Since 1775 approximately 1.4 million American soldiers have paid the ultimate sacrifice in service to their country. Not all American wars have been just, but all have contributed to the stability and prosperity that we enjoy today. Memorial Day is not ultimately about American nationalism. It is about remembering that peace, order, and freedom always come at a terrible price. Human beings are violent and human beings are brutal, and someone has to bear the sword to keep the rest of us (and the rest of “them”) in check.
Being a soldier is a profoundly difficult occupation, especially for a Christian. The early church generally prohibited Christians from serving as soldiers because it found that the vocation was simply too compromising for those committed to following the example and virtue of Christ. For most of church history, however, Christians have followed the cue of the New Testament and rightly recognized that a person can serve Christ as a soldier.
But that doesn’t mean it is easy. From my conversations with veterans I have learned that fighting your enemy while struggling to conform to the image of Christ is a form of suffering greater than virtually any other. Most entirely give up the struggle. One soldier told me that to love your enemy while shooting him is impossible. Another told me that when he is involved in combat he places the virtue of Christ as far from his mind as possible and focuses on the example of David.
There are many soldiers, however, who seek to walk in Christ and take up his cross even as they serve their country by bearing the sword. We need to pray for these men and women, showing our support for them not simply with rah rah American patriotism, but with the love and strength of the gospel of Christ. They place themselves in harm’s way, both physically and spiritually, on a regular basis, and they do it in loving service for their neighbors. For the soldiers that have died, we need to remember just how much they have given up for us. Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends.