One of my earliest memories is a trip to the downtown Wichita library with my father.
(My father died when I was ten, which I suppose makes this an especially vivid and poignant memory for me.)
My father, who fought and was partially deafened in WWII, took me to the history room to show me something. I sat at one of those incredibly long wooden tables as my father scanned the military history shelf – WWI. When he found the book he was looking for, an oversize hardback volume, he brought it to the table and flipped quickly to a specific battle, running his finger down the page till he was pointing at a name and picture.
“That was your grandfather, Nick.”
He was the hero of some particular battle in the first world war. He received a medal, posthumously, and got his name in a history book. Sadly, since I didn’t think to ask about him again before my father died, I have forgotten all the details. What book? What battle? I can’t remember.
Still, it is enough to know that my dad held his dad in such high esteem, and that my father and grandfather were both national heroes.
I am incredibly proud of their bravery, commitment and sacrifice.
Today, I wish they could know the scriptures that tell us that Christ was the end of sacrifice.
My father and his father were not Christians, and I have no idea how far back you’d have to go on that side of the family to find a Christian self-designation. When I joined the Christian community after my father’s death, I didn’t lose the legacy he left me, but became part of a new family, a new body, a new tradition. Let me tell you a story about my spiritual forefathers.
In 1918 a group of young Hutterites in South Dakota were summoned for army duty. They obeyed orders to appear at Camp Lewis, but only to tell them that they could not sign the admission papers, or put on army uniforms, or take up arms of any kind, because they were religious objectors to war.
After two months in the guard house at Camp Lewis, the four men were sentenced to 37 years in prison. They were to spend their prison term in the military prison at Alcatraz. The four men were ordered by their guards to remove their outer clothes and put on military uniforms. They refused. The guards put them in cold, solitary cells with nothing but their underwear on and a military uniform, telling them that they would remain there till they wore the uniform, or until they died.
For the next five days they received a half-glass of water every twenty-four hours, and no food, and no bedding. At times, they were removed from the hole, bound by their wrists to the ceiling and beaten. Some guards reported that their wrists were too swollen to put on their jackets by this point. After four months the men were transferred to Fort Leavenworth prison, where two of the men were hospitalized, and the other two placed in solitary confinement on starvation diets. They were bound with their hands on the other side of the prison bars, forced to stand nine hours per day with their feet barely reaching the floor.
One of the hospitalized men managed through a nurse to send a telegram to his home, which prompted all four of their wives to travel to Kansas to see the men and protest and publicize their treatment. By the time they arrived there, they found their husbands near death. By the next morning, Joseph Hofer, one of the hospitalized men, had died. His wife, Maria, insisted on seeing his body, but the guards refused her permission. She went up the chain of command, eventually convincing the colonel of the base, through tears, to let her see her husband before he was buried.
She was taken to the casket to find him dressed in the military uniform he had refused to wear in life.
Michael Hofer, his brother, died several days later.
Memorial Day is a very difficult day for many people. As it should be. Regardless of a Christian’s stance toward warfare and military service, a day memorializing those who have fallen in combat is a day the church must stand in repentance. We have failed and continue to fail as arbiters of peace and ministers of reconciliation (1 Cor. 5). Every death in war, whether American or foreign, whether “necessary” or wasteful, is a failure of the church. Memorial day should, for all people, a reminder that war is bad and to be mourned, not that war is great and to be celebrated. And Memorial day for Christians must not become a day for tribal prayer for “our soldiers,” without also remembering Jesus’ admonition to pray for our enemies.
As we remember our national and military heroes, let’s be mindful not to be sucked into patriolotry, or hero-worship, or the sort of empty propaganda that states often try to pull us into.
Personally, I am left remembering my early trip to the library and the pride in my father’s voice as he told me about his own father’s heroism. And I am left wondering whether being willing to kill for something is really the most noble ideal we can come up with.