Today I have seen numerous posts on social media sites about Memorial Day and rightly so. However, many of these posts have left me unsettled, unnerved, and frankly dumbfounded. This is mainly due to the apparent lack of critical thinking on the part of many Christians who equate or compare the sacrifice of (particularly U.S.) soldiers and the sacrifice of Jesus. It is in fact not a new thing that should shock me, since many American Christians today already tend to equate the U.S.A. with the kingdom of God or at least view America as God’s gift to the world. While this is no surprise, these notions still irk me because equating the sacrifice of Jesus Christ with anything or anyone, especially with armies and militaries, is frankly sacrilegious. So here are 4 reasons why Christians should refrain from equating and comparing the sacrifice of soldiers with the sacrifice of Jesus.
1. The Word “Sacrifice” Meant Something Different for Jesus.
On the one hand, the word “sacrifice” in Jesus’ time was a worship term, carrying a cultic sense and involving the worship of the one God, Yahweh. These sacrifices were carried out by the slaughtering of animals for the forgiveness of and atonement for sins. Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross is in fact portrayed in this cultic sense in the Gospel accounts. All four gospels frame his crucifixion during the Passover (Exod 12-13), and in this way Jesus is our Passover lamb (1 Cor 5:7) and “the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29).
A soldier’s sacrifice, on the other hand, means something different entirely. For them, it means the sacrifice of being with family and loved ones, the sacrifice of comforts and pleasures, the sacrifice of time, energy, and strength, and ultimately, the sacrifice of their own lives if lost in battle. Now of course, the sacrifice of soldiers is not bad. In fact, it is quite noble to sacrifice so much for the sake of others.
But the point is that these two sacrifices are not the same: one is about the worship of God and forgiveness of sins, and the other is about giving up their lives for their country and loved ones.
2. Jesus Didn’t Die for His Country, But the Whole World.
The New Testament writers describe Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross as something that was not simply for his own people – the Jews – but for all nations – the whole world (2 Cor 5:14-15). His cross and blood atones for the sins of all peoples, nations, languages, cultures, and ethnicities (1 Tim 2:6; 1 John 2:2). In contrast, the sacrifice of a soldier is primarily for their own country, only for their own “team” if you will.
3. Jesus’ Sacrifice Did Not Involve Killing Others.
The Gospel of John says that Jesus laid down his own life – “No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have authority to lay it down and authority to take it up again” (John 10:18) – and this did not involve taking the lives of others in the process.
On the contrary, war inevitably means killing and being killed. Soldiers do not lay down their lives for their countries without taking the lives of others. This is something that was entirely foreign to Jesus and his sacrifice. In fact, the night when Judas betrayed Jesus, Peter tried to fight back by force and cut off someone’s ear, to which Jesus responded, “Put the sword into the sheath!” (John 18:10-11). Even on his way to the cross, Jesus did not want the lives of others to be taken. This is quite different from a soldier’s perspective and duty.
4. Jesus’ Sacrifice Displayed Love for Enemies.
The apostle Paul described Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross as the love of God for sinners: “But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Rom 5:8). Elsewhere he says, “Once you were alienated from God and were enemies in your minds because of your evil behavior. But now he has reconciled you by Christ’s physical body through death to present you holy in his sight, without blemish and free from accusation” (Col 1:21-22). It is clear that Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross showed God’s love for his enemies.
However, soldiers’ sacrifices display only love for their own countries, and demonstrate hate for their enemies. Jesus talked about this in the Sermon on the Mount:
“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matt 5:43-48).
It seems to me that military sacrifice is much more like loving your neighbor and hating your enemies, loving only those who love you, thus doing what the tax collectors and Gentiles do. Jesus however requires his followers to go beyond this, to be perfect as their heavenly Father is, meaning loving those who hate you which includes even those on opposite sides of a war.
So, it is not bad to love those who love you, or to serve in the military, or to make the sacrifices that so many soldiers and their families make for American freedom – some of our beloved friends are doing this. But it is, however, a mistake to equate this with Jesus’ sacrifice and Christianity.
That means, contra so many FaceBook posts I’ve seen today, that John 15:13 – “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends” – is not about military service! Let alone U.S. military service! (Reminder: America is not in the Bible). Rather it is about the sacrifice that Jesus would make on behalf of the entire world: “For Christ also suffered for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, in order to bring you to God” (1 Peter 3:18).
While I am thankful this Memorial Day for the freedom to even write such a blog with religious freedom and the freedom of speech because of those soldiers who lost their lives for this country, I do so recognizing that this is not the same as the sacrifice of the One who truly made the ultimate sacrifice,
“who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death — even death on a cross. Therefore God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (Philippians 2:6-11).