Veterans Day should bring us all together
Veterans Day occurs every year in America on Nov. 11. It originated as a celebration and memorial for those who fought and died in World War I, which was formally concluded on Nov. 11, 1918 at the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month when the Armistice with Germany went into effect. The holiday was called Armistice Day until 1954. In the years since 1918, the holiday broadened its mandate to honor all those who have served in the Armed Forces of the United States. Since this is the 100th anniversary of the end of WWI, I wanted to lift up both my deep respect for Veterans Day and the religious beliefs that support, inform and sustain this supposedly secular national holiday.
Veterans Day celebrates sacrifice, and sacrifice is a foundational religious value. Service to one’s country is a sacrifice of personal ambition and it can entail the ultimate sacrifice of one’s life for our country. This sacrifice is built upon the belief that we are a part of something bigger than ourselves. In this case, that something bigger is our country, but in a religious setting the something bigger is God.
There is a vigorous debate between religious pacifists and other religious folk as to whether love of nation and sacrifice for nation is idolatry and thus prohibited by religious teachings. I do not agree. Wars of national self-defense are permitted for exactly the same reason that personal self-defense is religiously permitted. Jesus taught Christians to “render unto to Caesar that which is Caesar’s” (Matthew 22:21) and in Romans 13:1, “Let every person be in subjection to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God and those which exist are established by God.”
This does not mean, of course that God endorses every act of every state. There are criminal states, failed states and immoral states, and they were properly the object of prophetic wrath in the Bible. There is a growing sentiment in some political circles to label America an immoral state. In my view this is spiritual and ethical hyperbole. We must lift up both what needs correction and condemnation as well as lifting up what needs appreciation and praise. It is the balance that will determine if we can live together now. This is the spiritual point of Veterans Day to me. It is a collective affirmation that we love this country and we will defend this country with the sacrifices it deserves.
Even though I did not serve in the military, it has been my experience that such service produces bonds of friendship that transcend differences of politics, religion and race. My dad saved the life of an anti-Semitic soldier in Europe who also lived in Milwaukee and they became lifelong friends. I met Leo once and he told me with tears in his eyes how ashamed he was that he had been taught from his childhood to hate Jews until my dad saved him. War does such things. I think that military service even without war also does such things. I am convinced that one of the reasons our country is splitting apart is that voluntary military service binds together too few of us. This gives the forces that divide us – mostly politics, class and race – free reign to pull us apart.