May ends with a holiday which many of us take too lightly. Many Americans think of Memorial Day as “the unofficial beginning of summer.” Many people view the last Monday in May as little more than a great day to go to the beach, host a barbecue, shop at department store sales, and so on. For many, it is just an extra day off. Like many holidays, we treat it frivolously by giving little thought to its significance. It might be helpful to consider its true significance for Americans. That will also allow us to reflect on some matters of significance to Christians.
Memorial Day was first observed as Decoration Day on May 30, 1868. That day was set aside to place flowers on the graves of soldiers who had died in the Civil War. Since World War I, the holiday has been consecrated to honor all who have
died in the American armed forces during all of our military conflicts. We should remember that many of these were young men, many of whom never had the opportunity to start families and embark on adult civilian life. While some soldiers were drafted, many volunteered for military service, acknowledging the dangers they would face.
Whatever one may think of the decisions our nation’s leaders make about the military, I cannot criticize the character of our troops. They know it is a dangerous job, but they still consider it worthwhile. They will tell you that they are serving to defend our freedoms or protect our people. They believe it is worth dying for. They believe in committing their lives to a cause and making sacrifices. Someone has said that if you don’t have something to die for, you really do not have much to live for. The soldier’s courage should be an example to all of us.
In a sense, we insult these men, both the veterans who survived the battles and those who died, when we reduce Memorial Day to a day for sales and beginning summertime leisure activities. Even worse, we degrade everything it stands for. By giving more attention to surf and sales than to freedom and sacrifice, we desecrate the blood of our fallen soldiers. This is especially true when we distort the meaning of the word “freedom.”
Most Americans seem to believe that “freedom” means “the right to do whatever you want.” Our nation’s first “freedom fighters,” the men who wrote our Constitution, enshrined in our founding documents the First Amendment. This clause gives us the right to speak our minds, even if our ideas are unpopular, controversial, or harshly critical of our nation’s leaders. It allows us to hold religious views that fall outside the mainstream. I have referred to the First Amendment as “the right to be wrong,” or “the right to make yourself look and sound like a jackass.” Thankfully, it is, more importantly, the right to cling to Truth when everybody around you swallows a lie.
However, this form of liberty can be abused as well. We have freedom of speech, even though it is often abused by those who use it to sell pornography or other vulgar entertainment material. While earlier generations realized that freedom and responsibility walked together, most Americans today seem to believe freedom is more important than morality, ethics, or righteousness, and that such libertinism is more sacred than serving God.
This year, Memorial Day falls about five weeks after Easter, during the season when we celebrate Jesus’ victory over the death. It is quite fitting that Memorial Day usually falls at such a time of year. The United States has its Tomb of the Unknown Soldier—a monument honoring all those anonymous men who gave their lives for our nation. Likewise, Christianity has an empty tomb. As many soldiers have given their lives for our nation, Jesus Christ gave his life for all mankind to set us free from sin, hell, and divine judgment. Few of us give much thought to the fact that our greatest freedom was purchased with the precious blood of Jesus. We gladly accept his priceless gift, talk about how it is free for us, and take it for granted. We might say a quick prayer or spend an hour in church every week, but then we ignore the One who gave his life for us.
Jesus said, “If you continue in My word, then you are truly disciples of Mine; and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free…. Everyone who commits sin is the slave of sin. The slave does not remain in the house forever; the son remains forever. So if the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed” (John 8:32–36, NASB). It is true that our nation was established to seek liberty from tyranny. Yet, we need to remember that the worst tyrant in the universe is Satan, and his cruelest chains are forged with links of sin. Some people believe that following Jesus is a form of bondage. However, as St. Augustine wrote in On the Free Choice of the Will, “This is our freedom, when we are subject to the truth; and the truth is God himself, who frees us from death, that is, from the state of sin.” True freedom is found in submission to the truth. True slavery is found when we loose ourselves from our bonds to our Creator, and clamp the chains of sin around our wrists.
Saint Paul adds, “It was for freedom that Christ us free; therefore keep standing firm and do not be subject again to a yoke of slavery” (Galatians 5:1). He goes on in that chapter to point out the things that Christ frees us from: the Law (including the righteous wrath of God when we fail to live up its perfect standards) which has been superseded by the forgiveness we receive through the cross of Christ; and sin, which is superseded when we live by the greater law of love (see Luke 10:27–28).
Let every day be a day to remember, celebrate, and cherish the freedom we have been granted, both as Americans and as children of God. Our liberty is a precious jewel to be preserved and nurtured. It is not a cheap toy to be played with carelessly, thrown in a corner, and broken.