It’s Memorial Day –a day that started out with the name Decoration Day. Unlike Veteran’s Day, when we honor all veterans who served our country, this day is reserved for those who died in that service. It started with the living making a trek out to the cemeteries across the land, decorating the graves, honoring the fallen, remembering their service, their “last full measure of devotion.”
The stories are endless. The count is breathtaking. The first war to prompt what became this official observance saw the fallen honored from the two sides of our “Civil” War, with 625,000 names and lives to remember from that war alone.
For those of us who never served, it really is close to unimaginable. For many who served and watched their comrades die, it is so very imaginable. And the cost; the sacrifice; the duty… they all add up to the simple yet extraordinary story of young men (mostly men in the past) who showed up, (or were drafted), signed up, and followed orders.
Some came mainly because we were bored at home — thought this looked like it might be fun. Some came because we were ashamed not to. Many of us came because it was the right thing to do. And all of us have seen men die.
Colonel Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain Addresses Maine Soldiers, (from the movie Gettysburg)
“The right thing to do.” The “just war” doctirne says that when the cause is just, there is little doubt about the justification.
I recently read the biography Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy by Eric Mataxas. Dietrich Bonheoffer was at heart a pacifist. A German theologian, he saw no way for a Christian to participate in war. And then he watched Hitler’s rise to power. He changed, because the cause was inescapably just. He joined in on a serious attempt to kill Hitler, part of the Valkyrie plan. He was captured, and ultimately spent the last day of his life leading worship. Here is the author’s summary of that last day:
Less than twenty-four hours before he left this world, Bonhoeffer performed the offices of a pastor. In the bright Schönberg schoolroom that was their cell, he held a small service. He prayed and read the verses for that day: Isaiah 53:5 (“With his stripes we are healed”) and 1 Peter 1:3 (“Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! By his great mercy we have been born anew to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead” RSV).
He had hardly finished his last prayer when the door opened and two evil-looking men in civilian clothes came in and said: “Prisoner Bonhoeffer. Get ready to come with us.” Those words “Come with us”—for all prisoners they had come to mean one thing only—the scaffold. We bade him good-bye—he drew me aside—“This is the end,” he said. “For me the beginning of life.”
He “was a good and saintly man,” wrote one observer. But in the letter he went further: “In fact my feeling was far stronger than these words imply. He was, without exception, the finest and most lovable man I have ever met.”
Bonhoeffer’s sentence of death was almost certainly by decree of Hitler himself. (Hitler) was every atom a petty man, he was accustomed to diverting exceedingly precious resources of time, personnel, and gasoline for the purposes of his own revenge.
We know that Bonhoeffer thought of death as the last station on the road to freedom, as he put it in his poem, “Stations on the Road to Freedom.”
“In the almost fifty years that I worked as a doctor, I have hardly ever seen a man die so entirely submissive to the will of God,” wrote another.
Bonhoeffer thought it the plain duty of the Christian—and the privilege and honor—to suffer with those who suffered.
I speak regularly at an assisted living facility nearby. Mr. Stringfellow, who first heard me in the independent living portion of this large campus, and has now moved into the assisted living section, comes to hear me speak two times a month. A bright, attentive, caring man, of great substance, he is a life-long reader whose eyesight no longer allows him to see the words on the pages. Mr. Stringfellow was one of the men who marched into Flossenbürg concentration camp, liberating the prisoners in that camp just two weeks after the execution of Bonheoffer by hanging.
He was executed there by hanging at dawn on April 9, 1945, just two weeks before soldiers from the United States 90th and 97th Infantry Divisions liberated the camp.
Two weeks. One of the great minds of the twentieth century, hanged because he took part in an attempt to kill one of the most petty and evil men of all time.
And so he died. As did countless others, doing their part to ensure our freedom, to end the tyranny of evil men. At times, the justness of the cause was in no doubt at all. At other times, the cause may have been a little muddled. But there is not much doubt about the duty and the sacrifice of those who showed up to do their part, in each and every one of our wars.
And so we remember them today. The Bonheoffers and the others…so many others. The last full measure of devotion was sadly needed. And the folks showed up to do their duty.
At least, we remember.