During the month of May, most Americans receive the day off of work in light of Memorial Day. While most may only look at memorial day as a time away from the 9-to-5, it is much more than that. Indeed, it often marks the shift in seasons from Spring to Summer, but again, it is much more than this. In fact, memorial day is a day to remember all of those who have died, serving in the Armed Forces.
Christianity’s history has long had a non-violent voice to it. Martin Luther King Jr., who was the face of the civil rights movement is perhaps the most prominent U.S. Christian known for his commitment to non-violent actions. Yet, it is not merely a recent theme or belief. It dates back to Jesus. In fact, many Christians and people today expose non-violent tactics as a result of Jesus’ teachings and actions. In light of memorial day coming up, it leaves Christians with a difficult question.
Should Christians celebrate memorial day? Does honoring this holiday go against any Christian Beliefs?
This is the very question I hope to discuss. Be sure to share you opinion in the comments after reading!
Christian Origins of Non-Violence
Christianity has long agreed with the idea of non-violence, with some disagreement. Like any other belief in Christianity, there is a wide spectrum of beliefs within this one religion. Thus, while I hope to uncover the origins of non-violence within Christianity, it should be understood that many Christians interpret this in different ways. With that aside, one could trace the roots of non-violence back to Jesus.
There are several places in the gospels that people refer to, when talking of Jesus’ commitment to non-violence. Of the many, I will share two:
The first is in the garden of Gethsemane, right before Jesus is arrested. Matthew 26:47-55 reads (emphasis added),
47 While he was still speaking, Judas, one of the Twelve, arrived. With him was a large crowd armed with swords and clubs, sent from the chief priests and the elders of the people. 48 Now the betrayer had arranged a signal with them: “The one I kiss is the man; arrest him.” 49 Going at once to Jesus, Judas said, “Greetings, Rabbi!” and kissed him.
50 Jesus replied, “Do what you came for, friend.”[d]
Then the men stepped forward, seized Jesus and arrested him. 51 With that, one of Jesus’ companions reached for his sword, drew it out and struck the servant of the high priest, cutting off his ear.
52 “Put your sword back in its place,” Jesus said to him, “for all who draw the sword will die by the sword.53 Do you think I cannot call on my Father, and he will at once put at my disposal more than twelve legions of angels? 54 But how then would the Scriptures be fulfilled that say it must happen in this way?”
55 In that hour Jesus said to the crowd, “Am I leading a rebellion, that you have come out with swords and clubs to capture me? Every day I sat in the temple courts teaching, and you did not arrest me. 56 But this has all taken place that the writings of the prophets might be fulfilled.” Then all the disciples deserted him and fled.
Instead of having his disciples fight for him, Jesus told them to put their swords away. The phrase, “for all who draw the sword will die by the sword,” has been repeated over and over, even to this day, as sound wisdom. It’s basic argument is that violence escalates violence.
The second example is in both the gospel of Matthew and Luke. In order to keep the same source, I will quote from Matthew 5:38-42:
38 “You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’[h] 39 But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also. 40 And if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well. 41 If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles. 42 Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you.
While many people misinterpret this verse to suggest that believers need to accept abuse, it is not intended like that at all. In fact, turning the other cheek was an act of non-violently putting an end to the abuse, while exposing the injustice. As a result, Jesus is empowering his followers to expose and put an end to the injustice through non-violent means.
Should a Commitment to Non-Violence Keep Christians from Celebrating Memorial Day?
If this is the commitment of some Christians, I can’t help but ask whether this should keep them from celebrating memorial day. Some might suggest that in celebrating memorial day and those who have fought in past wars, we thereby support violence. Yet, I am not sure it can be that simple.
Is honoring those who fought in wars supporting violence?
Suggesting that Christians ignore Memorial Day reminds me of veterans returning from the Vietnam war to protests and hatred for what they did. While this was a result of the commitment to peace and the hippie movement, the truth is that many Americans were forced to serve in that war against their will. They didn’t want to be fighting in that war any more than those protesting the war did.
While it can be helpful to remind ourselves of Jesus’ commitment to non-violence, we should be careful not to isolate ourselves from those who have fought in wars. The world is a complicated place and to simplify things such as an either-or could do more harm than good.