What is worth dying for? Since World War II, the United States has fought thirteen wars of varying intensity and lethality. They ranged from the Korean War and Vietnam to the rescue operation of the vessel Mayaguez during the Ford administration. During my own years of Army service, we invaded Grenada, Panama, Somalia, and sent Marines to Beirut, where hundreds of them died. We also fought our first war with Iraq. I need not remind anyone of the post-9/11 conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The movie Glory tells the story of the 54th Massachusetts infantry. The 54th was the first all-black regiment of the Civil War. In July 1863, the 54th Massachusetts was cited for bravery after a pitched battle on James Island, South Carolina. At dusk the next day the regiment carried out an attack against Fort Wagner, which guarded Charleston harbor. Almost half the regiment’s 600 men were killed, wounded or taken prisoner.
|Soldiers of the 54th Massachusetts Infantry of the Civil War|
The 54th was reconstituted and later distinguished itself in other battles in Georgia and South Carolina. They knew the stakes for them were higher than for white soldiers: if captured, they would be either summarily executed or enslaved by the South, including black soldiers born freemen in the North. Even so, by the end of the Civil War more than 175,000 Americans of African descent had volunteered to serve the Union, finally accounting for ten percent of Union forces.
During the United States' incursion into Panama in 1989, I served on the Battle Management Cell of XVIII Airborne Corps. We sent an infantry platoon by helicopter to a bank of the Panama Canal to attack a Panamanian army position blocking access across the canal. The choppers hovered a couple of feet above a dry, level flat in the canal, exposed by low tide. The troops jumped off, only to discover it was not dry, it was mud. Weighed down by sixty or more pounds of equipment, the soldiers sank above their ankles. They were stuck. Panamanian gunners began peppering them with fire, driving the helicopters away.
Thirty American soldiers might have died like ducks on a pond had not a miracle occurred. Panamanian men and women who lived along the canal saw what was happening. Dozens of them ran out onto the mud flat and formed a chain to the American troops. They took the soldiers’ heavy gear and passed it hand-to-hand to the shore, enabling the troops to clamber to the bank. Some of these brave Panamanian men and women were hit by the gunfire of their own army.
The soldiers of the 54th Massachusetts and the civilian men and women of Panama knew that freedom is worth dying for.
William Manchester won a Pulitzer Prize for his biography of President Kennedy. Manchester was a Marine in World War 2 who fought in the battle for Okinawa. In his memoir, Goodbye, Darkness, Manchester wrote, “Among men who fight together there is an intense love.” Wounded, though not badly, Manchester was evacuated to a field hospital, where he later found out his unit was ordered to make another amphibious assault farther up the island. The thought of his friends facing danger without him to help, he said, “was just intolerable... . Those men on the line were my family, my home. They were closer to me than I can say. I had to be with them, rather than let them die and me live with the knowledge that I might have saved them.” He went AWOL from the honorable safety of the field hospital and rejoined his unit. He was horribly wounded by artillery in the ensuing battle.
Love is worth dying for.
More than one million, one hundred thousand American men and women have died in battle. I think they would agree with General William T. Sherman that the just aim of war can be only a more just peace. Probably every veteran has experienced a moment when the imponderable awfulness of what soldiers do makes them stop and give cry to a deep-rooted hope for a better world, populated with better people. Soldiers pray for God to come near when the fog of battle closes in. They see only dimly that out of blood and death there might come a brotherly world.
This hope is not forlorn. In October 1999, some American and Japanese veterans of the battle of Pearl Harbor went to Kyushu, where is the port from which the Japanese fleet had sailed to make the attack. The site is now a peace park. These men, once mortal enemies, gathered to plant cherry trees in honor of their reconciliation. Richard Fiske, who survived the sinking of USS West Virginia, said that as the trees grow, they hoped children would understand what the trees and the park represented, “because,” he said, “if we don’t tell our little ones, our future is none. We give ourselves to them. They carry the future.”
That is why we recognize Memorial Day, not to glorify war, but to pray for peace. Peace is worth dying for yet achieving peace has been the most elusive goal in human history.
Freedom, love, and peace form a trinity of remembrance on Memorial Day. Our honored dead lie slain because they loved their country. They sought to preserve our freedom. And they died in the hope of securing a more just peace. Throughout history, human beings have realized that the ultimate goods attainable have tended to require the ultimate sacrifices possible.
Maybe you can see where I am going with this. The greatest good attainable for creation is its full reconciliation with God. And that is being brought about by the greatest sacrifice possible, that of God’s own self in the person of Jesus Christ.
I do not wish to sentimentalize American military dead into Christ figures. Yet we are living off the inheritance of those who gave their lives for us, beginning with the 4,435 patriots who died in battle in the Revolutionary War. What can we do with this inheritance now? We will either squander it or work for its perfection.
It is the same with our inheritance from the sacrifice of Christ. Our inheritance from Christ is citizenship in the Kingdom of God and the promise of eternal life. Each day we fail to be faithful to Christ, we squander our inheritance. Only by doing the continuing work of Christ to bring all God’s people into God’s family, as brothers and sisters in the family of Christ, do we move on to perfection.
That is something worth more than dying for. It is something worth living for: the peace of Christ, the love of God and the freedom of the Gospel of salvation.
In April 1942, Lt. Col. James Doolittle led sixteen small bombers on the first bombing mission against Japan. Jacob DeShazer was a bombardier on the sixteenth plane. They bombed Nagoya and flew on to China, where they were captured by the Japanese. They were tortured mercilessly. They contracted dysentery and beri-beri because of the deplorable conditions under which they were confined. Three of the crew were executed in October.
The other five men suffered a starvation diet, their health rapidly deteriorating. One died. A year later the four survivors began to receive a slight improvement in their treatment. The Japanese gave them a single copy of the Bible, which DeShazer had never read. DeShazer waited six months to have his turn to read it. He read it cover to cover more than a dozen times. DeShazer credited his survival to accepting the Gospel of Jesus Christ from that lone Bible.
In 1948, DeShazer was sent back to Japan to testify in war crimes trials of his captors. He stayed for thirty years, preaching the Gospel around Japan. He established a church in Nagoya, the city he had bombed.
One man who learned of DeShazer’s witnessing was named Mitsuo Fuchida. Fuchida converted to Christianity in 1949 and met DeShazer the next year. Fuchida became an evangelist, preaching in Japan and all over the world. He lived a few years in the United States before retiring in Japan.
Do you recognize the name, Mitsuo Fuchida? On December 7, 1941, he had commanded the air armada that attacked Pearl Harbor. In 1952, after becoming an evangelist, he said in an interview, “Christianity has opened my eyes, and I hope through Christ to help young people of Japan” to learn to love their former enemy, America. Speaking in 1959 at Memorial Baptist Church in Brooklyn, he said that after the war he had observed American missionaries in Tokyo feeding the starving and teaching the “ways of Christ.” Such forgiveness, he said, made him want to know more of the Christ “they professed to love.” One of his talks was called “From Pearl Harbor to Calvary – My Testimony.”
|Mitsuo Fuchida and Jacob DeShazer|
Mitsuo Fuchida, who had bombed Pearl Harbor, died in 1976. The man who had bombed Nagoya, tortured POW Jacob DeShazer, conducted his funeral in Japan.
Let us pray:
Gracious God, we come before you as part of your global family, thankful for your generous love and abundant blessings. May we honor your holy name by living up to the inheritance of your salvation, as we bear the name of your son, Jesus Christ our savior, with passion for his work of reconciliation of all the world.
May your vision of peace and justice be realized and enacted among nations finally at rest from war, among families at peace with each other, and hearts that find their rest in you. Lead us to that day when every tear is dried, every life is fulfilled and the law of love is written on our hearts.
We thank you, Lord, for the lives of all those whose sacrifices have made our freedom possible. We beg your grace for our country and your wisdom to guide each of our citizens. Let us not squander the freedom we have been given by those who died to preserve it.
Remove from human beings the arrogance of power, our trust in anger, our reliance on weapons, and our love of violence. Chasten us with humility and strengthen our trust in you. Make us agents of your peace in all places. Amen.