The Sacrifice of War

The following is my homily for a cemetery ceremony to observe Memorial Day…

As Lt Col Dave Grossman notes in his book, On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society, General SLA Marshall, in his study of men combat during the second world war, observed how out of every hundred men along a line of fire, during battle, less than a fifth of the soldiers would take part by actually firing their weapons at another human being. 

Over three-quarters of the soldiers would do everything they could (short of betray their comrades) not to kill. 

This led General Marshall to conclude that the average, healthy individual has “such an inner and usually unrealized resistance to killing a fellow man that he will not of his own volition take life if it is at all possible to turn away from that responsibility.” 

General Marshall’s observation is not merely a psychological insight. I believe it’s a theological insight confirmed by scripture, particularly Paul’s Letter to the Colossians. 

Many assume that the ultimate sacrifice we ask of our troops is the sacrifice of their lives, to lay down their lives for us, and, obviously, that is a great and grave sacrifice. But I think the argument of scripture and General Marshall’s study invites us to see it differently. The Book of Genesis tells us that each of us are created in the image of God, but then Colossians 1 tells us what the prologue of John’s Gospel tells us: Jesus is the image of the invisible God, the logic of creation.

Speaking of logic, scripture gives us a simple syllogism: 

      We are made in God’s image 

     Jesus is the image of the invisible God

     Therefore: We are made in Jesus’ image. 

We’re created, hard-wired, meant to be like Jesus. And Jesus would rather die than kill. And so would we. 

Christianly speaking, then, the ultimate sacrifice we ask of our troops is not the sacrifice of their lives; after all, our lives, as gifts of God, do not belong to us to give. No, if we’re made in Christ’s image, then the ultimate sacrifice we ask of our troops is to sacrifice their innate, God-given unwillingness to kill. 

For us.

And so when we ask our fellow citizens, when we ask our children, to (potentially) take life, we’re asking for a far greater sacrifice than just their lives. 

We’re asking them to sacrifice what it means for them to be made in God’s image; we’re asking them to sacrifice their Christ-like unwillingness to kill. 

For us. 

And that’s a sacrifice whose tragedy is only compounded when our soldiers return home from war and we expect them to allow us to applaud them at baseball games but not to tell us about we’ve asked them to do. 

That our troops are willing to make such a sacrifice for us is what the Church calls grace— a gift not one of us deserves. 

That we perpetuate a world that makes such a sacrifice necessary— when the message of the Cross is that it’s not— that’s what the Church calls sin.

During the crusades, before returning soldiers would receive the Body and Blood of Christ in the sacrament of communion, they would undergo the sacrament of reconciliation in order to restore the image of Christ within them. The Crusades are seldom cited as a good example of anything, but, in this case, I believe they have something to teach us, particularly when it comes to thinking Christianly about Memorial Day. Because the Crusaders- for all their other faults- understood that our God-given, Christ-like unwillingness to take life is the ultimate sacrifice of war. 

But they also understood that that ultimate sacrifice is not ultimate. 

As in, it’s not final. 

For the one who raised Jesus Christ from the dead for our justification, the one whose nature is always to show mercy, has promised he will come again, making all things new with a peace that surpasses all understanding.

Amen.

    

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