Before we get started, I need to confess something: every Memorial Day and Veterans Day, I want to bury my head in the sand till the day evaporates into the past. I try to ignore the day as it approaches, and I urge the clock and calendar forward when it arrives.
Is it because I’m a veteran? No. Is it because I lost someone dear to me in military service? No. It’s simply because I have no idea what to do with these holidays. And despite the social media blitz, all day TV specials, and armies of flag-laden parades, I don’t think I’m alone.
I don’t know what to think, what to do, what to write, or what to preach around these holidays because I have more than a few questions about the use of violence by servants of the suffering Christ. But I have even more questions about pledging my allegiance to anything other than a broken Lamb, a banner which will inevitably conflict any and every flag ever raised by human hands.
Despite my reservations, or even the stalwart positions of many Christians who stand fully against the activities intrinsic to military service, Americans still sign up. A lot of Americans sign up. A lot of Christians sign up. And while many are blessed to truly come home, bone chilling numbers of them return home broken on the outside, inside, or both. Spiritless bodies return home, too, the hearts of some still beating in their chests. All the while, their families and friends share their wounds and burdens. And far too many who fear the consuming fires of nationalism or the infected wounds of redemptive violence have failed veterans and their loved ones completely because we don’t know how to balance our concerns with the stark uncomfortable truth that every soldier in every war on every side of every calamity is human, made in God’s image, and we should stand with those who need to heal no matter how they got their scars. We don’t realize that no matter what we may think about their causes, they have sacrificed far beyond what anyone should be asked to give. We fail to see the dark irony that in a theological and political quest to prevent broken lives, we’ve ignored broken lives all around us.
Unfortunately, the dark irony doesn’t end there. Twice a year, and maybe even on July 4th, we send a missive across the frothing ocean of social media about veterans’ sacrifice and our thankfulness. We stand along a street and wave a flag as those who still breathe ride by. We might even get a bit misty after a homecoming video goes viral or a commercial plucks a heartstring. Yellow ribbons adorn our homes and cars. But the poignant status updates, videos, and commercials get buried under the unstoppable deluge of cat videos and friends who wish it was Saturday, the flags hit the ground as we head back to our normal lives, and yellow fades with disturbing haste under a sun that cares little for our sentimentality. For far too many, “supporting the troops” is nothing more than a shibboleth pronounced by tweets and tears, a meaningless phrase that grants us membership in the kinds of friend groups and churches we like.
But hoping for peace isn’t enough, and cheering on Veterans Day isn’t enough. If we are to be the church, we have to let ourselves see the walking wounded around us and love them with the depth and ferocity of God Himself. As we drive to peace protests or Veterans Day parades, we must notice the 50,000 homeless veterans who surely can’t help but notice the American flags flapping mockingly over the city halls that force them to bleed yet again by working to ban their very existence on our streets. The enormous blindspot shadowing America’s veterans and their loved ones shared by the right, left, and indifferent is an affront to the God who sees even the sparrow fall. Rather than wait to passively notice a problem once it explodes, we must seek out the scars and chains that haunt our lands just as Christ sought us out. Both those who favor and oppose war run the risk of seeing soldiers as nothing more than a set of fatigues and a shiny black gun, whether that engenders fear or admiration, forgetting that God made them and loved them long before they put on the camo and fought for their flag. And they will matter to the God who leaves ninety-nine to find one long after they take off their uniforms. If we are to love as Christ, we must do likewise.
I still don’t know what to do with Veterans Day, but I know what I must do with veterans. I must love. Because our wholeness is bound up with theirs, and the banner of the Lamb beckons us all home.