On the one hand, the Catholic cannot wholly entrust himself to any earthly nation. Our “alien allegiance” has sometimes been misunderstood, as if the Pope were just a foreign sovereign. But rather, our only true sovereign is Christ the King, our true homeland is heaven, and our true nation is the Church: “You are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for God’s own possession, that you may show forth the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light” (I Peter 2:9).
There’s something lost in translation, but the real heart of Vatican II’s understanding of the Church is the phrase “people of God.” But “people” here, Latin populus, is not the plural of “person”: in Lumen Gentium, we’re not a bunch of individuals who are each a “person of God.” The “people” is a collective – connected with Peter’s words “race” (genos, like genus) and “nation” (ethnos). The Church is our country, our true ethnicity, and we are meant to see ourselves as part of that country before we are part of any other.
On a day like Memorial Day, this shows itself, in one sense, negatively. (Don’t mistake me – I’m getting to the positive!) As Christians we can never submit ourselves wholly to this earthly nation, or its moral mishaps. My grandfathers fought in World War II, and I am grateful for them today. On balance, they did much good. But we must never forget that the Church (our true nation) unequivocally condemns our earthly nation for targeting civilians, not only at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, but also at Tokyo, Dresden, and many other cities we carpet-bombed.
Nowhere else do we more clearly see the distance between Catholicism and jingoist nationalism than in the importance of such moral condemnations. We can never say that whatever our country does, or whatever helps our country, is good. Our country has committed, and will continue to commit, many moral atrocities. (We need not name them here.)
That must not stop us, however, from honoring our soldiers on Memorial Day.
At the heart of the soldier’s vocation is the Gospel precept, “no greater love has any man, than to lay down his life for his friend.” Or, as America the Beautiful says, “who more than self their country loved.”
What most defines a soldier is not that he kills, nor that he carries a gun. What most defines a soldier is that he puts his own life in harm’s way to protect his homeland – and that he submits himself to the higher authorities of his country in so doing. A Christian soldier cannot be obedient when his earthly authorities contradict Christ the King. But outside of those circumstances, his obedience is the sign that he seeks not his own good, nor his own pride, but the good of his country. That he lays down his life for his friends.
This is among the most noble things a human person can do.
A soldier goes to war out of gratitude for his country; Memorial Day encourages us at home to imitate that gratitude. The soldier recognizes that his homeland is worth giving his life for. For the beauty of the land, but even more for the beauty of his people. A truly Christian soldier cannot, of course, think that his people are without sin. But that doesn’t stop him from loving their music, their food, their leisure, the things they build, their ways of relating.
My great-grandfathers and grandfathers went to the First and Second World Wars in regiments from Wisconsin. I think we miss the nature of patriotism if we think they only fought for the broad idea of America. They sang, till their death, almost bizarrely patriotic songs about their home state, and their home city. It was those details they fought for. They fought for home.
When the commandments – and the example of Jesus – tell us to honor our father and mother, they remind us that home itself is a gift from God. We are not of this world, and no earthly country can ever claim ultimate sovereignty over our hearts. But our love of God itself demands gratitude for the people and places we belong to.
This is the deepest meaning of laying down our life for our friends. To realize that God didn’t make us to be radical individuals, but to love the people around us intensely, so that we would lay down our life: for Wisconsin, New Jersey, Rhode Island, or whatever our earthly home may be.
Think of the soldiers in your family’s history – and let them lead you to deeper gratitude for the home God has given you.