Today is Memorial Day in the US. Its origins lie at the end of the Civil War as a way of remembering soldiers who died in service from both the Union and Confederate forces. Since then, it has expanded to include all members of the armed forces who have died in service to the US.
It wasn’t completely strange to hear an advertisement on an evangelically-aligned radio station wave the patriotic flag. What was strange, though, was a particular sentence in this ad. The narrator spoke, ‘On this day we remember those whose sacrifices have enabled us to worship him’. The ‘him’, of course, is a reference to Christ. However, it is theologically wrong to say that one (even an American!) would not be able to worship God or Christ without the death of members of the US military.
If any sacrifice enables Christians to worship God or Christ, it is the sacrifice by Christ. The deaths of people enlisted with the military do not enable people to worship Christ any more than sacrifices made by diplomats to negotiate peace treaties between the US and another country. The service members are representatives of the US armed forces working for the interests of the US government. Yes, their deaths should be remembered but not as being somehow theologically significant.
This kind of contamination of theology in evangelical circles with a flavour of American civil religion is nothing new. However, it highlights the emptiness of evangelical political theology. This kind of marriage between theology and civil religion has replaced the disavowed study of theology in evangelicalism.
Do people owe soldiers anything? Do soldiers lay down their lives in the same way Christ laid down his? Are we mixing civil religion and Christianity for the sake of our own naive beliefs of freedom and necessary sacrifice? While this line of thought occurred a few months ago, it is all the more relevant as Western governments continue to commit troops to wars, some times with noble intentions but other times with ulterior motives.
What is frightening to me is that churches often glorify soldiers in the same way television glorifies athletic stars and actors. Giving them a religious meaning by equating their sacrifices with Christ’s sacrifice cheapens both. It cheapens a soldier’s duty by turning it into some kind of religious quest and obscures its much more ‘secular’ origin as fidelity to a national government. This is not an unexpected cheapening, however, as various ‘action’ films glorify these myths of a hero by removing and deconstructing the human origins of wars and battles and thereby impart some kind of divine significance. A film such as Saving Private Ryan does this by getting through the ‘horrors of war’ in the first few minutes so that it can get on with its narrative removed from the reality of WW2 which only interrupt at times convenient for the plot.
Secondly, these equivocations cheapen Christ’s grace by implying its divine necessity. At least one argument could be made that Christ’s sacrifice was excessive rather than necessary. In other words, Christ’s death only works because it wasn’t necessary. If Christ’s death were necessary, then the Christian conception of grace through the cross would need to be rewritten. Humans (and particularly some theologians) have a hard time separating necessity from convenience. Christ’s death was only ‘necessary’ for us. Christ did not need to die. To say that Christ needed to die amounts to saying that people need to give to charity. While those actions may be highly ethical, that is not the same as necessity.
War is never necessary, and people enlisting as soldiers rarely do so out of necessity or force. They are not owed anything more than what one owes a medic: perhaps thanks and gratitude but never worship. Soldiers are humans performing the duties of their occupation, activities which are more closely tied to entirely human devices devoid of anything one would want to couple with the production of religious or theological value. Such blurring of civil religion and Christianity (or Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, etc) never ends well.