Memorial Day and Radical Discipleship

Let’s begin by acknowledging that nominal allegiance to Jesus Christ is good for nothing, and that Christian In Name Only is no better than any other kind of -INO. The demands of Jesus Christ are total, and this means that radical discipleship is the only option open to those who want to walk in obedience. “Come, follow me,” He said. He did not ask for us to give Him a polite head nod from time to time.

But once we have turned our backs on lethargic or nominal Christianity, there are still some significant hazards. A Christian walk that is “all in” can be radical in significantly dangerous ways. The biblical call is to be obedient, not to do a bunch of things that zealous but disobedient hearts would like to call obedient.

Parse it out this way. The claims of Christ are total, but what happens when we submit to those claims? There are two basic conceptions of what should follow such a surrender, and both claim the authority of radical discipleship — but only one of them really is. One has no trouble celebrating Memorial Day, and the other has real difficulty with it. Guess which one I think is true.

One views the claims of Christ as a solvent, and the other views them as a glue.

The former sees love in the same context that all unbelieving thought does, which is zero sum thinking. More in this direction necessarily means less in that direction. More love for Christ means less love for my neighbor. And since Christ demands it all, the things of earth grow strangely dim in the light of His glory and grace. This can be made to sound very pious, and sometimes it is pious in spite of itself. But the long term logic of this understanding will out. Zero sum thinking leads inexorably to sentimentalism, socialism and sodomy.

The latter sees love in a strikingly different way. The more I love Jesus Christ the more I am able to rightly love my wife, my parents, my children, my neighborhood, my nation, my people, and my history. And this is why a sold-out Christian can participate in Memorial Day activities, remembering it the way he ought to.

One kind of radical Christian follows the demands of Christ in such a way as to increase contempt or disdain for all earthly allegiances. This is the solvent approach. The other kind causes all such bonds to deepen. This is the glue approach. But because it is a radical approach to the words of Jesus, it insists that everything be glued together in the right order, but it also insists that they be glued together. I have no authority to separate God from my neighbor.

“And to love him with all the heart, and with all the understanding, and with all the soul, and with all the strength, and to love his neighbour as himself, is more than all whole burnt offerings and sacrifices” (Mark 12:33).

Notice how this provides a complete contradiction to zero sum thinking. Jesus says that we are to love God with everything we’ve got — all the heart, all the mind, all the soul, and all the strength. Having given it all away, how are we supposed to love our neighbor? In a zero sum world, nothing is left. But in the world God created, the more you give away, the more you have to give away. Further, if your bond to your family and nation are rightly ordered, that is the way we are to show our love to God. How can I love God, whom I have not seen, when I don’t love my brother whom I have seen (1 Jn. 4:20)?

Now I want to put this in a way that I will expect will set off all kinds of spiritual alarm bells. But that’s all right — I’ll explain it afterwards. I am speaking here to my fellow countrymen, and so I will put it to you this way. If you don’t love America, you don’t love Jesus. And this is the point when the red lights start blinking furiously, and the klaxon alarms all go off.

Somehow it sounded better when I said that if you don’t love your neighbor you don’t love Jesus. That is because the idea of “neighbor” has become an ethereal floaty thing, wafted above our heads on the hot air provided by numerous sermons. America is concrete. America has faults. America has great sins. America has a history. America is right here next to me. America . . . is my neighbor.

Now going back to my first paragraph, I grant that there are many who would say amen to my crazy sentiment, and they would do this because they are idolaters, and that is a wicked thing to do. Idolatry is bad, and you never heard anything different from me. The idolatry of American civil religion is particularly atrocious, but it is not aiding and abetting such idolatry to set disordered loves back in their right order.

The misguided radical approach wants to take these disordered loves and throw them all away. But that leaves us loving our imaginary neighbors here in Gnostictown, where everyone up and down my whole street is clean and pure.

It’s all in Niebuhr — bless me, what do they teach them in these schools?

  • Jack

    Best Memorial day article I’ve read all week. Good stuff.

  • M

    Interesting post. I think that there is a bit of equivocation in your use of ‘America’, though, which runs the risk of turning into a serious category mistake: if by ‘America’ we mean ‘Americans’, then one must love America in order to love one’s neighbor. If, however, we mean by ‘America’, well, the idea of the American fatherland (what, I think, stereotypical flag-waving patriotism is often directed towards), the American state, or American culture, then loving America may not be a Christian duty. To put it in other words, if we have a duty to love our neighbor, then we must love even those Americans whom we don’t like; if we don’t like any Americans, we must love them all the more; but being an American patriot may not be a duty of a Christian within the United States. I’m willing to be corrected on this point–indeed, I’d like to see a defense of patriotism (not, of course, of the civic-religionist variety, which you’re very right to condemn)–but it seems to me an important distinction to maintain. Perhaps a way to start would be by arguing that our duty to our fellow Americans (if we are Americans, that is) requires some sort of duty to or love of the American country (not the same thing as the American state, of course), but that seems only to the sort of thing that would arise in a country in which patriotism is a big thing; it was not in Rome, for example, where obedience to governors and emperors was much more important–seeing it as any sort of universal Christian duty seems problematic, therefore.

  • Andrew Isker

    Is it possible to love America, as our non-ethereal neighbor, without celebrating her sin? If I had a homosexual neighbor, would it be unloving, if when invited to attend the gay pride parade with them, I politely declined? Could I be friends with them, love them, have them over to dinner instead? Given the ongoing undeclared wars, daily drone strikes throughout the Muslim world, and funding and supplying of Al Qaeda(!) in Syria, would it be alright if I took a few Memorial Days off?

  • Douglas Wilson

    Andrew, if observing Memorial Day meant necessary support for any current unjust war, then that would follow. But I don’t think that is what it means.

  • Andrew Isker

    Okay. Well then, have a happy rest of your Memorial Day.

  • Melody

    I love America. Not like I love Jesus, and not like I love my husband and family. But I love what America originally stood for. This country is a Republic, not a Democracy. I salute the flag, which is not worship but rather a salute to the values for which it stands. When did Christians decide that loving one’s homeland – and in our case, a homeland based on Biblical values – become idol worship? I know Christians who love their Starbucks more than they love their country and easily condemn those who serve. Memorial Day is not about anything other than appreciation for those people who have sacrificed home, comfort, good job, and even their life, in the defense of others. I also love America because I am allowed to publicly disagree with my government and seek to change personnel and policy. The fact that there are evil hypocrites running the country today does not mean that the whole thing is and always has been worthless. Sheesh.

  • L Butler

    Well, hmmmmm. Hmmmmm.

    I think it’s wonderful if people want to remember those who fell in war or other military actions. It’s permissible and also good, especially if those fallen are from your community or family. The trouble comes when we start talking about “Land of the Free because of the Brave” and say stuff like, “there are only two people who have ever died for your freedom: Jesus Christ and the American Soldier” and “if you enjoy your freedom, thank a soldier.” This makes it seem like the reason America has been a freer, more prosperous place to live than, say, Uzbekistan, is that we have an awesome military and are constantly involved in defensive and pre-emptive wars around the world. If not for our fighting might, the United States would be in the same state as countries like India. This mindset, this presupposition shared by nearly every American I’ve ever encountered, needs to be examined. And we need to look at what that might has done to other places and how it may have hindered Christianity (as in the case of Iraq currently).

    I don’t love America, that bordered collection of states overseen by a federal three-pronged government. I don’t love the American State, I don’t love the American military, I don’t even love the American constitution. Am I grateful for all these things? Yes, and this is because Jesus loves me. He has given me this good land in which to live, this wonderful community, these churches I am involved with, this family, these neighbors, all the wonders that make gnostic living seem completely ridiculous. I love our life here in America. I am grateful for the good gifts of God.

    But I hope that I would be just as grateful if He had made me a Swede or a Venezuelan or a Korean.

  • David Smith

    Great article! Indeed, I love my country, but I don’t see this forcibly consolidated union of states as “my country” anymore. It’s too big for one thing, and human affections grow increasingly abstract as the scale of a thing grows ever larger. What’s the limit? Not sure, but I do know what we’re talking about here is waaaaay too big for properly ordered affections.

    My country that I love is the people, the culture, my kith and kin that populate rural Tennessee, particularly here in the middle of the state. I love this people, this place, and their virtues (Great barbecue!); and I love them even in spite of their vices and foibles! That’s patriotism to my mind. So I’m coming to understand more in my little part of the world the proper relationship of loving God and loving man; loving man and loving God. The process of sanctification being what it is, I’m not entirely there yet, but I’m sensing what John is talking about as I get older.

    As far as the Memorial Day thing goes, in order to defend these I will go to war, but I will never again (knowingly!) allow myself to be led to war for some abstraction like “making the world safe for democracy” or whatever nation-building variation we have suffered through, particularly in the last decade-plus, and for which some of my soldiers needlessly were killed and wounded!

  • Jane Dunsworth

    “But I hope that I would be just as grateful if He had made me a Swede or a Venezuelan or a Korean.”

    Maybe I am taking this wrong, but as a justification for “I do not love America” that doesn’t seem to work.

    If you were to say, “I hope I would be just as grateful if He had given me different parents” would it then make sense to say, “I am thankful for all the blessings of my family, but I don’t actually love my family.”

    I would think not. So why do you feel the need to oppose the construction “I love America” to an understanding that God could have blessed you by making you something other than an American? Why do you oppose loving something, to the possibility that you could experience good without that something?

  • L Butler

    Jane, thanks for the interaction! I do not at all oppose loving America, sorry if I gave that impression. I remember clearly the overwhelming relief I felt when the plane I was on touched down in Atlanta after a 2 week trip to Africa. But it wasn’t to do with it being America, necessarily. It was because I was home. I was so happy to be where I belonged, where I knew how to *be*. I was in my own culture again, and it was a comfort. In that sense, I love America.

    In my previous post, I was responding (probably not as clearly as I’d like) negatively to Pastor Wilson’s desire to link lack of America Love to gnosticism and hatred of Christ. I see what he’s doing there, but it doesn’t wash with me and I was trying to parse out why.

  • Douglas Wilson

    Dear L,

    The reason I mentioned that I was speaking to my fellow countrymen is that I do not believe that a Korean has the same obligation to love America. He has the same obligation to love Korea. The fact that I have an obligation to honor my mother does not mean that everybody else has the same obligation — well, they do, but to their own mothers.