Veterans Day occurs every year in America on Nov. 11. It originated as a day to honor those who fought and died in World War I, which was formally concluded on Nov. 11, 1918, at the eleventh hour of the 11th day of the 11th month when the Armistice with Germany went into effect. The holiday was called Armistice Day until 1954. In the years since 1918, the holiday has broadened its mandate to honor all those who have served in the U.S. armed forces. On the 100th anniversary of the end of World War I, I wanted to lift up both my deep respect for Veterans Day and the religious beliefs that support, inform and sustain this supposedly secular national holiday.
Veterans Day celebrates sacrifice, a foundational religious value. Service to one's country is a sacrifice of personal ambition and it can entail the ultimate sacrifice of one's life. This sacrifice is built upon the belief that we are a part of something bigger than ourselves. In this case, that something bigger is our country, but in a religious setting the something bigger is God.
There is a vigorous debate between religious pacifists and other religious folk as to whether love of nation and sacrifice for nation is idolatry and thus prohibited by religious teachings. I do not agree. Wars of national self-defense are permitted for exactly the same reason that personal self-defense is religiously permitted. Jesus taught Christians to "render unto to Caesar that which is Caesar's" (Matthew 22:21) and in Romans 13:1, "Let every person be in subjection to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God and those which exist are established by God."
This does not mean, of course, that God endorses every act of every state. There are criminal states, failed states and immoral states, and they were properly the object of prophetic wrath in the Bible. But the standards for establishing the immorality of a state go far beyond mere political disagreements. There is a growing sentiment in some political circles to label America an immoral state. This is spiritual and ethical hyperbole. We must lift up both what needs correction and condemnation as well as what needs appreciation and praise. It is the balance that will determine if we can live together now. This is the spiritual point of Veterans Day to me. It is a collective affirmation that we love this country and we will defend this country with the sacrifices it deserves.
Even though I did not serve in the military, it has been my experience that such service produces bonds of friendship that transcend differences of politics, religion and race. My dad saved the life of an anti-Semitic soldier in Europe who also lived in Milwaukee and they became lifelong friends. I met Leo once, and he told me with tears in his eyes how ashamed he was that he had been taught from his childhood to hate Jews until my dad saved him. War does such things. Military service even without war also does such things. I am convinced that one of the reasons our country is splitting apart is that voluntary military service binds together too few of us. This gives the forces that divide us — mostly politics, class and race — free rein to pull us apart.
Finally, there is a strange and, in my view, unacceptable split in our national celebration of military service in our national cycle of holidays. Veterans Day — every November — celebrates those who served in the military, and yet Memorial Day — every May — celebrates those who died serving our country. There is also a minor holiday in May called Armed Forces Day that honors those currently serving in the U.S. military. All three holidays should be combined and celebrated together on Veterans Day (call your representative in Congress!). All of them are about sacrifice and the sacred bonds it creates among all soldiers as well as the sacred bonds of gratitude it creates among Americans. They lift up what President Woodrow Wilson called "the splendid forgetfulness of mere personal concerns." So on Monday, the official holiday for Veterans Day, may we all celebrate this "splendid forgetfulness of mere personal concerns" and do something to honor our military men and women — and in so doing honor America.
I do not expect government bureaucrats to be theologians or philosophers, but the Department of Veterans Affairs has ruled that there should be no apostrophe in the spelling of Veterans Day (not Veteran's Day and not Veterans' Day), "Because it is not a day that 'belongs' to veterans, it is a day for honoring all veterans." And let us say, Amen.