On Monday both of my kids marched in our town’s Memorial Day Parade. It was a fantastic community affair. People lined the streets and engaged one another. Flags were waved. Fallen soldiers were remembered. There were a number of town groups marching in the parade received by many cheers and an applauding crowd. Veterans were prominent of course, as were those in active service. The fire department and police were on grand display, as were scouts, bands and ball teams, the things small towns like ours thrive on. We even had flybys by two airplanes over Main Street. It was an impressive display of patriotism and town participation.
We went home ready to participate in the great Memorial Day tradition of enjoying the backyard all afternoon and firing up the grill for our family picnic.
Civic holidays play an important role in our social and cultural construct. In our diverse and ever-growing individualism they give us a reason to pause and remember we are actually all on the same team no matter how varied our politics or religious expressions. These days can remind us of our ideals which are too often not fully realized. “Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” is a costly affair, and days like Memorial Day should not only instill in us a sense of communal and national pride in who we are, but I hope also a sense of gratitude and humility as we publicly engage the issues we face today.
Memorial Day, like other civic holidays, reminds me of family members who have served in our military, and in my family’s case were able to come home safely and build the lives they fought to protect – where hard work, doing the right thing, looking out for your neighbors and caring for your family were the greatest of virtues to pursue their American dreams. Those dreams opened opportunities for the generations that followed them, for which I am grateful. They helped provide the freedom to keep on marching even in our contemporary world full of violence and division, oppression and every “ism” that continues to scar the human experience.
We live in a country trying to live out a great experiment – that you can be a patriot and love your country even if your fellow citizen has a different ethnic background than you do, comes from a different economic status than you do, votes for a different candidate than you do or practices a different faith than you do (or even no faith at all). Diversity rather than conformity is given high value in our society (even if that ideal is far from fully realized). We have a long way to go, and our human sinfulness can never fully solve our problems.
When it comes to our civic holidays, I think we should be mindful of a few pitfalls:
- Honoring our war dead without deifying them or demonizing our former enemies. Our common goal should be peace and reconciliation; not glory or disgrace.
- Failing to count the suffering and death that civilian populations endure on all sides. Remember, war exists because of human sin and failure. The cost of that failure is destruction and death; too often for non-combatants.
- Forgetting that our national identity is different from our faith identity. Being an American and a Christian is not mutually exclusive; a person can be both, a person can be one and not the other, and a person can be neither. Most of the saints of the church were not Americans. Many impressive Americans (including those among our war dead), were not Christians. Many people are neither. Yet what we all share in common is our humanity. In my view, we forget our common humanity too often.
We live in a world that confronts freedom with fear and peace with aggression. As a result we have an ongoing need for those who protect us and I am grateful we have people who have answered that call. While a parade won’t solve any of the challenges set before us, civic holidays can remind us of our need for diligence, gratitude, and that our communities can face future conflicts together, whatever our diverse backgrounds are.
Our calling as the church is to look beyond the parade. We share good news in a world that feels more divided, more violent, more discriminatory, more “ist,” more fragile, more hopeless, and more distracted than we can remember. Our task as people of faith is to cast a vision through word and action that reveals a small glimpse of the kingdom Jesus promises where all will be restored. We do this every week when we gather for worship, study, prayer and service. We do it in our everyday lives as people who work hard, care deeply, and love passionately – not because it all depends on us, but precisely because it doesn’t. Grace, mercy and loving-kindness first shared with us by Christ is our free gift to give to the world. Share it with your fellow church-goer, and share it with a non-church person too. Share it with your neighbor, an immigrant, the poor and the forgotten. Share it with a veteran or with a family whose loved one did not come home. The gift is there. Share it – even when there is no parade.
Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “See, the home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them; they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them; he will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away.” And the one who was seated on the throne said, “See, I am making all things new.” (Revelation 21:1-5)