Oh, death, where is thy sting...?
See photos at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier
In early November, 2004, as I was coming home from a hospital visit in Washington, DC, crossing the Memorial Bridge, back to Alexandria, I turned off toward the Arlington National Cemetery and the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, a place I had never visited. There are many spots to visit there, but Tomb was my target. The tour bus dropped us off just in time for the hourly changing of the guard.
The changing of the guard was executed with precision and grace as we visitors stood at attention to honor the deceased, known but to God.
The scene is on a hill overlooking the city of Washington across the Potomac River, with the Washington Monument and many other buildings in full display.
I wondered what other folks were thinking as we stood there. Many were very meditative. Watching the events, I felt a pall of death all about which seemed strange and confusing. The forces of circumstance sometimes control our thinking and attitudes. For me, it was the military presence which overran other things.
I had been a pacifist most of my adult life, albeit an uncomfortable one. My mind changed in the early 1990's when I realized (1) that everything government does, it does at gunpoint, yet it is a good thing; and (2) that Jesus does indeed pull the trigger -- when He says, "Depart from me, I never knew you." The final trigger.
I found that I could no longer be a pacifist, and that God had a place for the use of coercive force. God is both the eternal "Yes" and the eternal "No". There are things which will be in the Kingdom, always, and other things which will not be there, not ever. Unless we want what God is offering, we will not be in the Kingdom.
The role of civil government, then, is to submit the use of coercive force to the law and grace of God.
But my thoughts there at the Tomb were not of the Lord. My mind had drifted into a secular mode, and I was looking at death without God. I wondered if I would be willing to give my life in a military attack. Would I be willing to go in house-to-house combat in Fallujah? Would I risk my life ministering to the sick in a plague, as the early Christians had in the Roman empire when others fled?
The pall was that of Isaiah: "And He will destroy on this mountain the covering that is cast over all peoples, the veil that is spread over all nations. He will swallow up death for ever..." (Isaiah 25:6 ff.) The pall of death.
But He will destroy it. After a few minutes, I realized that I had slipped off track. It seemed like an effort to bring the Lord into the situation. Did He really fit here? In the military? Well, yes. Jesus is King of kings and Lord of lords. That includes the US military, it includes the Unknown soldier, known but to... God. Known to the God and Father of our lord, Jesus Christ.
My focus on the Lord began to clarify, and I wondered again what the other folks were thinking. Would America ever become a nation which sent its soldiers to die for the King of kings and Lord of lords? Did anybody else here have such a thought? Would America ever be the kind of nation which represented the law and grace of God in domestic and foreign policy? Will we recover the Declaration of Independence theme that our political freedom is a gift from God, and from none other?
The military wars in which we engage are only a small part of the spiritual warfare which is being waged all the time They have no real significance apart from the spiritual war -- just a lot of noise and clatter and death, sound and fury signifying nothing.
We do not win the Big War just because we win the military engagements. The spiritual war will continue, and there will be no "war to end all wars", until the King returns. We are called to be soldiers for Christ even when the conflict descends into a contest of arms, and then when that contest ceases.
Death seems so final. The soldiers dying in Iraq really die. It sometimes seems hard to think of it in terms of the coming resurrection, that their sacrifice can be aimed at that, not at merely winning a war, not at merely defending America. But at defending the Kingdom, which begins (or not) here and now, and never ends (or ends forever).
The Second Coming of Christ is vitally important because, as we look down the corridors of time into the future, we do not see an empty future into which we must build something. We see a Face, a Someone, coming toward us. We see a Promised Land, the Kingdom already there and established from eternity, into which we are being invited.
A nation must honor its dead. But we must also understand that dying for one's country is not always honorable. One's country can have evil motives, as can any individual soldier. Such things can be resolved only in the law and grace of God.
Pray that those who offer their lives in the service of the American military will come to look for that Face coming down the path of the future to meet them, drawing them to Himself, into His kingdom. And pray that our people will come to see ourselves as part of that wider conflict in service of the Sovereign of all truth, all righteousness, and all love. And pray that we Christians will absolutely lose our fear of death, and be willing to lay down our lives at a nod from Jesus, whatever the circumstances.
See photos at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier
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