I love my country. Despite the apparently never-ending efforts of those who seek fundamentally to transform it into a replica of the European social-democratic states (which has provoked a Euro-nationalist-populist reaction), it is still a great country. Pace the president’s casual dismissal of our history, it is an exceptional country. Until the formation of the United States there were very few places in the world (I think there were none but I say “few” in case there were tiny, obscure examples of which I am ignorant) that constitutionally recognized and guaranteed the natural right of free political speech, religious freedom (not just a tightly circumscribed “freedom of worship”), freedom of association, and freedom of the press to name but a few.
The United States is arguably (but not inevitably) an empire in the process of contraction but if that is true, it has been an empire erected partly for economic reasons to be sure but also partly to extend to others the civil liberties that we enjoy. No nation in the history of the world has spent more blood and treasure seeking to achieve and preserve those freedoms for other people. We fought two World Wars to preserve our freedoms yes, but Omaha Beach is not actually in Omaha. When we made that improbable landing at Inchon, it was not to take over Korea but to protect Koreans from the spread of totalitarianism. Had men not fought in the miserable cold at the 38th parallel, all of Korea would look like the North does now, but it does not. South Korea is a bustling, free, capitalist society because of the courage of Missouri farm boys and kids from the Bronx. However misguided the Baby Boomers thought the Vietnam War was, the Cold War Democrats (Kennedy and Johnson), who sent young men to Vietnam, were convinced that the Soviet Union was bent on imposing its totalitarian system upon the rest of the world and that meeting them at Hamburger Hill was preferable to meeting them at Beacon Hill.
Yes, we have grave national sins. Americans stole, sold, imprisoned, raped, and murdered Africans for profit. Americans systematically denied the humanity of an entire race of image bearers for hundreds of years. We also, however, fought a bloody civil war that nearly destroyed the Republic in order, at least in large measure, to end that “peculiar institution.” We ignored Jim Crow for a century but we also repudiated it. Whereas Dr King was once regarded as a troublemaker in many places, today he is regarded as a hero in virtually every place. That sort of growth makes this nation unique and worth celebrating.
In order to achieve and preserve those liberties, human beings, made in the image of God, donned uniforms, trained, took up arms, and gave their lives. At the moment the battle, they were not “fighting for democracy.” When the bullets were flying (and hitting the guy 12 inches away), when the mortar rounds were coming in, they were fighting for the other guys in their squad and in their platoon. That dedication, however, to their buddies and to their unit served a larger purpose. Those men who literally froze to death during the Battle of the Bulge really were preserving basic natural rights. There really were people, governments, and armies in Germany, Italy, and Japan whose sole purpose was to conquer Europe and the United States and to put an end to the exercise of natural liberties endowed by our Creator and recognized in the Declaration of Independence and protected by the Constitution of the United States. Those men (and women) who died during the so-called Cold War (it is not a cold war when proxies are shooting at one), who practiced espionage in the Soviet Union or in Maoist China did so in order that their families and their communities might not have to live and die under a totalitarian regime.
The names of the players have changed since the Cold War but the challenges remain. The moment Islamo-fascists overran the American embassy in Tehran we were in a (mostly) Cold War with Islamism until September 11, 2001. The Second Gulf War, with its consequent War on Terror, was imposed on us by Islamists whose authoritative religious texts (e.g., the Qur’an and the Hadiths) do not recognize God-given liberties. The War on Terror is the longest war in the history of the Republic. To date, 5,271 military personnel have given their lives and thousands of others have suffered serious physical and psychological injuries in order to defend the rest of us against an aggressive enemy fueled by an eschatology that includes world domination by Islam. This Memorial Day, those sacrifices should be remembered by all of us.
Thus, the question before us is not whether to celebrate the civic virtues and sacrifices made by those who gave all. The question is where those things should be remembered. This Sunday, this Lord’s Day, this Sabbath Day, and particularly during divine services, is not the time or the place to observe solemnly a memorial of those who died in service of this country and of civil liberties. When the Christian church gathers for public worship, she gathers not as Americans or Britons nor as Greeks or Romans. The church is a gathering of Christians among whom, for the purposes of our solemn assemblies, there is no “barbarian, Scythian, slave, free…neither Jew nor Greek…there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. And if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s seed, heirs according to promise” (Col 3:11; Gal 3:28).
The visible, institutional church, established and commissioned by Christ, is not an expression of American culture. It is the divinely ordained embassy of the Kingdom of Heaven. The law and gospel preached by the minister are not the product of American culture. They are spoken in a culture and to a culture but God’s Word comes from heaven, not from Washington D.C. The sacraments administered by the church are signs and seals of the gospel. They signify the salvation accomplished for God’s people (of all languages, tribes, and nations) by God the Son incarnate, the King of Kings. The sacraments were testifying to his promises and sealing the same to believers under Rome, under the Goths, under German princes and American presidents. The message and ministry with which the church has been entrusted, “the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 3) is trans-cultural and trans-national. It is eschatological, i.e., it comes from heaven and it points to heaven. This is as it should be. Our Lord Jesus declared to Pilate, “My kingdom is not of this world. If my kingdom were of this world, my servants would have been fighting, that I might not be delivered over to the Jews. But my kingdom is not from the world” (John 18:36; ESV).
Memorial Day is a fitting observation. It is a sobering day but this Lord’s Day, and every Lord’s Day, as we gather to worship our Triune God, in the name of Christ, by sole authority of his Word, let us set national flags and songs aside. The only flag that matters at that moment is the banner and ensign of King Jesus who earned his kingdom by his bloody sweat and “one act of righteousness” (Rom 5:18). It is in his name we gather and it is his kingdom we observe in public worship.