On November 11, 2021, thousands of Washington, D.C. locals and visitors processed in reverent silence to lay flowers at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, commemorating its one hundredth year. Situated in the heart of Arlington National Cemetery, and established on November 11, 1921 when an unknown World War I American soldier was buried in Arlington, it has since become the main artery of honor for America’s veterans. November 11, 1918 marked the ending of fighting in World War I, “the War to end all wars,”–at 11:00 a.m., on the 11th hour, of the 11th day, of the 11th month, the day becoming known as Armistice Day in 1926 through Congressional resolution.[i] Unfortunately, just as Armistice Day officially became a national holiday 12 years later, war broke out in Europe, leading to the death of over 400,000 American servicemembers in World War II and untold numbers in other nations. In every war since, an unidentified American soldier has been brought to Arlington and laid to rest beside that first unknown soldier from World War I. Eventually, November 11 came to be known as Veterans Day to honor all those who gave their lives in service of America.
The monuments and memorials in Washington, D.C. powerfully remind us to pause and thank veterans for their service and sacrifice. As for many others, for me this is personal. I am thankful for many in my family who have laid down their lives in the service of country. My wife’s grandfather Alvin Jelgerhuis enlisted in the Army Air Corps alongside his twin brother Elmer on September 29, 1942. Alvin and Elmer were mechanics, becoming specialists in airplane armament and engines and assigned to fly B-29s. Elmer died tragically in December 1944 when his plane was intercepted by a kamikaze on a raid to Mukden, Manchuria. Elmer and his crew were later interred in Arlington in Section 34 Site 4847.
Given his brother’s death, Alvin was given the opportunity to complete his service commitment state-side but declined, feeling loyalty to his brother. Only a few months later, Alvin’s plane was downed on May 25, 1945. He became a prisoner of war, confined to Tokyo Prison, where he lost 100 pounds. After four months of captivity, he was released and treated at a military hospital in the Midwest. Alvin was honorably discharged on April 13, 1946. Though he had endured immense trauma, his life had hardly begun. As so many who answered the call during this period, he returned to normal life where he became a head mechanic at a John Deere dealership and later finished his career as a walking postman for the U.S. Postal Service. He met and married his wife Della, for whom our oldest daughter is named, after the war and faithfully raised a family on a rural farm in Northwest Iowa. The beauty of the Christian understanding of work is that each of Alvin’s vocations is a uniquely sacred calling.
I thank God for the noble and sacred calling of veterans like Alvin and Elmer who demonstrated John 15:13 by their actions – “Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends.” In a sense, honorably serving in the military is serving God the way every vocation is called to serve God. That is, to do what is honorable, and good, and right as followers of Jesus Christ is what makes any vocation a sacred calling. Whether we are walking postmen or turning wrenches, God has called each of us to bring his kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven.
With all due respect to the rich Christian pacifist tradition, Christians can and should faithfully serve God in armed conflict. Consider Luke 3:12-14. To be a good soldier or (in America) sailor, airman, Marine, or Guardian means not walking away from your vocation, but honoring God in it. Soldiers came to John in repentance, sincere repentance that sought life change and asked him, “What shall we do?” The text records, “And he said to them, ‘Do not extort money from anyone by threats or by false accusation and be content with your wages.’” John could have said, “Drop your swords and shields and fealty to the brutal Roman empire that will soon aide my Lord’s crucifixion and persecute His church after the resurrection,” but he did not. Instead, he told soldiers to remain in their vocation, but to be honorable, good, and righteous. Bear fruit in keeping with the salvation you have received from God as you faithfully attempt to do God’s work in a fallen world. Soldier, be honest and true; noble and kind. Avoid the worst temptations of your profession. Don’t quit, but instead walk in joyful obedience through the power of the Holy Spirit.
One of the most famous instances of holy resistance is German pastor and theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer who joined the plot to assassinate Hitler in World War II. Bonhoeffer was certainly influenced by pacifist friends, especially during his time at Union Theological Seminary in New York; however, I would agree with Bonhoeffer scholar Clifford Green that Bonheoffer’s ethic was more nuanced than many often attribute to him. A traditional pacifist opposes violence in any form on principle, especially in war. As Green contends, Bonhoeffer held to a “Christian peace ethic” rooted in his understanding of Christ and of discipleship. Green formed this term from Bonhoeffer’s theology lecture given in 1932 in Berlin called “Christ and Peace” as a contrast the claims of those who negatively view Bonhoeffer’s participation in the plot to kill Hitler.[ii]
Consider an example of Bonhoeffer’s Christian peace ethic from his preaching ministry. In 1938, Bonhoeffer’s idyllic Christian community at Finkenwalde recently had been shut down by the Gestapo and Hitler as the Nazis were continuing to rise in power. With that backdrop, Bonhoeffer preached a sermon on Romans 12:17-21,[iii]
Repay no one evil for evil, but give thought to do what is honorable in the sight of all. If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” To the contrary, “if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink; for by so doing you will heap burning coals on his head.” Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.
How could a Christian preach “Vengeance is mine says the Lord” and still join an armed resistance? This was an important question to Bonhoeffer and should be to any person serving under the Law of Armed Conflict. Bonhoeffer himself wrestled with this section of Scripture:
Whoever seeks revenge on a human being undoes the death of Christ and becomes guilty of the blood of reconciliation. Christ died for me and for my enemy, for the salvation of both of us. If I seek revenge, I disregard the salvation of the other. That might not harm the other person, but by that very act I would break with the deeds of Christ.” (emphasis mine)
In his handwritten sermon, Bonhoeffer has apparently replaced the italicized phrase with the words, “I lose my salvation.” But history tells us that he still resolved to join the plot, not because he was giving up his salvation, but because he felt his faith required it. The goal of Bonhoeffer’s sermon was to remind his congregants (and himself) to overcome evil with good. In a beautiful metaphor, Bonhoeffer writes that overcoming evil happens only “when the evil hits emptiness and finds nothing on which it can ignite.”[iv]
This is what Christ did for us and what often makes stories like Bonhoeffer’s so compelling. As the Apostle Paul wrote in Philippians 2:7, “[Christ] emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men.”
I understand Paul’s admonition to “live peaceably with all” and to “feed your enemies” as the telos of shalom. God’s grace to us is for our good and the good of our neighbor, to bring wholeness to every area of life. Against worldly tyrants like Hitler, it is morally permissible, even righteous to participate in acts of violence to protect the most vulnerable. Bonhoeffer exemplified the godly nature of acting out of self-sacrifice and love rather than of menace and hate. I believe Bonhoeffer was confident that Christ’s love would triumph over evil, and that his vicarious representative act on the cross enabled forgiveness of sins for his enemies–of which Bonhoeffer humbly considered himself one. As Green summarized, “The Man who acts out of free responsibility is justified before others by dire necessity; before himself he is acquitted by his conscience, but before God he hopes only for grace.”[v]
One of the most heroic acts during World War II occurred just off the icy coast of Greenland after a German torpedo hit a U.S. Army transport ship. It was February 1943, the Dorchester was filled with nearly 1000 passengers, 700 of them young draftees and enlisted men. The Dorchester was one of three transport ships accompanied by U.S. Coast Guard cutters on its way to an American military base in Greenland. Originally built as a luxury coastal liner in 1926, by 1943 the ship had clearly seen better days. There were four chaplains on board: a Methodist Minister, a Jewish Rabbi, a Catholic Priest, and a Dutch Reformed Pastor named Clark Poling. As is common in wartime, though poorly attended at first, their services’ attendance increased every mile the ship sailed further from home. Even though the waters around Greenland were already littered with sunken ships by German U-boats, their mission could not be abandoned.
On February 3rd, early in the morning, a German submarine fired torpedoes that hit the Dorchester near the engine room. Taking on water, the captain gave the order to abandon ship. The torpedo had cut off all power, so hundreds of men struggled to get topside in the dark, many without life jackets. Only two of fourteen lifeboats were successfully launched. Amidst the panic, the four chaplains spread out among the soldiers, offering words of prayer for the frightened and courage for the weary. Displaying amazing steadfastness and resolve the chaplains opened a locker and began handing out life jackets. A young airman, so the story goes, came to one of the chaplains and said, “I’ve lost my life jacket and I can’t swim.” One by one the chaplains took off their lifelines and offered them to their brothers. Saint John’s words were surely on the minds of the Christian chaplains. One witness recalled later that it was the finest thing he had ever seen or hoped to see this side of heaven. Less than 30 minutes after the Dorchester was hit, the chaplains locked arms and prayed as the waves overtook them. There were only 227 survivors. Among numerous posthumous medals that were awarded, in 1961 Congress authorized a Special Medal for Heroism, which had never been given before and has never been given again.
Author Lyle Dorsett tells the story of another chaplain, Paul Redmond, in his book Serving God and Country.[vi] Most Marine Corps divisions in World War II struggled to reach and maintain their goal of sixteen chaplains. Therefore, the commanders of those units understood the need to hold back their spiritual leaders from the initial assault waves. No such request by commanders would be honored by all Marine chaplains. When Chaplain Redmond was asked about the foolishness of joining the assault on New Georgia, he replied, “These are my boys. They will need me most out there. I’m going with them.” For his conduct, the “old man” was awarded the legion of merit.
None of this is to equate the United States of America with the Kingdom of God. Similar stories could be told of the soldiers of many nations on this earth from the Roman Empire in 1st century AD to our country today. Not every soldier serves in a godly sense, but many–and from many nations, not just one–do. A Christian soldier loyally serves both God and country. One cannot serve both God and money (Matthew 6:24), but John’s instructions above indicate that one can serve both God and country.
While these heroic displays of courage and bravery are worthy of honor and even “merit,” the reason we say “all callings are sacred” is because our faith is not about what we do, but who we are in Christ. Just after the Sermon on the Mount in the Gospel of Luke, where Jesus teaches “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you,” Jesus encounters a centurion. In his words to Jesus, we see the Roman servicemember’s simple faith: “Lord do not trouble yourself, for I am not worthy to have you come under my roof.” (Luke 7:6) This leader of men communicates to the master of heaven in language he understands. The centurion rightly understood that he was a man under authority. And when Jesus heard these things, he marveled at the centurion’s faith saying, “I tell you, not even in Israel have I found such faith.” (Luke 7:9)
The centurion understood that his achievements were nothing compared to Jesus’ worthiness. Jesus is the ultimate authority whose life we are called to follow and when we do, we honor him in our vocations. And all the synoptic Gospels record another centurion, standing at the feet of the crucified Christ who said, “Surely this man was the Son of God.” (Matthew 27:54, Mark 15:39, Luke 23:47). It is the soldier, who seeing the sacrifice of his savior truly understands the truth about Jesus’ identity. He is the Son of God who laid down his life for his friends – you and me.
Happy Veterans Day to all those who served, and especially those who served in honor of Christ and his Kingdom.
The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect official policy or positions of the U.S. Air Force, Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.
Photo Credit: The photo above is the last known photograph of the B-29-25-BA (S/N 42-63529) of the 794th Bomb Squadron, 468th Bomb Group, 20th Air Force, the plane shot down May 26, 1945 on a mission to Tokyo with SSgt Alvin Jelgerhuis on board. (U.S. Air Force photo)
[ii] Michael J. DeJonge. “A Review of Bonhoeffer the Assassin? by Mark Thiessen Nation, Anthony G. Siegrist and Daniel P. Umbel | The Christian Century.” The Christian Century. N.p., 17 Oct. 2013. Web. 05 Feb. 2016.
[iii] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Theological Education Underground: 1937–1940, ed. Dirk Schulz and Victoria J. Barnett, trans. Claudia D. Bergmann et al., vol. 15, Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2012), 469.
[iv] DBWE 15.471.
[v] C.J. Green. “Pacifism and Tyrannicide: Bonhoeffer’s Christian Peace Ethic,” Studies in Christian Ethics 18.3 (2005): 44.
[vi] Lyle W. Dorsett. Serving God and Country: United States Military Chaplains in World War II.
New York: Berkley, 2012. 92.