by Justin Schneider on May 23, 2013

Our last Sunday at church before moving to Thailand. The church was decorated in "The Lord's Army" VBS theme.

Our last Sunday at church before moving to Thailand. The church was decorated in “The Lord’s Army” VBS theme.
I think we’re sending the wrong message here.

Monday, May 26, 2013 marks Memorial Day in the United States.  For those of you who may not be familiar with the U.S. holiday, it is day intended to honor members of the U.S. armed forces who have died in service.  The Sunday before, many churches all over the U.S. honor those who have died in service and who are currently serving.  It is often a tremendous show of people who are “Proud to be an American” and who call upon God to bless America.

It’s also a day that makes me feel very uncomfortable internally as I try to balance my own pride in country and the military history of my own family with the nagging suspicion that our glorification of the military may not always be appropriate.

I commented on a friend’s Facebook post (also a questionable choice on my part) after she posted this story about a teacher who made a statement with one of her lessons:

Back in September of 2005, on the first day of school, Martha Cothren, a social studies school teacher at Robinson High School in Little Rock, did something not to be forgotten. On the first day of school, with permission of the school superintendent, the principal and the building supervisor, she took all of the desks out of the classroom. The kids came into first period, they walked in, there were no desks. They obviously looked around and said, “Ms. Cothren, where are our desks?” And she said, “You can’t have a desk until you tell me how you earn them.” They thought, “Well, maybe it’s our grades.””No,” she said. “Maybe it’s our behavior.”And she told them, “No, it’s not even your behavior.”And so they came and went in the first period, still no desks in the classroom. Second period, same thing. Third period. By early afternoon television news crews had gathered in Ms. Cothren’s class to find out about this crazy teacher who had taken all the desks out of the classroom. The last period of the day, Martha Cothren gathered her class. They were at this time sitting on the floor around the sides of the room. And she says, “Throughout the day no one has really understood how you earn the desks that sit in this classroom ordinarily.” She said, “Now I’m going to tell you.” Martha Cothren went over to the door of her classroom and opened it, and as she did 27 U.S. veterans , wearing their uniforms, walked into that classroom, each one carrying a school desk. And they placed those school desks in rows, and then they stood along the wall. And by the time they had finished placing those desks, those kids for the first time I think perhaps in their lives understood how they earned those desks. Martha said, “You don’t have to earn those desks. These guys did it for you. They put them out there for you, but it’s up to you to sit here responsibly to learn, to be good students and good citizens, because they paid a price for you to have that desk, and don’t ever forget it.” (Taken from Snopes.com)

Like me, Ms. Cothren also came from a family with Vietnam and WWII veterans.  My comment following the post on Facebook however referred different heroes.  I asked, “Why do we honor soldiers above those who have fought for freedom through nonviolent means?”
Then I started thinking about those who live overseas.  What does the military mean to people of Europe?  Thailand?  Bolivia?  El Salvador?  Why are we able to celebrate the military of the U.S. in church, but churches across the world don’t?  Has God indeed blessed America more through the gift of a military that defends our freedoms?

Or did Jesus show us a different way that is more powerful no matter the role of the military?

This is where I tend to lose tracking with my American friends and family.  When I start to reveal my pacifist leanings and theories of civil disobedience, the head-shaking and thought bubble (“oh, boy”) pops up.

What should a church or Christian aid organization’s relationship be to the military?  Many of us coming from countries where the military is governed by the rule of law want to praise God for our freedoms and protection by (or from) the military.  But what about when we work in a country where the military rules by its own law?

If you find yourself taking for granted that the military exists to protect you, you may find it difficult to relate to people who take it for granted that the military exists to bully and exploit them.

A life led overseas often reveals the enmeshment between our faith and our nationalism.  And we begin to ask questions that we may not have considered, questions that we might not like the answer to.

This U.S. Memorial Day, let’s remember soldiers around the world who have died in service along with the many more civilians who have died from war, unofficial or not.  God bless the World.


What is your relationship to Memorial Day?  And how has it changed the longer you’ve lived overseas?  How do you see nationalism creeping into your church?

Justin Schneider — USA (until something better comes up), formerly serving in Thailand.

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  • “Your Kingdom come on Earth as it is in Heaven.” Bringing the light of God into a dark world takes intentionality. At this time the U.S. military is riding on the coattails of those who went before them to carve out a nation built on Christian ideas like equal opportunity and freedom, honesty, hard work, not perfectly of course, but improvement from Church in England. They still recognize soldiers as being defenders of God’s kingdom come to Earth even though no longer do most soldiers acknowledge this.

    • I’m curious about who the “they” is in your last sentence, Pam.

    • JustSchneider

      Pam, if you’ll allow me to challenge you on a few points, I’d love to hear your reaction. First, excluding the conquering Hebrew armies, can you think of any times in the bible when military force was used to spread God’s message? I can only think of one in Revelation, where Jesus has a sword come out of his mouth. This sounds to me like a metaphorical message rather than a literal use of military might. Yet, as you point out, many countries have used their military to clear the path before the missionaries arrived. However, it rarely ended up “good.”

      Another quick thought: Can you think of any other religions that might support equal opportunity and freedom, honesty, and hard work? I can think of few. Does that make it less Christian? Or just more generally “good”?

      • God’s army definitely uses force throughout the Scriptures. If God truly blessed America with military success and prosperity for fighting in his name, for his glory, for his kingdom then is that why the church in America honors their military? The debate is whether that is true, although 200 years have passed, things change. I think of the Waudani man speaking about the Christians who changed his whole society. As he spoke he encountered unbelievers who scorned the idea of America owing their ‘goodness- kindness, wealth, safety’ to the God of the Bible. He told them a story to help them undsrstand how they are benefiting from the past work of Christians. If you can find this story it’s worth the read.

        FYI: If this is true, Americans, did owe their soldiers honor and thanks. And today, if US soldiers are operating in defense and protection of people from evil, we (church) still owe them honor and thanks.

        I’ve had many a conversation with people of the world about this. I tell them my country, USA is not perfect as I teach the whole world is under the influence of the evil one. And that God enters this dark world. I teach the history of the making of America, acknowledging not all were likely Christian but majorily, trying to make place on Earth with God’s principles. They see it better than we do, unfortunately.

        • JustSchneider

          Unfortunately, this offers a view of history that both ignores God’s reconciliation through Jesus and avoids the terrible offenses committed in the founding of America in “God’s name.” This is the problem with teaching that any modern day empire is a result of God’s fortune. When people learn this, undesirable violent action becomes something God intended. From there it is easy to justify mass acts of murder as we saw in Rwanda, a country with more than 90% professing Christians. It also tries to build on principles that only American Christians are able to build nations. This was the error that President McKinley fell victim to when he decided to invade the Philippines.

  • ngwilke

    I was just praying this morning, as I drove down a street lined with American flags, about how to be patriotic without being ethnocentric. To be honest, the hardest holiday for me to miss when we were overseas was Independence day. My family of origin has so many traditions surrounding it that I value, but it also challenged me to consider where my allegiance lies.

    One thing I hesitate to bring up- for fear that it will create conflict where there needn’t be any- is the idea that many soldiers also participate in (sometimes solely) non-violent means of attaining freedom. People join the military for all sorts of reasons, and once they are there, they are required to follow orders whether they agree with them or not. I am not saying that those who engage in violence don’t need to accept any responsibility, but rather I am encouraging us to consider that the collective military is composed of many individuals, with different opinions, ideals, and responsibilities.

    • JustSchneider

      Excellent point. If I had written a book, I definitely would have brought that up. In fact, I think about all of the ways people in the military work to help provide support through medical care and support of education where there is none. That’s part of the struggle I have within myself. I view our system as broken, but I have a great deal of love and respect for my family members who serve. In fact, I considered joining the JAG Corps to support all of the (individual) troops who get caught up in bad choices.

  • Becky

    “If you find yourself taking for granted that the military exists to protect you, you may find it difficult to relate to people who take it for granted that the military exists to bully and exploit them.” Great point…it is so important to try to step out of our perspective and try to see things from someone else’s point of view.

    Just a few days ago, some Mexican friends were commenting on how they cannot reconcile being a Jesus-follower and either a police officer or in the military at the same time. It was very hard for them to comprehend that in the U.S. being a police officer or in the military is still considered by so many to be noble and honorable. Here in this country, like in so many other places, it is not considered possible. It was a great conversation and I’m glad we talked about that.

    Personally, my patriotism stays back in the U.S. and I’ve made a conscious choice to do so. I don’t mind talking politics if someone brings it up or asks, but I’m all too painfully aware of how others view my country and its military and I try to be sensitive to that. Even if I do talk politics, I am very careful with my words and the opinions that I express. I have seen other U.S. missionaries who cannot seem to tolerate a word spoken against their country and it seems to create barriers between them and the people they have pledged to serve that just do not need to be there.

    I generally celebrate Memorial Day in a private way…although I have to admit that having spent so many years overseas as an MK and now a missionary, it is not a holiday that is really huge on my calendar. Generally, we try to celebrate the holidays that are big wherever we are serving if it is at all possible.

  • Jess

    I have grown up in a 500 year-old faith which takes Jesus’ teachings about non-violence literally. I also live abroad and hear much hatred for “Americans who try to push their agenda on the world”. The international community doesn’t seem to see much of God’s Kingdom in the U.S. army. When I tell them about my faith as a Jesus follower and His teachings… love your enemy, bless those who curse you, do good to those who hate you– they say- “You different”. And their hearts open. Maybe this is why Jesus said His Kingdom is not of this world. Yes, we are to pray that his Kingdom will come to this world but it will not come through armies. It comes through the path of the cross. Losing your life (and not while your shooting someone else) but through bending your knees and washing the feet of your “enemies”. Love is more powerful than hatred and it is the only answer to the war on Terrorism. I am convinced. For every terrorist that is shot I would guess ten more arise to take his place out of the hatred that burns in their souls for the heathen that are murdering their brothers and sisters. The only way to change their mindset is through love. And yes, you may lose your life in the process. Jesus lost His life because He loved. He loved the world. He did not die to protect His country but to protect the world from Satan- the one kills. We should not expect to be greater than our master. Thanks for your perspective, Justin! God Bless the World.

  • Joy

    Agree with much of what you wrote — we are Christians before we are US (or wherever you are from) citizens. As ex-pats, we get to step outside our own world and gain a broader and often truer perspective.

  • Great post, and great responses from many of ya!

    As someone who works in East Africa with communities to develop and implement strategies of nonviolent action against a violent military funded and otherwise backed by the Pentagon, one of the hardest things to articulate (sadly) to supporters in my central Pennsylvania home environment is that our country’s military action may not be compatible with the Kingdom of God.

    So Justin, if you have any tips, or if ya wanna lend a hand, we’re waiting!

    Let me also just make a side note that only the largest empires in world history seem to shower frequent praises on their military (erecting statues, public holidays, etc) — I’m thinking mostly of the Roman Empire, the US, some ancient Asian powers, Babylon, etc. In other words, I think my nation (USA) is the exception, not the rule. Or at least that’s been my personal experience which I hope holds true!

    • JustSchneider

      Blessings to you on your God-sized endeavor in East Africa. My only tips are to encourage you in prayer and the power of prayer that works most effectively when many are gathered together. In addition, training. Training and practice in preparation, though seemingly counter to being “spirit-led,” is necessary for the toughest of moments–when people’s lives may depend on it. Great research has been done on combating our natural reactions through muscle memory and repetition. That was a central component to organizations in the U.S. Civil Rights era of the 50s and 60s. Be encouraged!

  • Barb

    This was a very interesting and thought provoking post… as I have two children that are very likely headed to missions I found myself appreciating this post a great deal… though I think in America and Canada where I am from we should celebrate our military I think we perhaps need to broaden our celebrations to include those who do work for peace through other positive means but not extreme means…. I don’t believe we should negate our own positive role model of our military because other countries do not have that… I think it should make us appreciate all the more that our own military do work for the well being of our countries… As well we need to be proactive in teaching those who come to live in our countries so they may see our military as a positive aspect of our country. In doing so we also must be sensitive to those who come here or when we go to other countries as well that their experiences are not the same…

  • Joel

    Hmm…is the first thought that comes to my mind. “Why do we honor soldiers above those who have fought for freedom through nonviolent means?” The simple answer is so that you have the right to write this blog. “Greater love has no man this, that a man lay down his life for his friend” We are not exalting military, but those who have DIED in service to their country. Men and women like us who valued their country above themselves, who valued their fellow countrymen’s freedom above themselves. We are not exalting war, rather exalting service. Yes, I agree that the rest of the world may not see the military or the police the way we do, but the bottom line is in the states they are good thing.

    I am not disagreeing with you per se, but the bottom line is that there are usually more then two sides to an issue. I do feel that at times people in the US are very ethnocentric, but the point being I don’t think honoring those who have given the ultimate sacrifice is unbiblical. Memorial Day is a holiday that I will always stop, think for a moment, pray for the families of the fallen, and rejoice that people are still willing to serve and defend freedom.

    • JustSchneider

      Thanks for sharing, Joel. I agree with you up to a point. The individuals who have died in the fight for American freedoms should be remembered and honored. However, our response to their memory should not be to glorify system that led them to their death. I think a more appropriate response each Memorial Day is to ask, “Is there another way?” Is there another way to war that can prevent not only the deaths of the soldiers who have died, but also the many, many more who were caught in the middle? Is there another way to remove the gun from the other side’s hands before it is aimed our way. Or is there a way to remove the guns from our soldier’s hands before it is aimed at our neighbor across the way? I think many who have been tortured or died while fighting for freedoms within our country have made a sacrifice that offered a better, more biblical model.

      I don’t mean to say that honoring fallen soldiers in unbiblical. I do think we should honor them in a way that prevents the continued loop of redemptive violence. I think Wendolyn offers us a great way to do that.

      • Joel W

        Thanks for the response. “Is there another way?” you ask. Yes, there is, but not through humanitarian efforts alone. No amount of humanitarian efforts are going to remove the guns from anyone’s hands, never have, never will. What will change the world is the gospel alone! No, not the gospel plus blah, blah, but the gospel alone. I agree we need to get the guns out of their hands, but asking a sinner to give up their sin is like telling a fish not to swim. Without Christ, there will not be true change. Thus, the reason we go…to the uttermost to share truth that truly changes people from within not from without.
        I don’t see it unbiblical to honor soldiers or to have a standing army. (how it is deployed, yes, I have issues with that…too much in too many places…) The defense of human life has two fronts: spiritual and physical. My family members are in the military defending life by the uniform, I am in the world defending life by giving truth to those who have never heard. Both are necessary in a sinful world for if a man is not safe, he cannot hear the truth, can he? Just a thought.
        Thanks for the discussion.

  • On patriotic holidays, there is a growing trend in U.S. congregations to use the beautiful (in melody & words) hymn “God of All the Nations.”

    You can listen here:

    Some of the lyrics are:

    This is my song, O God of all the nations,
    A song of peace for lands afar and mine.
    This is my home, the country where my heart is;
    Here are my hopes, my dreams, my sacred shrine.
    But other hearts in other lands are beating,
    With hopes and dreams as true and high as mine.

    My country’s skies are bluer than the ocean,
    And sunlight beams on cloverleaf and pine.
    But other lands have sunlight too and clover,
    And skies are everywhere as blue as mine.
    O hear my song, O God of all the nations,
    A song of peace for their land and for mine.

    • JustSchneider

      Wonderful. Thank you for sharing this alternative way to praise God and remember our neighbors. I will definitely suggest this next time I hear a patriotic song in church.

  • SG

    Thanks for bringing up this tough topic. As an American volunteering for a Christian international NGO in a Muslim country with a heavy US military presence, I have wrestled with this issue. Our family and our (non-American) NGO have had to distance ourselves from the military (even some home-town friends serving here!) in order to not be tainted by the message people have gotten from our government through the military. The message that American lives are more valuable than Central Asian ones, the message that the democratic form of government is best regardless of the culture or the level of education of the people.

    My bigger frustration is with the American church who praises the military hero who risks his life going into a war zone, but questions the sanity of a family of four called by God to live, love and serve in the same place.

    I do love my country and the freedoms I have as an American, but I see through different lenses after 15+ years overseas. I have seen all too often the damage of American foreign policy, and I vacillate between wanting to hide my nationality and desiring to show another side to the world.

    • JustSchneider

      Such a difficult position. Thank you for sharing. You’ve given us two perfect examples of how we worship something greater than self-preservation and the perversion of heroism. Blessings to you as you continue.

    • Your second paragraph resonated with me, SG. Thank you for adding to the conversation.

  • JustSchneider

    In my reading today, I came across this out of Proverbs 14:12: “There is a way that appears to be right, but in the end it leads to death.” This could be interpreted in many ways for anyone’s arguments. To me, I see it as a moral to the myth of redemptive violence. But that’s also because I am in that frame of mind. What are your thoughts?

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  • I am a Christian, and I do believe pacificism is the most natural Christian response. I do recognize that I don’t live in an ideal world so don’t know how to balance this.

    • JustSchneider

      I understand this all too well. Pacifism may be the natural Christian response, but that doesn’t make it my natural response. Thankfully, a tremendous amount of resources exist on how to help my mental and physical responses align with the desires of my soul. In general, it’s usually easier in the moment to respond with force. Sadly, the results are tremendously more difficult to recover from.

  • Robert and Jenn McDuffie

    Thanks for this thought provoking article, Justin.

    I find Memorial day difficult for one reason. Most churches will “celebrate” Memorial day in some form or fashion and I’m not against that but I also wonder how many of those same churches spend as much effort, time, resources, etc into honoring the hero’s of the faith (martyrs) who have sacrificed their lives for the Gospel sake?

    I have a copy of Foxe’s Book of Martyrs and when I speak before congregations, I almost always reference this book and ask how many people have read it. The response is always minimum. In the US, we glorify and honor military that has fought for any and every purpose that US Gov’t deems necessary but we rarely honor the hero’s of the faith.

    (PS. I’m not against military personnel or honoring them. I have a brother who served in Iraq and it was “hell” for him! He suffers from PTSD to this day – 5+ years after his tour. He cried when he thought he might be sent back and as soon as his contract was over, he got out! I don’t wish that anguish on anyone! I’m extremely grateful for all that my fellow Americans have sacrificed.)

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