The B52 flyover at the Indianapolis 500 gave me goosebumps this year. I’m moved to gratitude when I think of men and women who have selflessly provided security for our messed up world. Our society could not do without this kind of self-protection made possible by the sacrifices of what we call the “Defense Department.”
This Memorial Day allow me to retell one story from the life of a South Carolina sergeant from the Civil War era. Richard Kirkland spent the night of December 13, 1862 listening to the cries of hundreds of Union soldiers his unit had shot down that day in front of Marye’s Heights outside of Fredricksburg, Virginia. The next day he informed his commanding general that he wished to help the wounded Union soldiers. The general, warning of the possibility of Kirkland being caught in a crossfire, allowed him to leave his secure position in order to help, but Kirkland would not be allowed to fly a white flag while doing so.
"All right, sir, I'll take my chances." Kirkland replied.
Kirkland filled all the canteens he could carry and then went out onto the battlefield several times, giving the wounded Union soldiers water and warm clothing. While dangerous at first, Kirkland’s loving, vulnerable mission soon became obvious to both armies who started watching him. Cries for water erupted all over the battlefield. Kirkland proceeded to help every wounded enemy, earning the title the “Angel of Marye’s Heights.”
Kirkland engaged in one kind of sacrificial service on December 13. It’s was a form of defensiveness that shot his enemies. It was a different kind of sacrifice in which he engaged the next day. Bravery that risks life to share water is about a vulnerable love for enemies. Self-protection and a concern for justice can give way to compassion and mercy.
We celebrate selfless bravery which is about “preserving and protecting” on Memorial Day. But we should not lose sight of the fact that this kind of bravery is only necessary because sacrificial deference, mercy and reconciling love—the kind Jesus showed on the cross—has broken down.