By Bob Russell
Following the Civil War, our forefathers established Memorial Day to ensure that future generations would never forget the high cost of America’s freedom. It was intended to be a day for the entire nation to reflect on the ultimate sacrifice that had been paid by more than 620,000 soldiers who lost their lives in service to their country.
In the twentieth century, Memorial Day was extended to honor all Americans who have died while in military service—a number that now exceeds 1,264,000. It was sometimes called Decoration Day because family and friends went to cemeteries and placed flowers on the graves of loved ones who had fallen in battle.
Patriotism Is Passé
The years have slowly eroded the original intent of Memorial Day, and now it is noted more for a famous automobile race or the holiday that signifies the beginning of summer. Little attention, if any, is given to the memory of soldiers who paid the supreme price. No wonder when Rolling Stone magazine polled its readers on the question, “Is there anything that would motivate you to die for your country?” around 40 percent said no. We’re ignorant of our heritage and oblivious to what our nation was intended to be.
Since patriotism has become passé in America and since some seminary professors have expressed concern about the mixing of Christianity and Americanism (“God isn’t up in Heaven wrapped in an American flag!”), many young preachers hesitate to say anything at all about our country. Besides, it seems somewhat morose to pay tribute to the dead when we want worship services to be energetic and joyful experiences for the living.
Others question if by honoring fallen soldiers we are glamorizing war. After all, we’ve been taught in recent years that America was the aggressor in some of our past conflicts and we unjustly killed innocent people. Consequently many cutting-edge churches just let Memorial Day weekend slide by or give it quick lip-service to appease the older folks and then move on with the normal programming.
Remembering Memorial Day
I think churches would do well to devote a significant portion of the worship service to the meaning of Memorial Day for three reasons:
1. We’re rightfully paying honor to whom honor is due (see Romans 13:7). My uncle Joe was killed in World War II. He was not quite 30 years old when he sacrificed his life to preserve the freedom that I enjoy daily. His sacrifice merits my respect. From the Civil War to Afghanistan, there have been thousands of others who deserve our remembrance at least one day a year. Thomas Campbell once said, “The patriot’s blood is the seed of freedom’s tree.”
2. We’re teaching our children to appreciate their heritage. Public school students aren’t being taught much about America’s spiritual heritage or the value of freedom these days. If that significant part of our history is not taught in the church, it’s not going to be learned. Ravi Zacharias recently warned, “He who completely repudiates his roots is not very far from destroying the future as well.” And Ronald Reagan once said, “Freedom is never more than one generation away from extinction. We didn’t pass it to our children in the bloodstream. It must be fought for, protected, and handed on for them to do the same.”
3. We’re expressing thanks to God for the good gift of America. “Every good and perfect gift is from above” (James 1:17). America isn’t a perfect country, but it is a really good gift from God. In fact it’s an exceptional gift. We are privileged to live in the freest, most prosperous, and most opportunistic nation in the history of the world. To fail to acknowledge that on holidays designated for that purpose is gross ingratitude.
I am proud to be an American. And I’m proud of the men and women who fought for me.
Bob Russell is the retired senior minister of Southeast Christian Church, Louisville, Kentucky. Copyright 2013 by Bob Russell. Permission to copy this column may be obtained by writing Debbie Carper, Southeast Christian Church, 920 Blankenbaker Pkwy, Louisville, KY 40243. Find Bob’s books and sermons online (www.livingword.org).