Denison Forum – “The last full measure of devotion”: A Memorial Day reflection

President Biden and First Lady Jill Biden visited Uvalde, Texas, yesterday to place flowers at a memorial for the nineteen children and two teachers who were murdered at Robb Elementary School last Tuesday. In related news, the Justice Department announced it will review law enforcement’s response to the mass shooting.

This review comes amid reports that some police officers apparently violated protocol by choosing not to risk themselves as the shooter was murdering children and teachers. The timing of this news was noteworthy, coming the day before America honors the men and women who died across our nation’s history to protect our freedoms.

Our greatest president’s greatest speech

On Memorial Day, these heroes are often described as giving “the last full measure of devotion.”

Our nation’s greatest president authored these words as part of what many consider his greatest speech, brief remarks we call the “Gettysburg Address.” Abraham Lincoln spoke on November 19, 1863, four and a half months after one of the fiercest battles of the Civil War took place in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. The conflict led to more than fifty-one thousand casualties. My wife and I visited the battlefield several years ago and were deeply moved by the memory of what happened on its now-hallowed ground.

On that Thursday, the president called those assembled “to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us—that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they here gave the last full measure of devotion—that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain—that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom, and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”

In the words of his speech, let us consider:

The strength of their courage 

As “these honored dead,” those who fell at Gettysburg typified the expression, “All gave some; some gave all.” Like them, more than one million Americans have made the courageous decision to risk themselves and then to die on our behalf.

The depth of their sacrifice 

By giving the “full” measure of their devotion, they paid the ultimate price to serve our nation. Each person we remember on this Memorial Day did the same for you and for me.

The cause for which they died 

President Lincoln memorialized those who died in the cause of “government of the people, by the people, for the people.” Their sacrifice reminds us that freedom is not free, that the price of our freedom has been paid in the blood of our military heroes and the grief of those who loved them.

“Politics is not going to cure that”

Now it is our turn to “highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain.” It falls to us to do all we can so that “this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom” and that our democracy “shall not perish from the earth.”

Such “resolve” takes many forms: military, economic, political, and cultural among them. But most of all, it requires a spiritual commitment mirroring the commitment we remember today.

The historian Christopher Dawson defined culture as “an accumulated capital of knowledge and a community of folkways into which the individual has to be initiated.” To help initiate Americans into such a healthy “community,” Heritage Foundation President Kevin D. Roberts recently emphasized the role of faith and civic virtue in the American democratic experiment.

Roberts pointed to Alexis de Tocqueville, the nineteenth-century French scholar who affirmed the virtues inherent in American democracy. However, Roberts noted that de Tocqueville “never could have imagined that we would stop going to church, that we would have each year, as Pew Research Center documents in its studies of religiosity, fewer and fewer Americans who even claim a religious affiliation.”

According to Roberts, “Politics is not going to cure that. The handful of schools who inculcate a serious faith in their students can help cure it. But ultimately, you and I will fix that as evangelists living out the Gospel Commission.”

“Righteousness exalts a nation”

God’s word states, “Righteousness exalts a nation, but sin is a reproach to any people” (Proverbs 14:34). The Hebrew word translated righteousness refers to “things done justly, blameless behavior.” Such action exalts (“advances, elevates”) a nation.

This is a fascinating declaration since the Hebrew word translated nation (goy) typically refers not to Israel but to the Gentiles. It thus applies to every person on earth, whatever our ethnicity or background (cf. Galatians 3:28).

By contrast, “sin is a reproach to any people.” Reproach is the opposite of exalts—it refers to “shame” or “disgrace.” This is true of “any” people anywhere. As one commentator notes, “A nation’s political health depends to a great degree on the moral integrity of its people.” And as President George Washington observed, “reason and experience both forbid us to expect that national morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle.”

“Blessed is the nation whose God is the Lᴏʀᴅ

On this Memorial Day, how can you and I “take increased devotion to that cause for which they here gave the last full measure of devotion”?

By taking “increased devotion” to the One whose Spirit and word empower us to be a nation worth such sacrifice.

Would you ask God to help you choose and emulate the “righteousness” that “exalts a nation”?

Would you ask his Spirit to help you stand against the “sin” that “is a reproach to any people”?

Would you honor the sacrificial courage we remember today by the sacrificial submission of your life to your Lord on behalf of your nation (Romans 12:1–2)?

“Blessed is the nation whose God is the Lᴏʀᴅ” (Psalm 33:12). Let’s do all we can to help our nation be so “blessed” to the glory of God.

Denison Forum

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