Memorial Day and the Christian Crisis of Doctrinal Imagination

Tony Sig

It is perhaps predictable for readers of this blog that at least one of us should write about Memorial Day.  We are not often shy in our youthful enthusiasm and naivity about our conflicted loyalties as American citizens and also of the Church; and of the necessity of radical discipleship in the face of what we, or I at least, perceive as a nation state who has hijacked a Christian soteriology.

I am an American.  My life is pretty good.  I am grateful for the gifts and opportunities that I have had throughout my life, some of which I would not have had in some other countries.  It would be dishonest of me not to note this.  I often hear that these benefits are only possible because of the sacrifices of soldiers who have bravely fought and willingly sacrificed for the United States.  That may in part be true, but it also points to a larger picture that I should like to address.

It would be easy to blame Constantinianism, blame the Enlightenment, blame the rise of atomistic politics for war, but the old adage about pointing your finger seems to ring true: “If you point your finger, you’ve three fingers pointing back at you.”  My life is what it is with reference to these things.  I cannot transcend the history in which my identity is tied up.  So a simple blame game can only implicate myself in those things which I blame.  I am not an island unto myself:  who I am is only as it is in relation to other people and to the past which we narrate into our identities.

I’d like to think through this with reference to a few Christian doctrines:

It is common to hear Augustine blamed for the doctrine of “Original Sin.”  This is, as most such “blame the fathers for a doctrine” schemes are, reductionistic and crude.  Whatever the case though, we can thank Foucault for making the doctrine much more plausible in the contemporary scene.  There seem to be structures of power and violence in place before I even come to be in the world.  They are things over which I have little to no control and are fundamental to my existence, so much so that for most of my life they are invisible.  I am born into a world already organized politically, economically, sociologically, religiously.  This is essentially the doctrine of Original Sin: that structures of oppression, violence and rebellion against God are ‘already in place’ and work to form us as people before we are able to understand  or critically resist them.

Because these structures are there from the beginning, they are easily taken for granted; assumed to be a natural given, something inevitable and often even good, as in being American, or at the very least ethically neutral, as in market economics.  Memorial Day fits in well here.  It is easy to assume that, because we have a relatively good life, the given social structures that we have are ‘how things are’ or ‘how the world works.’  The thought follows, that if we as Americans enjoy “freedom” and “prosperity” then the possibility of war as means to defend this freedom and prosperity are a necessity.

But no sooner is that thought out of my mouth than I realize that this implicates my own well being in a cycle and chain of violence and oppression.  We return again to the fact that our world still operates in a cycle of “Original Sin.”  My life is implicated and intertwined in the lives of others and that life is often manifested in and guaranteed by war.

This is why classical theology is so very important.  Christ enters into this world as one not implicated in this cycle.  His sinlessness means for us that by the power of the Spirit we are brought into the life of a God whose very nature from all eternity is one of perfect peace, perfect mutuality.  We are not merely shown a way to live well, as if Christ was a mere moral exemplar – which is good as we are rather bad at such imitation – rather, by virtue of our baptism and infilling of the Holy Spirit, we are incorporated into that life of peace and given the means to live it.

This is why the Church is a politics and why it can and ought to challenge the givenness of Memorial Day.  In the Church, we are commanded to live reconciled lives to each other, submitting to each other, loving each other, giving to each other even as Christ gives perpetually and without reservation to the Father, a giving we are able to do only on account of the Spirit.  There is no other name by which we might be saved.

This then is what I mean by the crisis of doctrinal imagination; that we have become accustomed to imagining the Christian Gospel as one merely effecting ones personal salvation post-mortem.  Original Sin, Christ’s sinlessness, God as Trinity, the exclusivity of the Church; all of these reduced to crude propositional statements needed to fill a gap in narrative logic become worn out quickly and whither and die.  The Gospel makes a difference as to how we conceive our political allegiances.  This isn’t about some stupid “Right vs Left” thing.  This is an Isaiah 2.1-5 kind of thing:

1 The word that Isaiah the son of Amoz saw concerning Judah and Jerusalem.

2 And it shall come to pass in the last days, that the mountain of the LORD’S house shall be established in the top of the mountains, and shall be exalted above the hills; and all nations shall flow unto it.

3 And many people shall go and say , Come ye, and let us go up to the mountain of the LORD, to the house of the God of Jacob; and he will teach us of his ways, and we will walk in his paths: for out of Zion shall go forth the law, and the word of the LORD from Jerusalem.

4 And he shall judgeamong the nations, and shall rebuke many people: and they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks: nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.

5 O house of Jacob, come ye, and let us walk in the light of the LORD

This raises the problem of the Church’s need to relearn how to read the Old Testament Christologically, but that is for another day.  For now I hope I’ve hinted however poorly at the ways in which the Christian proclamation ought to revise other stories which we tell about ourselves.  I also hope I’ve done it in a way that does not reduce to finger pointing at American soldiers as such essays as this even of mine have been prone to do.