldn’t find any better solution. So we kill people.
I’m tired of conservative mantras showing up in Sunday sermons as truth, as middle class Christian Evangelicals adjust to living (once again) in a country where immigrant culture, changing demographics, and a shifting economy threaten to disrupt their traditional values. (America’s been through this before.)
But — all that aside —
I’m proud of my father, my grandfathers, and the friends I have who served proudly in the US Armed Forces.
I’m thankful for the many who have chosen military service (or were drafted but served anyway, even when they disagreed) because they see value in trying to give people the gift of self-direction.
I live too far away from my home to visit my dad or grandfather’s grave today for Decoration Day. I know the local VFW has placed a flag and maybe a wreath on their brass military plaques. And that’s the right thing to do.
1 Peter 2:17:
Honor all men. Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honor the king.