Participating in the “high holy day” of American civil religion is beneficial for Christians, so long as we do so thoughtfully.
This Memorial Day I’ll make what’s become an annual pilgrimage, to a place made sacred by the struggles of people like my cousin Mike. Nestled in between the Twin Cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul, Fort Snelling National Cemetery is the final resting place for more than 220,000 American military veterans and their spouses. Most of them died at a ripe old age, but a few of the headstones bear birth and death dates that are far closer than they ought to be. One of those belongs to Mike, a Navy corpsman traumatized by his experience of the Iraq War. He died in 2014 at the age of 33, leaving behind a wife and three young children.
Some of the visitors who had preceded me last year to Mike’s graveside left behind tokens of remembrance. Flowers and a small American flag rested peacefully in the grass. Two of his comrades-in-arms had placed quarters on the headstone.
Nothing remained of my visit but fallen tears, fleeting evidence of the complicated mix of emotions I felt: grief at Mike’s suffering and death, pride for his courage and sacrifice, dismay at humanity’s propensity for violence, anger at the circumstances that led to his death, and uncertainty about how I should participate in the rituals of Memorial Day.
More of the hurt will have healed when I visit this year, but the other emotions have already started to bubble up. So as a Christian, as a historian, and as someone who loved and was loved by a fallen veteran, let me share what I’ve been contemplating as we approach Memorial Day.
We need reminders to remember.
In a sense, every day is a memorial day for Christians, heirs of Moses’ exhortation to the assembly of Israel: “Remember the days of old; consider the generations …