Self-Sacrifice, the Death of Jesus, and Laying Down One’s Life for Another on Memorial Day

“Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends.” John 15:13

There is something beautiful and honorable about those who put their own lives in the path of danger for the sake of others. I have a good friend who works the tough hours as a police officer, and I can’t express how grateful I am to have someone with so level a head and desire to serve out on the streets.

I also know several former soldiers, veterans of the Second Iraq War. Some have moved on with their lives without the war impacting them too terribly, while others suffer severe headaches, tumors, and fatigue—the effects of the enriched uranium in our bombs also causing severe cancer and birth defects among the civilians in the war zones of Iraq and beyond.

Wherever these veterans are today, I am grateful that they put their own lives on hold, left family and friends, and traveled to distant lands. I believe they joined the American army with the best of intentions, hoping to hold up the ideals of liberty and justice. We can debate how our soldiers have been used by their superiors, the motives of our government, and the exceptions to these exemplary young people, but on the whole, I only know of honorable, dedicated people in our military.

There are always exceptions—those who join for the power and authority or simple financial reasons—though on the whole our veterans are worthy of being remembered and honored. In addition, many who have fought through the hell of war have come back as the strongest advocates for peace and diplomacy.

While it is good to honor these good people, Christians have a gray area to navigate. It is common for Christians to apply Jesus’ words from John 15:13 to the military context: giving one’s life for another. However, such a use of this passage makes a terrible blunder, mixing up one kind of sacrifice for another. This doesn’t negate the good that our soldiers do. It’s more a matter of apples and oranges.

Jesus laid down his life in a non-violent manner before the Roman and Jewish leaders, dying for the sake of all humanity—even those who murdered him. His death was a rejection of the empire’s path to establishing a Kingdom, choosing instead to inaugurate God’s Kingdom rule by laying down his own life, setting rule through power and domination aside, and demonstrating his love through his own death.

Jesus sacrificed himself for the sake of his enemies and friends. He never threatened anyone with physical harm. He rejected the kingdoms of this world in favor of God’s ground up, mustard-seed-style, yeast-through-dough Kingdom.

Though we hope America’s soldiers are only deployed for the cause of freedom and justice, we must keep in mind that our soldiers are at the disposal of the American government, which is not to be confused with God’s Kingdom. Soldiers are trained to kill their enemies, and as such they sacrifice themselves for their friends only, not for the sake of the enemy.

As General Patton once said, “No bastard ever won a war by dying for his country. He won it by making the other poor dumb bastard die for his country.”

And so we should certainly honor selflessness and courage. We should remember those who laid their own lives on the line for the sake of their friends.

However, we should not quote Jesus in the context of Memorial Day. Jesus chose a path of non-violence. We can debate whether such a path is feasible for a nation state today, but we should not confuse a non-violent path with a path that clearly puts violence on the table.

In addition, Jesus tells us to love our enemies, and he demonstrated his incredible love by not only dying for his friends, but also his enemies—offering them a chance to be reconciled to God. It should not surprise us that Jesus has set the bar for love incredibly high. We should also not be surprised that the love of Jesus is something quite different from the love of a soldier for friend or country. There are no doubt some similarities and points of contact, but we are dealing with two very different things.

As we honor the dedication of our men and women in uniform, may we spend even more time pondering and honoring the height, length, breadth, and depth of God’s love for everyone.