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.