Pastors and church leaders grapple with this issue every May and face similar questions around the Fourth of July. How do you balance gratitude for our nation with the truth that we are citizens of another kingdom? Can patriotism and Christianity mix? Should they?
We are not the first generation of believers to face this question.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer on Memorial Day, 1932
As a young German theologian, Dietrich Bonhoeffer was asked to preach on National Memorial Day in Berlin, on February 21, 1932. These were tumultuous times for Germany. Hitler’s party was on the rise, and Bonhoeffer felt the need to equip the church for suffering in the days ahead.
What should a preacher communicate on a day that memorialized the Germans who died in the first world war? What words would be appropriate, or more importantly, Christian?
3 Ways of Observing Memorial Day
Bonhoeffer chose Matthew 24:6-14 as his text, and he began by laying out three ways that Memorial Day can be observed.
1. Bereaved families would observe the day by focusing on those who had died, who were torn from their midst by the war. These families would mourn out of love.
2. The state would hold ceremonies commemorating the great German sacrifices made by the young who fought for their country. The state would mourn with a sense of pride because of the courage of young soldiers.
3. The church, however, must say something “special.” It must deliver a message that differs from that of bereaved families or state celebrations. Bonhoeffer prepared the congregation for the reality that the message may not be popular:
“The church is like the seer of ancient times who, when all are gathered to commemorate a great deed of the nation, is wholeheartedly present but suffers because he sees something that the others do not see and must speak of what he sees, although no one wants to hear it…
“The one who loves the most is the one who sees deepest, sees the greatest danger. A seer has never been popular. That is why the church will also not be popular, least of all on days like this.”
Bonhoeffer described the state’s celebration of veterans and the memorializing of the dead through various monuments. But then he reminded the congregation that, while the nation’s mourning and gratitude and hope may be good, its hope was not Christian.
War in the Context of God’s Great Story
The Church, Bonhoeffer said, must look deeper. Christians need to wrestle with the meaning of the war and the significance of Germany’s loss.
In order to help his congregation do just that, Bonhoeffer took the reality of the Great War and placed it within the bigger storyline of the Bible, showing how war is a demonstration of the ultimate battle between God and the evil one.
Seen in this light, every war is the evil one’s reassertion of power in the earthly domain:
“The demons rise up. It is a rebellion against Christ. And one great power of this uprising is called war! The others are called pestilence and famine. So war, sickness, and hunger are the powers that try to take Christ’s dominion away from him… led by death. These powers scream: We are here! Here, see us and be terrified! Christ has not conquered; we conquer. Christ is dead. But we are alive…”
In the wake of war, millions are “mowed down” in death, with Death as the great enemy. And because of such carnage, the foes of uncertainty, doubt, and fear creep into the hearts of Christians. Wars lead to a crisis of faith and a feeling of God-forsakenness.
The Cross and the Word of Christ
“Our situation would be truly desperate,” Bonhoeffer said, “if not for the word of Christ: When all of this comes over, see that you are not alarmed.” Bonhoeffer then recalled various times in Scripture when we are commanded to “Be not afraid.” The crescendo of his sermon is the message that makes the church’s proclamation utterly different than the world’s:
“What does being faithful mean here other than standing and falling with the word of Christ, with his preaching of the kingdom of peace, than knowing that despite everything Christ’s words are stronger than all the powers of evil?
“What does faithfulness of the church-community of Christ mean here other than calling out into this furious raging again and again – unto exhaustion, unto humiliation, unto martyrdom – the words of Christ that there should be peace, that there should be love, that there should be blessing, and that he is our peace, and that God is a God of peace?
“And the more they rage, the more we should call out. And the more we call out, the more wildly they will rage. For wherever the word of Christ is truly spoken, the world senses that it is either ruinous madness or ruinous truth, which endangers its very life. Where peace is really spoken, war must rage twice as hard, for it senses that it is about to be driven out. Christ intends to be its death.”
Bonhoeffer’s point is that the cross is the only power that can make sense of tragedies like war, and only through such tragedy does the gospel shine forth in clearest distinction:
“War, sickness, and hunger must come, so that the gospel of the kingdom of peace, of love, and of salvation can be spoken and heard all the more keenly, all the more clearly, all the more deeply… War serves peace, hate serves love, the devil serves God, the cross serves life… Then the Lord of the church will lay his hand on the church, blessing and protecting it as his faithful servant.”
Beyond Civil Religion
Memorial Day in the church? According to Bonhoeffer, the church’s celebration must be special; it must go beyond patriotic but spiritually lifeless civil religion. It means:
“…holding up the one great hope from which we all live, the preaching of the kingdom of God. It means seeing that which is past, and which we remember today, with all its terrors and all its godlessness, and yet not being afraid, but hearing the preaching of peace…
“It means looking out beyond the borders of our own nation, across the whole world, and praying that the gospel of the kingdom, which puts an end to all war, now may come over all nations and that then the end may come, that Christ may draw near…”