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God is Not a Fan of War
A Veteran's Homily
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Cory Culver has been a friend and a parishioner for longer than I know. I recently asked him to speak at the Memorial Day service in my congregation. He did a remarkable job and I share it with you here.
Before I share my thoughts on Memorial Day, I believe I should establish my bona fides.
My name is Cory Culver. I served 23 years in the Navy and retired as a Commander. During that time I deployed 5 times as a helicopter pilot, saw much of the world except for South America, with most of those deployments to the Middle East during conflict.
Why is the church doing a Memorial Day service?
It is a secular recognition of service to the nation, not service to God.
It is understandable when people conflate the two— they share common themes— selfless sacrifice, adherence to a cause greater than one’s self. The idolatry of worshiping the state in the name of patriotism is seductive.
What we call Memorial Day began shortly after the Civil War when communities, mostly in the South, informally decorated the graves of the war dead with flowers. In 1868, the first formal recognition of Decoration Day happened just up the road at Arlington Cemetery, but it was more than 100 years later that the federal government made Memorial Day a national holiday.
The VA’s website describes the holiday as a day to “honor those who have died in service to the nation.” It is typically observed with nationalistic and patriotic traditions such as flags, uniforms, and military formality. More recently, in our American quest for heroes and meaning in a society that has a diminishing measure of both, it is becoming common for Memorial Day to be a celebration of all kinds of service— law enforcement, fire fighters, first responders, and even teachers. The more we rush to include all groups so everyone feels validated, the more we dilute what we remember these dead for— striving against fellow human beings and dying in the pursuit of this most un-human effort.
About five years ago, I attended the retirement ceremony of my Naval Academy roommate. During the benediction, his Catholic priest instructed the attendees:
“God blesses those who go to war in defense of their country.”
After the ceremony I asked him if he really believed that God blesses those who intentionally kill other people for their government and he assured me that God did.
I told him what I’ll tell you right now— that’s wrong.
God is not a fan of war.
There is nothing honorable or glorious or holy about war.
War is killing other human beings, created by God in his image, that have parents and wives and children just like us.
We all know that the 6th Commandment forbids us from killing other people. The prophet Isaiah tells us that God will rebuke the nations and they will beat their swords into ploughshares, their spears into pruning hooks, and nations will not lift sword against nation, neither will they learn war anymore.
Throughout history, societies and religions have tried to deal with the moral dichotomy between what war requires and the human nature to abhor killing other people. In the Christian tradition, Saint Augustine originated the phrase “just war” or “jus ad bellum” which is “the right to war” as opposed to “jus in bello” which is “right behavior in war”. As a matter of fact, Augustine believed that not opposing a grave wrong even if it involved killing people was sinful.
In the 13th century, Thomas Aquinas reflected deeply on “just war” and defined a series of criteria that must be met for nations to engage in warfare. Over the centuries, Aquinas’ criteria have become four conditions for a “just war.”
It must be initiated by a competent authority that is accountable to the governed. In other words, dictatorships cannot initiate a “just war.”
It is conducted as a last resort after all non-violent options have been exhausted.
There is a reasonable chance that the objectives of the conflict can be realized. It is not “just” to kill other people for no reason other than to kill them.
It is only used to correct a grave, public evil and protect life – not for national self-interest or aggrandizement.
Four criteria that nations have used for centuries to justify killing other people.
I don’t buy a word of it.
I don’t believe that God will find that intentionally killing people is acceptable based on a human derived list of rules that make it easier for us to justify it. I don’t believe that when I do meet my maker he will say:
“Well Cory, a lot of people died because of things you did, but that’s OK, you did it for America. I never liked those Babylonians, uh Iraqis, anyway.”
No, these men and women whose graves we decorate today and countless brothers and sisters in arms with me will stand before God stained in the sin of what we have done.
But I also don’t live in an idyllic, pacifist ivory tower. Since the fall of man in the Garden, we have settled our disagreements with violence. In a world of limited resources, there will be conflict. Even if a people don’t want to fight, it will be forced upon them by an adversary that will bend Aquinas’ criteria any way possible and call it “just.”
Look at all of the lies Russia has told the world and their own people to justify invading their neighbor. Did Ukraine really have a choice? Either kill as many Russians as possible or stand peaceably by to be slaughtered, their wives tortured, and their children carried off to another country?
So how do we square this morally circular dilemma? Warfare is inevitable, it requires us to kill people, but killing is a mortal sin.
We can start as a church by not honoring the men and women whose graves we decorate today for service to their country, or for killing other humans to advance a national interest, but for sacrificing a part of their humanity and bear this sin before God so most of society didn’t have to.
Memorial Day observances typically recognize the fallen for “giving their lives,” but the reality is that they have sacrificed much more than that.
We can also stop trying to put God in a legal box that justifies what these men and women died doing. The good news is that their sacrifice of committing this sin for others is completely washed away by the sacrifice Christ has made to bear away all of our sins, including theirs.
What is the reason to try and justify their sinful actions in war if you truly believe that Christ has accepted us as sinners and alone justifies us before the Father?
So let us, as Americans, retire to the hallowed ground where these men lie, plant flags and flowers, play Taps, and participate in other patriotic rituals befitting a nation that honors those that served the cause and died. But as a church, let us honor them for sacrificing their humanity and celebrate the good news that they do not need the justification of men, because they, like the rest of us, have been justified by Christ.