As you’re surely aware, today is Memorial Day. In practical terms, it’s the last Monday of May when many of us get the day off work, spend some time with family, and enjoy some delicious food and drinks. But that doesn’t really distinguish Memorial Day from any weekend day, when it’s obviously so much more than that.
The term “memorial” is generally defined as something designed to preserve the memory of a person or event. We all know what we’re preserving on Memorial Day, or at least we think we do. We look around and see a beautiful, free, and prosperous country that features countless manifestations of the best that mankind has to offer. It’s humbling, really. We know that these things don’t just come to be randomly or incidentally, as what we observe today is the concrete actualization of some abstract potential. In other words, America today didn’t just appear from the ether.
An astounding collection of philosophy, religion, politics, and science lay the foundation for what the United States represents at its core. An idea, or experiment, if you will. One that transcends human nature and civilization, daring to take humanity to new heights. While the underpinnings of our nation were mostly sound, this wasn’t enough to actually put them into action. A lot of conflict, struggle, and sacrifice bridges the gap between America’s inception and where we are today.
Sacrifice is something that goes back thousands of years, existing in virtually every society in human history. It’s practiced in different ways in each culture, depending on the mythological or theological structures that undergird each community. These sacrifices or offerings may come in the form of dietary restrictions, ceremonies, prayer, and the killing of animals. The more drastic cases require the offering of humans. In the most extreme of circumstances, they demand the sacrifice of children.
In the Bible, God commands Abraham to sacrifice his son, Isaac. As Abraham prepares to offer his son, God sends a messenger in the nick of time, informing Abraham that he no longer needs to kill Isaac. The story goes that since Abraham showed his fear and respect for God, he didn’t have to go through with sacrificing his son. This may sound utterly absurd to us today, and for good reason. The idea of having to kill our own children to please God would make any reasonable parent scoff in disgust. What kind of loving, benevolent God would demand that people kill their own children to please Him? Well, the same God that offered his own Son as sacrifice for the sake of mankind.
“For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life. For God did not send His Son into the world to judge the world, but that the world through Him might be saved.”
If we’re able to digest the sacrificial offering of children to all powerful creator and analyze the story deeper, then we can find some profound parallels between the story of God and Abraham with the story of America and our soldiers.
God asks Abraham to offer Isaac so that he and his family may live a prosperous life in accordance with God’s commandments. As appalling as this demand is for Abraham, he reasons that making this awful sacrifice will be worth it for his family in the years that follow. If the life that lies ahead is not desirable or worthwhile, then there’s no reason to make such an immense oblation.
The same holds true in the United States. The brave men and women who have served our nation over the centuries have known the risk that comes with it, yet they were still courageous enough to put their lives on the line. The average age of the American soldiers in combat has typically been between the late teens to mid twenties. In a sense, an 18 or 19-year-old who enlists for military service is being “sacrificed.” Here is where the connection to Abraham begins to manifest. The only reason why sacrificing people, whether ourselves or our children, is possibly justifiable is if it allows for the continued freedom and prosperity of everyone else. There’s no good reason for an American soldier to sacrifice themselves if it doesn’t allow our nation to continue to survive and thrive. To put it plainly, why would you die for a country that is not worth dying for?
Abraham saw the sacrifice as something he had to do so that his other children could live a long, happy life. Regardless of the criticisms we may have of Abraham, he clearly loved his children enough to oblige by God’s demand for the sacrifice of Isaac. It’s beyond painful for any parent to even contemplate having to sacrifice their child, and our soldiers offering their own lives for the sake of America says a lot. Certainly more than I can say in a few short paragraphs. The love and hope for our nation that our soldiers have shown and continue to show is remarkable. The fact that they were willing to give their lives so we can live ours in freedom is an act of pure heroism that few can replicate.
“Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.”
As I mentioned before, many people enlist at a young age, often going straight from high school into military service. Additionally, there are plenty of deployed parents in the military whose children and spouses eagerly await their return home. These mothers and fathers temporarily leave their families to serve our country, but it’s not always temporary. Many don’t get to come back home. Friends lose friends, sisters lose brothers, wives lose husbands, parents lose children, and kids lose their parents. Every single day.
On any of my dad’s deployments, that could’ve been his friends, his sisters, my mother, his mother, and me along with the rest of my siblings. I thank God that wasn’t the case, but it easily could’ve been. I’m lucky that I don’t have to imagine what life would be like without my dad, but there are far too many kids who aren’t so fortunate. They have to grow up without their mom or dad, rather than just imagining what that would be like. Memorial Day and Veteran’s Day are always emotional for my family, and today is no exception. I hurt for those who have lost loved ones, but their pain is something that I wouldn’t dare pretend to understand.
The United States is unique in world history, from its fundamental ideas laid out in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, to the very people who make up this nation. We live in the greatest nation in the history of civilization, and it’s easy to take that for granted. I know I do. Some question if America is worthy of patriotism. I think there’s an easy answer to that, but the question is still fair. However, I’m more concerned over whether we’re worthy patriots. A little bit of gratitude goes a long way.
My point isn’t to lecture in defense of patriotism and American exceptionalism. It’s to offer a reminder that too many have died defending this nation, this experiment, for us not to be grateful. We can’t bring back those we’ve lost, and while the solace we may offer their loved ones is necessary, it’s also wholly inadequate. We can never fully repay their sacrifices, but we can and must remember them. We may not know all who have served, but we certainly owe each and every one of them. From the bottom of my heart, thank you to all who have served and sacrificed for our great nation. I pray that we continue to maintain a country that’s worth paying the ultimate sacrifice to protect.
Follow the author on Twitter @michael_huling