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Memorial Day is when we honor the men and women of our Armed Services who have made “the supreme sacrifice;” who gave their lives for their country.
Especially these days, when Memorial Day seems nothing more than a time for cookouts and swim parties, we cannot be reminded often enough about how great a debt we owe our war dead.
They gave up their hopes and dreams, families and friends. They submitted themselves to rigorous discipline—something I understand as a former Marine—24-hour a day duty, and placed their lives in great peril. “Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends.”
Their sacrifice should inspire in us a profound sense of gratitude. Gratitude for the freedoms we enjoy, bought with a price. And that gratitude should compel us to lives of service as well. Serving Christ, our neighbor, and yes, our nation.
I can’t help but recall the brilliant film Saving Private Ryan. James Ryan, now in his seventies, has returned with his family to the military cemetery in Normandy. He visits the grave of Captain John Miller, the man who, a half a century before, led the mission to retrieve—to save—Private Ryan. At the end of the mission, Miller was fatally wounded. As he lay dying, his final words to Private Ryan were, “James. Earn this…earn it.”
We then see Ryan kneeling at Captain Miller’s grave, marked by a cross. Ryan, his voice trembling with emotion, says, “Every day I think about what you said to me that day on the bridge. I tried to live my life the best that I could. I hope that was enough. I hope that, at least in your eyes, I’ve earned what all of you have done for me.”
Red-eyed, Ryan turns to his wife and says, “Tell me I’ve led a good life…tell me I am a good man.”
With great dignity, she says, “You are.”
With that, James Ryan salutes the grave of Captain Miller.
I tell this story in greater detail in my book The Good Life, which you can purchase at ColsonCenter.org.
You see, Private Ryan, out of gratitude for Captain Miller’s sacrifice, did all in his power to live a good life.
And Memorial Day is a great time for each of us to look into the mirror…to examine our own lives. Are we living good lives in gratitude for all those who have sacrificed for us—including our men and women in the military, our families, our friends, and most of all Christ?
Are we, like Ryan, kneeling before the cross—Spielberg, a master cinematographer had to realize the power of this imagery. Are we, out of gratitude, doing our duty for Christ, feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, ministering to those in prison, in whatever harvest field to which the Lord has called us?
Examine your life.
And this Memorial Day, at the very least, thank those who have sacrificed for you and those you know who have served in our nation’s armed forces. Maybe you’ll do what I do when you see a guy or gal in uniform…at the airport, at the store, wherever…walk up to them and thank them for their service.
And then go and remember Whom it is you serve.
There are many stories as to its actual beginnings, with over two dozen cities and towns laying claim to being the birthplace of Memorial Day. There is also evidence that organized women’s groups in the South were decorating graves before the end of the Civil War: a hymn published in 1867, “Kneel Where Our Loves are Sleeping” by Nella L. Sweet carried the dedication “To The Ladies of the South who are Decorating the Graves of the Confederate Dead” (Source: Duke University’s Historic American Sheet Music, 1850-1920). While Waterloo N.Y. was officially declared the birthplace of Memorial Day by President Lyndon Johnson in May 1966, it’s difficult to prove conclusively the origins of the day. It is more likely that it had many separate beginnings; each of those towns and every planned or spontaneous gathering of people to honor the war dead in the 1860’s tapped into the general human need to honor our dead, each contributed honorably to the growing movement that culminated in Gen Logan giving his official proclamation in 1868. It is not important who was the very first, what is important is that Memorial Day was established. Memorial Day is not about division. It is about reconciliation; it is about coming together to honor those who gave their all.
Memorial Day was officially proclaimed on 5 May 1868 by General John Logan, national commander of the Grand Army of the Republic, in his General Order No. 11, and was first observed on 30 May 1868, when flowers were placed on the graves of Union and Confederate soldiers at Arlington National Cemetery. The first state to officially recognize the holiday was New York in 1873. By 1890 it was recognized by all of the northern states. The South refused to acknowledge the day, honoring their dead on separate days until after World War I (when the holiday changed from honoring just those who died fighting in the Civil War to honoring Americans who died fighting in any war). It is now celebrated in almost every State on the last Monday in May (passed by Congress with the National Holiday Act of 1971 (P.L. 90 – 363) to ensure a three day weekend for Federal holidays), though several southern states have an additional separate day for honoring the Confederate war dead: January 19 in Texas, April 26 in Alabama, Florida, Georgia, and Mississippi; May 10 in South Carolina; and June 3 (Jefferson Davis’ birthday) in Louisiana and Tennessee.
|We cherish too, the Poppy red
That grows on fields where valor led,
It seems to signal to the skies
That blood of heroes never dies.
She then conceived of an idea to wear red poppies on Memorial day in honor of those who died serving the nation during war. She was the first to wear one, and sold poppies to her friends and co-workers with the money going to benefit servicemen in need. Later a Madam Guerin from France was visiting the United States and learned of this new custom started by Ms.Michael and when she returned to France, made artificial red poppies to raise money for war orphaned children and widowed women. This tradition spread to other countries. In 1921, the Franco-American Children’s League sold poppies nationally to benefit war orphans of France and Belgium. The League disbanded a year later and Madam Guerin approached the VFW for help. Shortly before Memorial Day in 1922 the VFW became the first veterans’ organization to nationally sell poppies. Two years later their “Buddy” Poppy program was selling artificial poppies made by disabled veterans. In 1948 the US Post Office honored Ms Michael for her role in founding the National Poppy movement by issuing a red 3 cent postage stamp with her likeness on it.
Traditional observance of Memorial day has diminished over the years. Many Americans nowadays have forgotten the meaning and traditions of Memorial Day. At many cemeteries, the graves of the fallen are increasingly ignored, neglected. Most people no longer remember the proper flag etiquette for the day. While there are towns and cities that still hold Memorial Day parades, many have not held a parade in decades. Some people think the day is for honoring any and all dead, and not just those fallen in service to our country.
There are a few notable exceptions. Since the late 50’s on the Thursday before Memorial Day, the 1,200 soldiers of the 3d U.S. Infantry place small American flags at each of the more than 260,000 gravestones at Arlington National Cemetery. They then patrol 24 hours a day during the weekend to ensure that each flag remains standing. In 1951, the Boy Scouts and Cub Scouts of St. Louis began placing flags on the 150,000 graves at Jefferson Barracks National Cemetery as an annual Good Turn, a practice that continues to this day. More recently, beginning in 1998, on the Saturday before the observed day for Memorial Day, the Boys Scouts and Girl Scouts place a candle at each of approximately 15,300 grave sites of soldiers buried at Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park on Marye’s Heights (the Luminaria Program). And in 2004, Washington D.C. held its first Memorial Day parade in over 60 years.
To help re-educate and remind Americans of the true meaning of Memorial Day, the “National Moment of Remembrance” resolution was passed on Dec 2000 which asks that at 3 p.m. local time, for all Americans “To voluntarily and informally observe in their own way a Moment of remembrance and respect, pausing from whatever they are doing for a moment of silence or listening to ‘Taps.”
The Moment of Remembrance is a step in the right direction to returning the meaning back to the day. What is needed is a full return to the original day of observance. Set aside one day out of the year for the nation to get together to remember, reflect and honor those who have given their all in service to their country.
But what may be needed to return the solemn, and even sacred, spirit back to Memorial Day is for a return to its traditional day of observance. Many feel that when Congress made the day into a three-day weekend in with the National Holiday Act of 1971, it made it all the easier for people to be distracted from the spirit and meaning of the day. As the VFW stated in its 2002 Memorial Day address: “Changing the date merely to create three-day weekends has undermined the very meaning of the day. No doubt, this has contributed greatly to the general public’s nonchalant observance of Memorial Day.”
On January 19, 1999 Senator Inouye introduced bill S 189 to the Senate which proposes to restore the traditional day of observance of Memorial Day back to May 30th instead of “the last Monday in May”. On April 19, 1999 Representative Gibbons introduced the bill to the House (H.R. 1474). The bills were referred the Committee on the Judiciary and the Committee on Government Reform.
Restore The Traditional Day Of Observance For Memorial Day
Click here to read this petition.
Newest 20 of 14,702 signatures
To date, there has been no further developments on the bill. Please write your Representative and your Senators, urging them to support these bills. You can also contact Mr. Inouye to let him know of your support.
Visit our Help Restore the Traditional Day of Observance page for more information on this issue, and for more ways you can help.
To see what day Memorial Day falls on for the next 10 years, visit the Memorial Day Calendar page.
Sources and related links:
- Boalsburg, Pa., Birthplace of Memorial Day
- DC City Pages: History of Memorial Day
- General Logan Biography
- General Logan’s General Order 11
- Help Restore the Traditional Day of Observance of Memorial Day
- Historic American Sheet Music, 1850-1920 from Duke University)
- How to Observe Memorial Day
- Luminaria Program
- Memorial Day Events – Dept of Veterans Affairs
“The Office of Public Affairs provides this page of items that may be of special interest to veterans and customers.”
- The Origins of Memorial Day
- Roy, Nuhn. Portfolio: To Honor The Memory of the Departed. American History Illustrated 1982 17: 20-25.
- S 189 and H.R. 1474, bills to restore the traditional day of observance of Memorial Day.
- “S. Con. Res. 100“, resolution for a National Moment of Remembrance.
- Statement on Signing the National Moment of Remembrance Act
- Taps Information
- Today in History: May 30
American Memory project, The Library of Congress
- VFW’s “Buddy” Poppy program
- Waterloo, Official Birthplace of Memorial Day
“Unser Christsein wird heute nur in zweierlei bestehen: im Beten und im Tun des Gerechten unter den Menschen.” D. Bonhoeffer, May 1944
I have always been fascinated—and put to shame—by the courageous example of the young German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906-1945). Our life paths have been similar in some respects. He belonged to a music-loving family and enjoyed athletics. He had a talent for learning foreign languages and took an early interest in theology. He was blessed with a good university education (his was Tübingen, mine Basel). He traveled widely. In fact, it was during a visit to Libya that he was confronted for the first time with the brutal logic and incomprehensibility of war. The decision to pursue a theological career was not an easy one for him, but it was always his relationship with God that gave him the most joy and satisfaction in life.
There the similarities end. Bonhoeffer is justly remembered not only as one of the greatest theologians of the twentieth century but also as a courageous individual of faith. For participating in the conspiracy to kill Adolf Hitler, Dietrich Bonhoeffer was executed by the Nazis at Flössenburg Concentration Camp in the last month of World War II. He had been arrested two years earlier for helping 14 Jews escape to Switzerland.
What led him to risk it all?
Few would have thought that the Nationalsozialistische Deutsche Arbeiter-Partie, starting as a gang of unemployed soldiers in 1919, would become the legal government of Germany by 1933. In fourteen short years, Adolf Hitler, a once obscure corporal, would become the Chancellor of Germany.
World War I had ended in 1918 with a total of 37 million casualties, including nine million dead combatants. German propaganda had ill prepared the nation for defeat, resulting in a sense of injured national pride. The military and political leaders who were responsible for the defeat claimed that Germany had been “stabbed in the back” by its leftwing politicians, Communists, and Jews. When the Weimar Republic tried to establish a democratic course, political parties from both the right and the left struggled for control, at times violently. The new regime could handle neither the depressed economy nor the rampant lawlessness. Into this void appeared Hitler and the Nazi Party, promising to right all wrongs and reestablish Germany as a great national power.
In an excellent discussion, Professor Michael Moeller shows how Bonhoeffer’s religious contemporaries succumbed to the delusion that the church had to be ushered into Nazism. As Moeller puts it, “To speak against what was regarded as a proper Germanization of the church evoked passionate opposition in a time when the majority of the populace was drunk with nationalism.” For Bonhoeffer, however, the Gospel could never be found in worldly ideologies.
On May 28, 1933, Bonhoeffer preached a sermon in the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church in Berlin. The Nazis had just seized power and were tightening their grip on the nation. Political developments happened quickly in the first five months of Nazi rule in Germany. As Moeller has shown, the Nazi takeover was a textbook example of a revolutionary movement’s successful exploitation of an unstable situation to consolidate its power. The chronology of events may be summarized as follows:
January 30, 1933: Hitler sworn in as Chancellor of Germany.
February 27, 1933: The Reichstag set on fire.
February 28, 1933: A State of Emergency proclaimed.
March 23, 1933: “Law for Removing the Distress of People and Reich” (“Enabling Act”) enacted. Legislative power transferred to the Executive.
April 7, 1933: “Law to Harmonize the State Governments and National Authority” enacted and the federal structure dissolved.
The “Enabling Act” curtailed the constitutional freedoms of Germans, based on peril to the homeland, with a promise that they would be fully restored in four years. The German parliament, which was similar to our U.S. House and Senate, was also promised that the new powers used would be only those “essential for carrying out vitally necessary measures” for the protection of the state and people, and that the “recourse to such a law [would be] in itself a limited one.”
In bringing about these sweeping changes, the Nazi government enjoyed broad support from the public. After the chaotic end of the twenties and Germany’s terrible economic crisis, it seemed that national pride was finally possible again. Law and order had been restored. Hitler was regarded by many as the new Führer (leader) who would bring Germany out of the chaos of the Weimar republic and create a stable society.
As Moeller and others have noted, Hitler’s rapid ascendancy was greeted with enthusiasm by church leaders who felt that the radical change in the nation’s political system should also take place in the church. If the new Germany needed a new leader, the church also needed a new Reichsbishof (national bishop) to usher it into the new era. The party working for the Nazification of the church called itself the Deutsche Christen (German Christians). In a now famous photo, German Christians are shown marching to a worship service at the Berlin Cathedral while SS guards stand at attention. Bonhoeffer, now an ordained pastor, immediately distanced himself from the German Christians and their program. Believing that the church had taken on the form of paganism, some Protestant Christians issued the Barmen Declaration to protest the theological claims of the Nazis. Among its authors was the famous Swiss theologian Karl Barth.
In his sermon of May 28, 1933, Bonhoeffer addresses the changes being advocated by the German Christians. Basing his sermon on the story of the Golden Calf in Exodus 32, Bonhoeffer distinguishes between the church of Aaron and the church of Moses. The church of Aaron, he says, is the church of this world. It answers the demands of humans by encouraging them to go their own selfish ways. The Aaron church asks for sacrifices, but the sacrifices themselves are self-serving. The Aaron church is the church of idols and will ultimately be destroyed by God, because “in the cross all making of gods, all idolatry comes to an end. The whole of humanity, the whole church is judged and pardoned. Here God is God.”
Clearly, the struggle of the German church was uppermost in Bonhoeffer’s thinking. The statist fervor of the German Christians impelled him to say that the true church must constantly defend itself against idolatry. Long before the excesses of the Third Reich forced Bonhoeffer to join the political resistance, acceptance by the German Christians of Nazi ideology had driven him into a state of protest against the church in which they were so dominant.
What, then, was the role of the pastor for Bonhoeffer? And what is the responsibility of church leaders today? Moeller, who carefully studied this issue, concluded: “The pastor has to speak the truth. Not the truth of ideologies, but the truth of the Gospel which the world does not like to hear. The role of the pastor is not to be the master of ceremonies for the world celebrating itself. The role of the pastor might be more the role of the fool, the one who is set aside to speak the truth even though nobody really wants to hear it.”
Bonhoeffer’s decision to join the plot against Hitler wasn’t an easy one. But his realization that the truth requires suffering enabled him to take the fateful step. “I believe that God can and wants to create good out of everything, even evil,” he said. “For that he needs people who use everything for the best. I believe that God provides us with as much strength to resist in every calamity as we need. But he does not give it in advance, so that we trust him alone. In such a trust all anxiety about the future must be overcome.”
February 6, 2003
David Alan Black is the editor of www.daveblackonline.com.
…Dietrich had become quite desperate. Precisely because for him the church was the visible form of Christ on earth, he could not remain in a church which betrayed Christ. He toyed with the idea of joining a free church, but things did not look much better there.
Si in his church he sought a flight forward and proposed that all pastors should resign their office. Such an action would prove successful ten years later–in Norway! In Germany a pastors’ strike was quite unthinkable. And the young radical theologian who clearly called for the separation of the true church from the perverted church, who called on the church to put a spoke in the wheel, now became a sinister figure even to his friends in the church opposition (Renate Wind, in Dietrich Bonhoeffer: A Spoke in the Wheel, 76).
…the National Synod was not impressed…by the appeal and protest presented by the Pastors’ Emergency League…not even by the pamphlets which were distributed in the city and nailed to trees and house walls. At the closing service the Reich Leader of the German Christians, Joachim Hossenfelder, stood to attention and called out over (Martin) Luther‘s tomb,
“My Reich Bishop, I greet you”
Franz (Hildebrandt) whispered to Dietrich (Bonhoeffer) that he now believed in the doctrine of the “real rotation” of Luther’s bones in his grave (Renate Wind, in Dietrich Bonhoeffer: A Spoke in the Wheel, 75-76).
The appeal against the Brown Synod in September of 1933 was organized through the Pastors’ Emergency League…
Martin Niemoller…an old German nationalist and former U-boat who had voted for the Nazis in 1933…now founded the Pastors’ Emergency League as a protest against the the introduction of the Aryan paragraph in the church.
Within a short period some thousand pastors had signed the pledge of the Emergency League, against the violation of the Christian confession by the Aryan paragraph in the church (Renate Wind, in Dietrich Bonhoeffer: A Spoke in the Wheel, 75).
Dietrich Bonhoeffer was among the signers.
The “reign” of Reich Bishop Muller began in 1933. At the “Brown Synod” in Wittenberg, in September of that same year, the linking between Muller’s “provincial church” and the state Aryan paragraph began.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer and others could not tolerate this. He was part of an appeal to the National Synod…
This appeal to the National Synod, “to obey God rather than men” and to reverse the “Brown” resolutions, was signed by two thousand pastors, of course including Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Franz Hildebrandt (Renate Wind, in Dietrich Bonhoeffer: A Spoke in the Wheel, 75).
John A. Moses
Dietrich Bonhoeffer has been celebrated as the most significant Protestant theologian since Martin Luther. This is interesting because in one major sense they differed dramatically. Whereas Luther in his old age became virulently anti-Jewish and advocated killing them if they would not convert, Bonhoeffer developed a revolutionary theology of Christian-Jewish reconciliation. This can be investigated in his book Ethics, drafted between the end of 1940 and his arrest by the Nazis in April 1943. It is currently available in English.
Let it be said frankly at the outset: All Christian Churches were to some degree anti-Judaistic. The best thing a Jew could do was to convert as soon as possible. The German Lutherans even had a Judenmission in the mid-nineteenth century precisely with this agenda in mind. Paradoxically, the German empire founded by Otto von Bismarck in 1871 granted complete emancipation to Jews, i.e. full citizenship rights, but in that empire ant-Semitism flourished. There was a spate of anti-Semitic writing from people like the Hamburg journalist Wilhelm Marr (1819-1904) and the renegade Englishman and naturalised German, Houston Stewart Chamberlain, (1855-1927), Richard Wagner’s son-in-law, to name two of the more prominent. There was even the court preacher Adolf Stöcker (1835-1909) who founded an anti-Semitic party in 1878.
All these people were read avidly by the young Adolf Hitler. None of his ideas were new, not even the concept of annihilation of the Jews. Hitler simply imbibed them from 19th century popular, i.e. non-scholarly, rantings of fanatics. However, even a highly regarded scholar such as the celebrated Prussian historian Heinrich von Treitschke (1834-1896) was extremely anti-Semitic, coining the chilling phrase, ‘The Jews are our misfortune’.
In the Lutheran Church, anti-Judaism was paradigmatic. Jews were condemned to wander the earth in dissolution because they rejected Christ. Their only salvation lay in conversion. This was the world in which the young Bonhoeffer grew up. However, his family was liberal enough to allow his twin sister, Sabine, to marry a ‘baptised’ Jew, the jurist Gerhard Leibholz. But the young pastor Bonhoeffer declined to take the funeral service for Leibholz’s unbaptised father, something he later bitterly regretted.
But Bonhoeffer changed dramatically. This is partially explained by his sojourn as a postdoctoral student at Union Theological Seminary in New York 1930-31, where he first met black students and learned first-hand about the race problem in the USA. Bonhoeffer’s exposure to black Christianity, in particular at the large Harlem Abyssinian Baptist church, brought him to a totally new appreciation of black spirituality. He became, for example, an avid collector of records of Negro spirituals. As well, through his friendship with the French student, Jean Lasserre, Bonhoeffer gained the insight that any theology which prioritised one nation over another was totally irreconcilable with the teachings of Jesus in the ‘Sermon on the Mount’ (Matthew, Chapters 5-7). God was both colour blind and, in principle, international. Jesus came to redeem all humanity regardless of race.
Unbelievable! Can we in America even fathom what Dietrich Bonhoeffer was faced with?
Would we have the same courage to stand up and proclaim the Gospel?