Stanley Hauerwas wisely said, “To live like Jesus is Lord is going to make my life dysfunctional in relationship to a good deal of American practices.” In fact, a Christianity centered around the politics of Jesus radically conflicts with and even subverts American culture on a number of levels. Never more so than this weekend as Christians all across the U.S. are presented with two observances, one on the American calendar and the other on the church calendar, forcing us to choose whose time we’re telling:”American Time” (Memorial Day) or “Church Time” (Pentecost Season). As followers of Christ, who also happen to be Americans, it’s important to distinguish between the American “me” and the Christian “me”, especially in the liturgies, commemorations, and stories that shape our identity.
And while it might seem hyperbolic to pit Memorial Day against Pentecost, it’s a perfect example of the tension American Christians face when trying to be faithful citizens in the Kingdom of God while living in a kingdom of this world.
Pentecost anticipates peace. Memorial Day remembers violence.
Pentecost celebrates unity in the midst of diversity. The Holy Spirit weds believers worldwide to share in the one, living Body of Christ. Memorial Day on the other hand is a high holy day within America’s civic religion consecrating men and women sacrificed on the alter of empire. Pentecost emphasizes our communal and diverse humanity as God “poured out His spirit on all people.” Memorial Day tempts us to venerate war, dividing the world into ‘us vs. them.’ Pentecost makes people from every tongue, tribe, and nation one in Christ, unifying a world filled with diversity. Memorial Day reminds us that our racial, linguistic, religious, and national distinctions are often worth killing for.
The way we tell time, the rituals we keep, and the holidays we commemorate reinforce reality. The American calendar tells Caesar’s story, and is filled with holy days remembering presidents, wars, military conquest, and nationalism. They act as sign posts, guiding us to what the empire believes really matters. The Christian calendar tells time radically different, and points to an alternative reality. We are a people called out of every tribe and nation to be the very love of God in the world.
And yet, yesterday I found myself in our parish cemetery, placing flags on the headstones of veterans in memory of their service. I wasn’t motivated so much by patriotism as by a mournful sadness for the casualty of all human lives spent in war. Saddened that men and women the world over continue to kill and be killed for the nation-state. Sad that American Christians are Americans first, and Christians second, especially when dealing with our enemies. Sad that war for the United States has become a moral necessity. Sad that war is a sacrament, and that the liturgy of war continues to capture our imaginations. Sad that Christianity and democracy in America continue to be inextricably linked through the experience of war. Sad that Christians are willing to kill other Christians for America. Sad that the military is worshipped as the greatest salvific force in the world instead of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
So, how do we as American Christians commemorate Memorial Day within the Christian spirit of Pentecost Season?
Remember. Remember and lament the loss of all life. Mourn for Iraqi’s, Kurds, and Russians the same way one mourns for your own nation’s fallen. For, she to is made in the image of God and is therefore our sister.
Resist. Resist the temptation of American exceptionalism. Resist the notions that America is great because America is good. Resist the temptation to fear ‘the other.’ Instead, walk toward them to better glimpse our shared humanity. Resist the urge to demonize, villainize, and stereotype our nations enemies.
Repent. Repent for the rape of the West and the genocide of Native Americans. Repent for slavery and the continual racism that guides our social policies. Repent that we are the only nation to unleash nuclear holocaust on a civilian population. Repent for Vietnam. Repent for the Bush lies and the murder of millions of Iraqi civilians. Repent for our imperialism. Repent for our part in the destabilization of the Middle East, leading to the rise of ISIS.
Living into the spirit of Pentecost on Memorial Day weekend will most certainly make your life a bit dysfunctional in relation to American cultural practices. If American Christians are to be a faithful witness to the Lordship of Christ, we must continue to challenge the cultural norms and practices that tempt us to root our lives in the story of the American experiment, and not the Kingdom of God. How we tell time, and what we choose to commemorate is one simple way to remember that following Christ is often resistance to the dominant cultural narrative.