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Depending on where you are, it is Veterans Day or Remembrance Day on this 11th of November. It’s the 96th anniversary, too, of the end of World War I, “the war to end all wars” except that it turned out to be just the beginning of lots more wars (and now we are told we are in a perpetual state of war against terrorism). Ten days ago it was also All Saints’ Day in the church, though I am part of a church tradition that never did much with that (Deb Rienstra had a nice reflection on this recently here on The Twelve). I am also from a family that is not rich in having a lot of connection with the military in any of its branches. So I confess that growing up–and now into my adult years–Veterans Day in the U.S. has often passed without much notice. I am very sure I have never attended a parade or any ceremony downtown at the local war memorial.
That’s probably bad on me, though, because it makes it too easy to forget that we all live off the benefits of enormous sacrifice. No, not every war in history was fought for the right reasons and some were almost certainly avoidable altogether. But there have been any number of conflicts that were make-or-break for big chunks of civilization and for the freedom I still enjoy and so it is only fitting that there be goodly measures of due gratitude in our hearts for those who won the victories that kept evil and injustice at bay.
As noted, my family is not a military one and yet ironically one of my earliest memories is military in nature. Back in the 1960s my Dad’s youngest brother was drafted by the Army and sent to Vietnam. As a young boy, I knew Uncle Harris was in the Army, and often when visiting my grandparents in Zeeland, Michigan, I could tell there was a lot of concern for him. This was confusing to my 4- or 5-year-old self. I knew my Dad had been in the Army in the 1950s. He had spent some months at Fort Leonard Wood in Missouri but was never in any danger I was aware of so why would it be any different for Uncle Harris? Why the careworn worried looks on Grandma’s face? The only time I was concerned about my uncle during that time was one Friday night while visiting my grandparents. We had a Tornado Warning and so had to take temporary shelter in Grandma and Grandpa’s dank and dark Michigan cellar until the weather cleared. I remember hoping that Harris was safe from the tornado wherever he was, too.
How little I knew of the real dangers he faced.
He came home safe and sound when I was 5 or so and I can recall clear as day the trip to O’Hare Airport in Chicago to pick him up. There was a moving sidewalk on which soldiers in their dress green uniforms came into the terminal. When Uncle Harris came by, my Grandma Hoezee fairly tackled him with a hug that was followed by a good bit of joyful sobbing on her part. Again, I just couldn’t figure out why coming home from Army camp was so dramatic.
I am told I slept the whole ride back to Zeeland. I am also told that those 3-4 hours were the most extensively Uncle Harris talked about Vietnam. He has stayed pretty quiet about it in the years since.
Of course, Vietnam is one of the more controversial wars in our history, but I am very proud of my uncle’s having done what was asked of him by our country. I have a few great-uncles, too, who served in Europe during World War II, and probably a lot of people reading this blog can this day name and remember many others who served, some of whom did not come back.
In the Christian tradition remembering those who went before–that great cloud of witnesses of Hebrews 12 fame–is part of what it means to recall that God deals with us collectively as well as individually. Covenant is about community, about a holy people, about finally a new humanity in a new creation. There are all kinds of ways–especially in the United States–by which politics/nationalism gets all mixed up with Bible/theology in ways that are typically injurious to the faith. But on this Veterans/Remembrance Day, it seems to be an eminently Christian thing to do to remember with great gratitude those who sacrificed lives, limbs, nervous systems, and sometimes their own internal sense of peace so that others might one day be able to lead better lives in freedom.
My Grandma’s tears of relief and joy that day at O’Hare bore witness to the anguish a war visited on her soul once upon a time. But those tears, those emotions, that anguish gets multiplied almost beyond the imagining of it across history.
So today we remember. We remember with gratitude. And if it’s true that we Christians are ultimately pining for that “swords-to-ploughshares” day when war will become a faint echo from the world that was, we can remember those who served in the wars that came as playing (we fervently hope) some small role in the long march to that day when kings and nations will finally make war no more.