It’s the closing scene in the movie “Saving Private Ryan” (I still can’t believe that it didn’t win the Academy Award in 1998). James Ryan, now an old man, has brought his family with him to the National Cemetery at Normandy to find the grave of Captain John Miller, the man who headed the squad that was sent to find him, and who died in the process. Captain Miller’s dying words to Private Ryan were, “James… earn this. Earn it.” And the movie ends with the older James Ryan standing over Captain Miller’s grave with his family around him. He says –
To be honest with you, I wasn’t sure how I’d feel coming back here. Every day I think about what you said to me that day on the bridge. And I’ve tried to live my life the best I could. I hope that was enough. I hope that at least in your eyes, I’ve earned what all of you have done for me.
Memorial Day is our annual opportunity to ask ourselves this same question.
Have we earned what they did for us?
I am the son of a decorated World War 2 veteran. I was born during the Korean War. I came of age during the Vietnam War. I have a nephew who has been on the frontlines of the War on Terror since before 9/11. My nearly 62 round trips around the sun have been fraught with wars and rumors of war, and I have been forced to reflect on the necessity and legitimacy of armed conflict nearly continuously. It has been one of the big and perennial issues in the living of my days.
Philosophically, theologically, I can be neither a pacifist nor a crusader. The position on the use of military force in a fallen world that makes the best sense to my head and heart is what is known as the “Just War Theory,” which is to say that I am a “selective pacifist.” I believe that each and every conflict that arises in our national life demands our careful moral and spiritual scrutiny, and when deemed necessary, can then only be fought “grievingly.” And the sacrifices made by those who fight and die deserve not just our honor and respect on special national holidays, but our own best and continuing efforts to preserve what it is that they gave themselves to protect. This is how we “earn it.” So, what do those “efforts to preserve” look like? Well, I have heard it said that a Christian’s duty to his or her country is to “pray, pay and obey,” and that’s a pretty good summary if you ask me.
“Obey” in a participatory democracy like ours minimally means voting. While I harbor no messianic illusions about candidates who run for political office, and I certainly don’t believe that the platform of any political party is ever going to be an exact expression of the Kingdom of God, I do believe that we who are Christians nevertheless have an obligation to vote our consciences informed by the mind of Christ. If we aren’t standing in a voting booth during every election, then we aren’t “earning this.”
“Pay” refers to taxes. Setting aside for the moment the problems of wasteful government spending, confused national priorities and the crises of conscience that the governmental support of certain programs and activities can create in us, the payment of our taxes is nevertheless one of the primary obligations that we have as citizens, and as Christians, we are told to do this willingly, even gladly. If we aren’t filing our taxes honestly and conscientiously, then we aren’t “earning this.”
“Pray” is the distinctively Christian duty to one’s country. An early Christian writer explained that what the soul is to the body, so the Christian is to the state in which he or she lives. We are where the temporal and the eternal meet, where what is transitory touches what is from everlasting to everlasting. We pray in the Lord’s Prayer, “Thy Kingdom come, Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven,” and believing that we actually know some of what that entails because of our relationship with Jesus Christ, we ask God to bring it about, and insofar as it lies within our capacities and opportunities as human beings, to be instruments of His peace, and love, and righteousness, and justice.
Last Sunday we built our Pastoral Prayer around the singing of the national song “O Beautiful for Spacious Skies.” I’ve long thought that this is the most theological of our national sings, and singing it last Sunday on Memorial Day weekend brought this home to me once again. This song helpfully shapes my praying for my country.
O beautiful for spacious skies, for amber waves of grain;
For purple mountain majesties above the fruited plain!
America! America! God shed His grace on thee,
And crown thy good with brotherhood, from sea to shining sea.
This stanza is about thanksgiving for the bounty that our nation enjoys, both natural and spiritual. It acknowledges what we have as a gift from God, and I think that’s right. I have no quarrel with this, even as I acknowledge that it is not our experience alone as Americans. Canadians feel this same way about Canada. Italians feel this same way about Italy. Kenyans feel this same way about Kenya. Australians feel this same way about Australia. Another national song I love to sing, “This is My Song,” gets it exactly right when it says –
This is my home, the country where my heart is;
here are my hopes, my dreams, my holy shrine:
but other hearts in other lands are beating,
with hopes and dreams as true and high as mine.
My country’s skies are bluer than the ocean,
and sunlight beams on cloverleaf and pine;
but other lands have sunlight too, and clover,
and skies are everywhere as blue as mine…
Just as I can care about you deeply while loving my own family particularly, so my love for my country and my appreciation for its gifts does not require me to denigrate the love that others have for their countries or to depreciate the appreciation that they have for its gifts. This is not an “either/or” proposition. It’s “both/and.” To love America does not require me to hate everywhere else.
O beautiful for heroes proved in liberating strife,
Who more than self their country loved, and mercy more than life!
America! America! May God thy gold refine,
till all success be nobleness, and every gain divine.
This stanza may be my favorite. It names two profound truths. First, it speaks of aspiration, of a vision of nobility, and of the sacrifice that so many have made to pursue it, protect it, and preserve it. The American ideal is indeed noble – a nation founded on the notion of being “one country under God, indivisible, with justice and liberty for all.” And then, just as soon as we say it, or sing it, this national song acknowledges that we haven’t fully achieved it yet. Our gold still needs some refining, and so it looks to the future, and to the work that remains for that vision of “justice and liberty for all” to become reality. This idea continues in the last stanza –
O beautiful for patriot dream that sees beyond the years
Thine alabaster cities gleam, undimmed by human tears!
America! America! God mend thine every flaw,
Confirm thy soul in self-control, thy liberty in law.
This is not an “America love it or leave it” sentiment. This is an “America love it and keep trying to fix it” proposition. If we were fully committed to that last line – “America! America! God mend thine every flaw, Confirm thy soul in self-control, thy liberty in law” – I can’t think of an issue in our national life that we couldn’t effectively address as a people – Republicans, Democrats and Independents alike. This should be engraved on the desk of every legislator and on the heart of every citizen – “God mend thine every flaw, Confirm thy soul in self-control, thy liberty in law.” And when it is, I believe that only then will we have truly “earned it.” DBS +