We had an "incident" at church yesterday.
It was during morning announcements. These are pretty free-form in our congregation; anyone who wishes can stand up and talk about upcoming church or local events, or about situations in their own families or our extended community suggesting prayer and/or other compassionate action. This particular morning the pastor and some of our laypeople involved in our local interchurch organization had been promoting various Memorial Day remembrances at local cemetaries and churches, when another layperson suddenly stood up and more or less scolded the worship committee for having no patriotic songs in the hymns of the day; this individual compelled our organist (who'd included patriotic songs in the prelude music) into hastily switching the last hymn of the day from a hymn connected to the themes of the Scripture lessons to "America the Beautiful." Lutherans, even in our congregation, are generally not into public displays of negative emotion, least of all in church; there was some uncomfortable squirming in the pews.
Now, I like this person. As far as I know, this person is not a wild-eyed, nationalistic crypto-fundamentalist. And our church has, over the years and over the wars, seen many of its members serve in the military; that's how it goes in rural communities; so friends' and loved ones' military service has real meaning. But...we'd already heard patriotic music in the prelude. We'd gotten out the old sanctuary flags for the day. We'd just learned about, I think, three different public observances of Memorial Day in the community. We have a permanent display of past and current members in the service in our fellowship hall. What more do you want?, I thought. I also wondered, if God forbid some civilian church member had been killed abroad while doing important humanitarian work, there'd be this same outpouring of pride, support and desire for honoring that individual.
There are maybe a couple of different dynamics going on here. For one thing, most laypeople -- the ones who don't have a spiritual practice that follows the lectionary -- live in a different "time," if you will, than clergypeople and others of us who order our spiritual lives around the Church year. I don't think that a lot of laypeople follow the thematic connections from Sunday to Sunday and from season to season, partly because they don't attend church every week to pick up where each Sunday's lessons leave off, and partly because they don't really understand what the lectionary is and does. (Which begs the question, Why aren't we doing a better job explaining it to them?)
Also, many laypeople do not seem to possess the historical knowledge base that would help them understand why, especially in Lutheran churches, there has been a move over the past few decades to disassociate ourselves from real and metaphorical flag-waving in church. How many American Lutherans, for instance, know anything about how the Nazi Party infiltrated the German state church in the 1930's with the aim of expunging all things Jewish from the Christian story and instead insinuating Hitler's nutty mix of nationalism and revisionist paganism into the theology and practices of the church? How many know about the swastikas waving in Lutheran church sanctuaries back in the Nazi times? How many Lutherans even know about Dietrich Bonhoeffer and the Confessing Church?
And...I understand that families whose sons and daughters have served the country -- families who've suffered the sleepless nights, anxious days huddled around radios or televisions or computer screens, and in some cases that dreaded knock on the front door -- want attention paid. Veterans themselves -- people who've in some cases experienced terror and horror and pain that most of us can't imagine -- want attention paid.
But how do we square all of this with living in a reign that is not of this world, that crosses the boundaries of nations and political ideologies? How do we as the Church serve soldiers and veterans and their families in a way that is compassionate and respectful, yet does not suggest God's special benediction on a particular nation or a particular military action or on war as a human activity?
I thought we'd come up with a pretty good answer at our church -- recognizing our veterans on an ongoing basis outside the context of worship; participating, with other churches and community members, in Memorial Day observances outside the course of Sunday worship; including special prayers for military persons and others touched by war in our Prayers of the Day. What more do you want? At what point does "remembering our brave men and women" turn into an exercise in Kaiser Kurios?
If I were a pastor, or in another position where I had to decide how to "do" the Sunday before Memorial Day, how would I do it, with all this in mind? Good question; I don't have a good answer yet.