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.
Christians live in this world, and love for our neighbors demands that we engage in the affairs and arguments of this world. We have been doing much of that this past week. But on Sundays I try to step back and remember what we are really all about. After all, we confess that our ultimate identity and destiny – like that of the world – is in Jesus Christ. In that sense what we are arguing about in politics is really of only temporary significance. When we argue about same-sex marriage we are not arguing about the kingdom of God or about someone’s salvation. We have to keep that in mind.
The core assumption of Christianity is that human beings are guilty of ingratitude toward God and injustice towards their neighbors. No doubt all of us did things this past week that we regret, and that hurt others whom we love (or should love). But built on that assumption is that God will vindicate the victims of our injustice – that his wrath burns when he sees us act unjustly. One day Jesus will return and judge every word we have spoken. He will defend the “least of these” his brothers. And the outcome may often surprise us. Those who talk orthodoxy and love are not necessarily those who walk in love.
In fact, if this was all there is to say, we should all be quite nervous. But the Gospel is that through Christ there is a means of escaping God’s wrath, of satisfying his justice. It is not mere escapism, as if we can continue to act in the same old unjust ways, while God looks the other way. No, it is a means of both being forgiven and being made just. And it begins with what Jesus did when he died on the cross, bearing the full wrath of God for the sins of the world. His death is not a panacea for those stubbornly opposed to reconciliation with God. But for those who place their faith in him, it does bring salvation.
This is true whether you are Christian or Muslim, conservative or liberal, gay or straight. It is true whether you defend same-sex marriage or oppose it. What you do with it – and what it does to your life – is really the most important thing. Remember, in the week to come, when you are talking or interacting with those who disagree with you on marriage, or those who suffer from the pain of having a homosexual identity at the very moment when that is the flashpoint of cultural and political controversy, that those who have been reconciled with God walk in love, compassion, and peace towards all their neighbors.
This is what I will be preaching this Lord’s Day. You should reflect on it too.
One of Jesus’ most famous statements, a statement that has resonated through centuries of church-state relations, was his declaration “My kingdom is not of this world.” The declaration has been variously interpreted throughout history. One of the worst interpretations was the idea that the kingdom of Christ has nothing to do with the physical creation but is all about “heavenly” – read immaterial – things. Yet in context it is clear that what Jesus is saying is that his kingdom is not from this world, and that it does not operate like the kingdoms of this world. The Roman governor Pontius Pilate had just told Jesus that “Your own nation and the chief priests have delivered you over to me.” Jesus interprets his own words: “If my kingdom were of this world, my servants would have been fighting, that I might not be delivered over to the Jews. But my kingdom is not from the world.” (John 18:35-36)
The kingdom of God does not work in the way that ordinary human kingdoms do. It does not use the sword nor does it rely on any other means of coercion. It does not set its sights and goals in light of temporary things that decay or rust. Whatever some Evangelicals may say, one cannot build furniture or institutions or nations “fit for the kingdom.”
But that does not mean the kingdom of Christ has nothing to do with this world, as if Christians will be removed from it and taken to a heaven where they float around fixated on their beatific vision of God and oblivious to their bodies, their fellow human beings, or the things that God has created. No, as Paul makes clear in Colossians 1:15-20, when Jesus died and rose from the dead he reconciled “all things” in heaven and on earth – the same all things that he created. Nothing in this world has its existence apart from Jesus.
That is a staggering thought. As Dietrich Bonhoeffer brilliantly wrote in a Nazi prison shortly before his death, this means that Christians can no longer view anything in the world apart from its future reality in Christ. The world separated from Jesus is an abstraction without existence in reality. Rebellion and the curse have a passing, fleeting ‘existence’, but that is only because of God’s loving forbearance. In preaching and witnessing to the Gospel, we are calling our neighbors to participate in the future of the creation, lest they face God’s judgment in eternal destruction instead.
We have to learn to escape the false dichotomy of making the kingdom so much about the things of this world that we make the world’s methods for transformation our obsession, on the one hand, and the temptation to view the kingdom as so otherworldly that we focus simply on souls in abstraction from the bodies, communities, and struggles within which they live, on the other. The Gospel should not be politicized according to temporal goals and aims, but it does bring redemption to every aspect and every element of our existence. Christ’s kingdom is not of this world and for that very reason it is the hope and future of the world. That is the Good News.
CRITICS call it a “hearth bonus” or “keep-your-kids-out-of-school money”. The government prefers Betreuungsgeld (“child-care benefit”). Few of its ideas are as contentious as a planned €150 ($199) monthly payment to parents who do not put their children into crèches. Angela Merkel, the Christian Democrat chancellor, defends this as “an essential part of our policy of freedom of choice.” But it seems to contradict much of what she stands for.
The issue is highly contentious right now, but what is most striking about the report is that younger Germans – those most likely to be mothers and fathers in the near future – are the proposal’s strongest supporters.
In truth Mrs Merkel is catering to traditional ideas of motherhood, which remain tenacious in Germany. More than a quarter of parents of young children think mothers should stay at home, according to Allensbach, a pollster. Most 18- to 29-year-olds support the new benefit, although overall public opinion is sceptical. The biggest reason for Mrs Merkel’s support is to please the CSU, which is by tradition the largest party in Bavaria. Crèches do not improve children’s educational prospects, the party insists, and they can jeopardise their emotional development.
This is good news, and a much needed development in the wake of unceasing demands for more and more government-sponsored daycare. Allowing freedom of choice is one thing. Sponsoring daycare while refusing the same honor to stay-at-home moms is another.