Memorial Day Observance

The following, a reflection by Pastor Jonathan Wilson of this church, connects themes from 500 Years of Reformation to the 100th Anniversary of the entry of the United States into World War I. It would be an appropriate resource on November 11 as well. It concludes with a prayer.

One Hundred Years: World War I and the Reformation

Dr. Jonathan M. Wilson, Pastor, Evangelical Covenant Church of Elgin, IL[1]

 2017 marks the 500th Jubilee Anniversary of the Reformation. This is also the first time that there is a truly global and truly ecumenical effort among Christians to mark the moment. The 400th Anniversary, in 1917, might have been so marked, for many Protestant groups in the western world had learned, on the mission fields in Africa and Asia, to see beyond their differences. In 1910 there was a gathering in Edinburgh, Scotland, in a world congress of the Christian faith. Sadly, the West’s imperial and political powers did not catch this vision; indeed, the Great Powers were in the midst of an arms race. Tensions erupted and by August 1914 the European powers, with their colonial proxies, were enveloped in what history now remembers as World War I. The United States entered this conflict one hundred years ago, in 1917. On this Memorial Day week-end when we honor America’s war dead, it is time for a sober reflection on this one-century mark of the First World War.


The American poet Alan Seeger, serving during World War I, wrote these lines:

I have a rendezvous with death

at some disputed barricade;

When spring comes back with rustling shade,

and apple-blossoms fill the air.[2]

On May 28, 1917, General John “Black Jack” Pershing, a veteran of the United States Cavalry, embarked for Europe in command of the American Expeditionary Force. Six weeks earlier Congress had acted on the request of President Woodrow Wilson to declare war on Germany in retaliation for its policy of unrestricted submarine warfare. It was almost another year, in the spring of 1918, before American ground forces saw major action, with over 53,000 meeting their rendezvous with death in a little over seven months. The involvement of the United States broke the stalemate. American manpower, fire-power and industrial power overmatched that of the German Empire, which was exhausted by four years of attrition on its western front.

It was with idealism that Wilson saw the dawn of the American Century and the nation’s involvement on the world stage. He hoped, by America’s involvement, to become a broker of peace and reconciliation, to see a new world order established on the rule of law in a League of Nations. Nevertheless, though Congress applauded his request to declare war, in private he stated: “My message today was a message of death for our young men. How strange it seems to applaud that.” It is said that the President began to weep.[3]

Early on, optimism swelled all sides of the battle and every home front. God’s providence was seen in the provocation of the contest; once the pecking order of global interests and imperialism was resolved the project of advancing Christian civilization could continue to its glorious conclusion. On the other end of it, once they dusted themselves off and shook hands and redrew the world’s maps, there awaited a world-wide millennium of peace. For the drafted and the recruited and the American public that supported them, the American cause was to make the world safe for democracy. This is a worthy cause to motivate patriotic zeal. Alas, that which rallies the soldiers in the rank-and-file is often a spin put on motives much more banal among the elites, motives tinged not with idealism but with avarice.

What occurred was mechanized slaughter on a scale never before seen in western civilization. The edifice of Christendom had been founded on civic duty, optimism, imperialism, and idealisms related to manifest destiny and the White Man’s burden. This edifice sank in the slog of mud-filled trenches, it was battered to ruins by heavy artillery, it was drowned in the tears of comrades and family. Faith was shattered in many, in others a new and virulent nationalism grew like a poisonous thorn-bush from out of Europe’s mud.  World War One unmasked the lies that tied the church to the power of the state in a triumphant march of progress. The Church of Jesus Christ stands true and forever because his Word stands true, though every person be a liar. Christendom, however, meaning everything that makes being a Christian convenient and lawful and acceptable in the world, has never recovered from World War I. At the end of it the world was not safer for democracy, it was instead a fertile seed-bed for the most virulent totalitarianisms the world had ever seen, under dictators who steered the world to the brink of extinction a little more than just twenty years later.

World War II is inextricably linked to the outcomes of World War I: the holocaust has its precedent in the genocide of millions of ethnic Armenians at the hands of the Ottoman Turks – a crime which Turkey has yet to own and repent. The Cold War’s cause is in the manner of World War II’s end, and radical Jihadism has its roots in the deals struck and arms traded during the Cold War. The legacies that continue to cast their shadow over us and our emerging generations: the global economy and exploitation, ethnic conflict, ideological radicalism, these are the legacies of World War I. Yet the miserable lessons of a hundred years of hate refuse to be learned by a manifestly sinful human race who repeat these mistakes generation after generation.

Still, among many Christians, 2017 marks the first real opportunity for cooperative, global commemoration of the Reformation. Those in charge of “official” observances see 2017 as a means of owning the sins of the Church, and of telling the world that Jesus wants us all to get along, because after all, the stakes are too high to risk perpetuating the cycles of violence. These are the dominant themes for the commemorations in the ecumenical setting. These themes are true in part, but not where they connect with and foster notions of human optimism and the belief that peace has its foundation in some other truth than Jesus Christ, King in Heaven and Lord of all creation.

The commemoration of 500 Years of Reformation, and 100 years since America’s entry into World War I, should bring together two themes in our hearts: First, that repentance is the whole life of the Christian. Second, that we must not forget, but must continue to lay the wreaths on the graves and at the monuments for the war dead, those who paid the price for the propaganda and idealism and nationalism and imperialism that drove them on to the battlefield in causes which the verdict of history now, rightly, condemns.

No longer should Christians wave the banners of partisan, alienating slogans; let us lead the way in repentance, in meekness, in humility. Jesus Christ has ascended and is enthroned as the right hand of power. Before him alone we must bow as our highest allegiance, repenting of all others, of every flag and every ideology that would pull us into vain causes and endless cycles of godless violence.  The stakes are too high to forego what must be our whole life as Christians.

Memorial Day 2017 Prayer

Lord God, we gather before you thankful that in this land, by your providence, we continue in freedom to worship you. We honor at this time those who served faithfully and gave their all, even their lives, that we might continue secure in the blessings of liberty. In honor of them help us to remember human vanity and sin, help us to be discerning, that we the people would not allow for our sons and daughters to be sent into harm’s way for causes that are superfluous, doubtful, or a shame to our consciences. For as King David refused to drink for himself and his own refreshment the water brought to him from behind enemy lines by valiant men, but instead offered it as a libation to you, so let us not forget that the courage of our soldiers

and sailors is not for us to exploit, but to deploy only in causes that are just and true in the wisdom you give us to discern the right. Help us always to recall our debt of gratitude to those who serve and have served. In Jesus’ name, amen.

[1]This article is original with the author who takes sole responsibility for its point of view. The author may be consulted for a short bibliography of influential resources that shaped his perspective. The resource for quotes and citations included in this commemoration is Daniel Levy, “World War I: The Great War and the American Century,” LIFE, vol. 17 no. 6, (March 17 2017).

[2]Quoted in Levy, “World War I: The Great War and the American Century,” 25.

[3]Levy, 29. 

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