Editor’s Journal: Of memory and meaning
Walk through Arlington National Cemetery at this time of year, and it is hard not to be completely overcome with the sheer beauty of the place. The sunsets are breathtaking. The wind coming off the Potomac River rustles through the leaves which have now erupted into lovely Fall colors. Get past the highly trafficked tourist areas of the cemetery and the sound of that wind can be eerily haunting to most anyone who silently stops to read the names of men and women chiseled on the bone- white, 24-inch-tall headstones arranged row upon row. As far as the eye can see, these graves appear strikingly beautiful, and it is easy to forget that this is a place of great sorrow. Beyond the pageantry of the volleys of seven rifles shot three times heard every so often in the distance comes little reminder that this is a place for those who either died in war or the final resting place for those who served in the United States armed forces.
War is the most striking reminder of sin known to man. Just war theory and all the accompanying philosophical and theological debates surrounding armed conflict between nations matter little to the mother who sits before a flag-draped casket containing the body of her only son killed by an enemy’s bullet. Wives come here to say good-bye to husbands. Children come to view perhaps the only visible reminder to them that they had a father or brother or sister who never came home. Arlington Cemetery tells them why.
Soldiers are a different breed of citizen. They are trained to actually work for their own death (if need be) in service to their country. It is their duty to do so. Their glory is in their service to those who will never know their name or remember their valor. And, in truth, fewer and fewer are remembering these days that war is a staple of existence in this fallen world. Even more sad—fewer care that someone died so they might be free.
Jesus warned in Matthew 24 that “you will hear of wars and rumors of wars.” The shock value in that statement can still produce great fear for any nation as the wicked tendencies of tyrants still dominate the world. Peace is only temporary as someone somewhere is re-arming for a fight. Jesus went on to say that his disciples “should not be alarmed, for this must take place, but the end is not yet.” Not be alarmed at war? How? “For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom, and there will be famines and earthquakes in various places.”
Twenty-first Century Americans know all too well their technology cannot protect them from catastrophe, no matter how hard they try to shield themselves from it. Yet, Jesus interpreted wars and disasters as “birth pains.”
Ask any woman who has given birth if it is a painful experience. Their obvious answer underscores the reality of the unending pain of unending conflict until a specific time in the future known only to God when the process will be over, and all will be made right. Birth pangs are not forever, and neither is this life. Death is the wages of sin, but something comes after death for those who possess eternal life—resurrection.
This is the great hope of the Christian, and it is the only hope of the world. Looking into the casket of a fallen soldier causes this world to appear as it truly is —painful and covered with the pall of death. Walking through any cemetery is a reminder that unless Jesus returns, death is the certainty of every man.
The sadness of this Veteran’s Day is made more acute because the United States is still active in the prosecution of a war that seemingly has no end. Almost daily, the Pentagon reports of more young men and women who have died in service to their country. Behind every statistic is a father, mother, spouse, son or daughter whose life will always have an empty space because a certain soldier, sailor, airman or Marine no longer walks this Earth. This is the day for remembrance of those who have departed this life and for their families who are left behind.
Perhaps the most poignant reminder of death’s message to the living is found on the epitaph of one soldier who perished in battle: Remember me as you pass me by/For as you are now, so once was I/ As I am now so you shall be/Prepare for death to follow me.
Veteran’s Day—a time of remembrance; a time for preparation for what surely will come—death. Veteran’s Day —a time to remember what surely is to come—resurrection.
“I am the resurrection, and the life: he that believeth in Me, though he were dead, yet shall he live: And whosoever liveth and believeth in Me shall never die.” John 11:25-26.
Douglas E. Baker is executive editor of the Baptist Messenger and Communications Team leader for the Baptist General Convention of Oklahoma.