Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Dulce et decorum - Remembering the fallen.

The refrain of Veterans Day will likely not be widely voiced in the theological blogosphere: Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori. It is sweet and right to die for one’s country. The concern (a legitimate one) is that our heavenly patria must suffer no rival for our devotion. This solemn holiday seems to elevate in memory all that many theologians today fear in unbridled patriotism and nationalism, which works to establish the worship of what Karl Barth rightly identified as mere “tribal gods”.

It is difficult for me to read the testimonies of old soldiers, or look at rows upon rows of gravestones, however, without feeling a weight of the truth of the memory that this holiday offers- even preaches to us. Celebrants of Armistice Day, Remembrance Day, Veterans Day… are not, in their affirmation of the sweetness and rightness of national service, presenting us today with a rival patria that would lessen our commitment to the kingdom of God; I simply do not see it. War may be irredeemably evil. As Bonhoeffer points out, security may never attain peace. But who finds today a celebration of war, or a triumphalist declaration that peace has been won with a gun and not with the loving Word of our Lord and Savior? I simply do not see it.

For one will scarcely die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person one would dare even to die— but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.


The central message of Veterans Day seems to be that of dying (or willingness to die) for the sake of another. It is a message not particular to a nation-state, or a war, or a political camp. It does not seek to say what is or is not worthy of such a sacrifice. (much as Christ was no respecter of such worth)

I am hushed today by memories that are not mine, but have been bequeathed to me by the sordid legacy of Europe, and by the world’s participation in the tragedies of this region during the 20th century. I’ve come to the conclusion that it is not for us to moralize about these tragedies or to turn away from solemn remembrance of them in a feigned defense of the Gospel’s sublation of human violence and modern idols. I don’t think that is what this holiday is about.


At a Calvary near the Ancre, by Wilfred Owen

One ever hangs where shelled roads part.
In this war He too lost a limb,

But His disciples hide apart;

And now the Soldiers bear with Him.


Near Golgotha strolls many a priest,

And in their faces there is pride

That they were flesh-marked by the Beast

By whom the gentle Christ's denied.


The scribes on all the people shove

And brawl allegiance to the state,

But they who love the greater love

Lay down their lives; they do not hate.

1 comment:

  1. Evan,

    Good reflections here. Ever since reading Hauerwas and Yoder I have become uncomfortable on days like Veterans Day (and for good reason). However, there does seem to be something significant about dying in war, which can be accurately described as a sacrifice, and you rightly discuss that. Thanks for this post.

    Tim F.

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