Known But To God
Just across the Potomac River from our nation’s capital there stands a high, grassy hill. From the vantage point of that hill, one can look down across the vast expanse of the Arlington National Cemetery, then on beyond the river to the magnificent sight of the Washington Mall and the U.S. Capitol. Several years ago, my family and I sat atop that hill to drink in the splendor of that view, and then to watch in awe-struck silence the simple, but moving spectacle of the changing of the guard at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. On that tomb are inscribed these words: “Here lies in honored glory, an American soldier, known but to God.”
I shall never forget that experience—and it seems especially appropriate that it should move to the forefront of my memory today. For this is the Memorial Day weekend—a time when we remember the sacrifices of those who have secured our freedom. And most of us think it is adequate to remember them by shutting down government and business offices for a long weekend, by putting a few bands and majorettes into a street parade, and by running a big automobile race in Indianapolis.
To me, that is not enough. Oh, at one point in my life, it would have been enough, but not anymore. I lost an uncle in World War II. He is buried in Italy in one of the military cemeteries there. As I was growing up, I would hear stories of him in the family circles, but I did not think very seriously or very deeply about what his living and his dying meant. Some years ago now, when my wife, Trisha, and I were in Europe, I wanted to visit his grave. Other members of our family had never been able to do so. But somehow the information about the exact location of his grave had not been properly communicated to us. He was not buried in the cemetery to which we had been directed. Now there are a number of our cemeteries in Italy and we were pressed for time. I remember us driving frantically across great portions of Central Italy searching for the right cemetery. I remember the frustration unto tears when we were unable to find the right spot. And in the personal pain of those hours, I resolved that I would never again take for granted the sacrifice of those who have been buried beneath those rows of white crosses in this land or in the far reaches of the world. Perhaps that is why that day at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier touched me so deeply.
But what right do I have to speak on this subject? I have never been to war. I don’t know what it is like to live in a night that has a thousand eyes. I don’t know the dank smell of a foxhole or the hideous scream of falling bombs or the life-shattering power of a hand grenade. I don’t know what it is like to sacrifice one’s arm or one’s leg or one’s sanity in war. I don’t know what it is like to kill another human being. In fact, I question whether I could ever kill anyone else, regardless of the circumstances. But there are many who do know what that is like. And there are many who have known what it is like to make the ultimate sacrifice, the sacrifice of life itself—so many, in fact, that we cannot remember them all. But we can remember one of them—and perhaps in remembering him, we remember them all. I refer, of course, to the one who is buried in the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, the one who is “known but to God.”
I have thought a lot about him since I visited his tomb. I have thought a lot about the sacrifice he made and about what it means to us and to our world. And by way of tribute to him, I want to share some of these thoughts with you. They are thoughts forged out of deep prayer and study of the Scriptures.
First this; What is the Christian response to be to the issue of war and peace?
Some suggest that the Christian response ought to be pacifism. But pacifism as a moral philosophy is irresponsible and it is rendered irresponsible by John Donne’s words; “No man is an island.” No one can ever really separate himself from the conflict in the world. Take the case of Switzerland. Switzerland remained neutral throughout World War II. Yet only recently have the Swiss people begun to see how in order to preserve their public neutrality, their leaders had to lend some clandestine support to Hitler’s atrocities. Furthermore, had Naziism triumphed in Europe, Switzerland would have been crushed under Hitler’s boot. So Switzerland owes its freedom today to the fact that others were willing to die to protect it. So, people cannot separate themselves from war—its effects and its results. I would go on to say that pacifism cannot be supported by Scripture. In the Old Testament, taking up arms in defense of our country was a divinely encouraged obligation of citizenship. And, let’s have no doubt, please, that Jesus was not a pacifist. He said: “Greater love hath no man than this, that he lay down his life for his friends.” And Jesus knew when He said that that the only way you can lay down your life for your friends is in your friend’s defense or in his place—and both of these are the death that comes in war. Jesus abhorred violence, and yet in a moment of profound violence, He took a whip and drove the moneychangers out of the temple. He sought peace and He lived for peace, but He was not a pacifist. I heard it said as recently as last Wednesday evening that Jesus’ admonition “to turn the other cheek” is evidence of His pacifism. That kind of statement reveals an ignorance of Scripture. The passage in the Bible clearly refers to being struck on the right cheek. Now in order to be struck on the right cheek, you must (unless you are confronting that rare left-handed person) be struck with the back of the other person’s hand. In Jesus’ day, that was an act of insult, not an act of attack. So Jesus was simply saying that insults and slander ought to be ignored. His statement cannot be enlarged to include the subject of war. So, on the basis of Scripture, pacifism is not a response the Christian can make.
Then, some try to make war into something whole and holy. There are those who claim that it is a crusade you enter in obedience to God and declare that you are going to kill and to maim in God’s holy name. That is blasphemy. No war is holy. No war is decent. No war is good. War is contrary to the very principles of love upon which God founded His universe. War is evil. We dare not call it holy. That is not a response the Christian can make.
But there is a third response. The Christian can declare with Augustine that war can be both meaningful and just. The Christian can declare that war is a hideously evil thing and therefore resolve to enter it only when there is no other alternative. The Christian can face up to the fact that there are times in life when war may be the least evil course which is open to us.
Now there are those today who declare that the concept of a just war is not valid and that, therefore, those in the military service cannot be regarded as peacemakers. I cannot permit that to be said of those who have given themselves to military service. I have never yet encountered anyone in the military who was not totally committed to peace—not just to keeping it, but to making it. Their desire to make peace runs even deeper than ours because they know better than we do what it costs to make war. We need to remember that and we need to honor them for what they do.
And we also need to remember that we are living in a world which is twisted and stained and perverted by human sinfulness. Because that is true, sometimes war is the only way to control the evil in the world. Vermont Royster rightly points out that non-violence works to bring peace and justice only when there is the existence of a conscience in those to whom these peaceful voices are addressed. Perhaps you recently saw the movie, “Gandhi” as I did. And no doubt you were touched and influenced by Gandhi’s non-violence as I was. But the fact of the matter is that Gandhi succeeded in bringing freedom to India because he knew that the British would never permit them to brutally end his non-violent rebellion. But imagine Gandhi in Afghanistan today trying to persuade the Soviet Union to hand down its flag and remove its army. His voice wouldn’t be tolerated, much less allowed to be heard. No appeals to conscience stop the communist authorities from using their power to silence such voices at home or in any country where they hold sway. They have no conscience to which to appeal. So we remove our military presence in Southeast Asia, and there follows as sickening and as demonic a bloodbath as this century has seen—Hiltler’s holocaust to the contrary notwithstanding. The result is that millions are slaughtered and hundreds of thousands plunge into the sea in a desperate attempt to save their lives. Witness the plight of the family from Cambodia which our church has sponsored and who have come to mean much to us and who have found life and freedom in this land. My friends, sometimes there is just no other way to obliterate that kind of evil.
So we go to war only when we have to, only when there is nothing else we can do. And when we go, we cry out to God in repentance that sometimes all we can do to control the evil in our world is to engage in war. When we go, we go with the prayer of the poet on our lips: “O Lord, we trust that somehow good will be the final goal of ill.” So is it right to go to war? No, it is not right. But sometimes in this sin-sick world, the Christian has no other choice. And it is then that God embraces us with His forgiving love.
Then this: What is the meaning of the life of that one who is buried in the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier?
A life is not measured by clock or calendar. You see, how long we live does not matter. What matters is what we do with the days that are ours. If we live only a few years but die in defense of eternal truths, then our living and our dying have been worthwhile. If we die for truth, for freedom, for the right of someone else to stand tall and free and sun-crowned before God and other people—if we die that others might be able to live the kind of life God wants all His people to live, then in our living and in our dying, we gain eternity. That one buried in the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier did not die in vain.
I hate war. I hate it for the children it orphans, for the wives it widows, for the fathers it destroys, for the mothers it leaves childless, for the families it renders homeless. I hate it for the truth it perverts, for the sin it exalts, and for the brotherhood it destroys. I hate it because I believe in the Prince of Peace. I believe that there will come a time when nations shall “beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks and nation shall not lift up sword against nation and neither shall they learn war anymore.” I believe that day will come because I believe it is the will of Almighty God. But, as William Barclay is quick to remind us, that glorious peace can come only through sacrifice—even the sacrifice of those who give their lives in war.
I think here of one young soldier who left His Father and traveled to a distant land. There He fought a good fight, and died in the fighting of it. And if that young soldier, the only begotten Son of God, had to come and to die—if God in all of His infinite wisdom could find only one way to win the world and that was the sacrificial death of His own Son, then somehow I believe that God remembers and blesses in a special way the sacrifice of all those who have died at Valley Forge or SanJuan Hill or Gettysburg or Verdun or Salerno or Guadalcanal or Pucan or Da Nang. They didn’t want war. They didn’t seek war. They stood for peace. But they recognized that sometimes because of the evil in our world, the only way to make peace is through sacrifice. And God remembers them for it. And if God remembers them, so must we.
The inscription words: “Here lies in honored glory an American soldier known but to God.” He is unknown to us. But he is remembered by us. Do you know that there is never a single moment that his tomb is left unguarded? We remember him, and all like him, who have laid down their lives in sacrifice.
We remember them with love…