Memorializing the Innocent

Standing before the Lord’s Table, we often revisit thoughts surrounding the various memorials we have in our culture, whether they be monuments, days, or ceremonies. The vast majority of these memorials center around the numerous military conflicts this nation has been a part of, and we memorialize soldiers who have fallen and great leaders that led us to triumph. We lionize and idealize those to whom these numerous memorials are dedicated, but there are two groups involved in these conflicts we seldom commemorate, or indeed recognize at all: our enemies and the innocents.

The past hundred years or so have seen some of the largest and bloodiest conflicts in the history of this world. Sennacherib’s loss of 185,000 at the hands of Jehovah in II Kings 19 is mere child’s play by today’s standards. War casualties in the last century number in the millions, and if you break it down only to civilians, some casualty  figures look like this:

  • WWI: almost 7 million
  • WWII: 40-52 million
  • Korean War: 1.5 million
  • Vietnam War: 2 million
  • Iraq + Afghanistan: as many as 1 million

Counting only these conflicts – a small fraction of the wars and battles that have been fought the last hundred years – over 60 million have died in the crossfire of opposing armies. It may surprise you (as it did me) that in every conflict listed, except World War I, civilian death tolls outnumbered military deaths by a margin of at least 2-to-1. In almost every case, the number of innocents who died were more than double those actually involved in the conflict, and, with a couple notable exceptions, these lives are seldom remembered. (Memorials dedicated to the Holocaust and the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki come to mind.)

In fact, far from being memorialized, these deaths are often marginalized and trivialized. They are reported as “collateral damage,” or we breathe a sigh of relief that “at least they are not American lives.” Then we forget them as readily as any other unpleasant fact we’d rather not dwell on. Try, however, to tell an Afghani mother whose son was cut down in a skirmish on the streets of her hometown that her child was merely collateral damage in a conflict for a greater good. Tell an elderly Japanese man or woman who lost loved ones in Hiroshima or Nagasaki that their loss saved American lives in the long run. See how it goes. Who memorializes the innocents, lives cut short by the choices made by others?

Now I want you to imagine, for a moment, that Great Britain launched a war against us. Imagine they carpet bombed strategic locations and major metropolitan areas to cripple us quickly. Imagine you had a son or daughter in one of those locations who was killed in those bombings – not because they were part of the military trying to fight the invading forces, but simply because they were in the way when the bombs fell. Imagine that son or daughter became “collateral damage.” How would you feel after that?

After the dust cleared, the treaties had been signed, and the troops gone home, would you ever be able to look at England the same way again? Would you ever be able to forgive them? Might you cringe every time you heard and English accent? Would you throw away all of your old Beatles albums? Adding to this, what if the attack on our soil was completely justifiable by political standards? What if history was on the side of Great Britain? Would that change how you feel? Would the pain be erased, knowing that your child’s death, in the long run, saved the lives of those you view as enemies? Somehow I doubt it.

This, however, is exactly what Christ’s sacrifice was, and it is what God did for us.

  • Jesus was an innocent death. II Corinthians 5:21 and Isaiah 53:9 refer to Christ as sinless or blameless. Even Pilate attests to Jesus’ innocence in the face of unjust accusations.
  • Jesus was “collateral damage.” Repeatedly, in Isaiah 53, the prophet tells us God’s chosen Servant would be bruised, beaten, and killed in our place. We should be the casualties of the war with sin, but those sins cut Him down instead.
  • Jesus died for His enemies. The first few verses of Romans 5 make it clear that Christ came and died for us while we were at enmity with God. Where few would think to die for a righteous man, Christ laid down His life to save those opposed to Him.

Unlike the numerous civilian casualties of war, however, Jesus was not merely caught in the crossfire haphazardly. He was not in the wrong place at the wrong time. His death was no accident. He walked into the conflict willingly to be the innocent sacrifice that would save those who would reject Him. God sacrificed His child that those who set themselves against Him might not perish but have eternal life, and I have to ask myself, “How could God do this? How could He send His Son to die in my place? How could He offer such a sacrifice for an enemy?” Then I read Isaiah 55:6-9, where the prophet extends an invitation of forgiveness to a people who rejected God:

Seek the LORD while he may be found; call upon him while he is near; let the wicked forsake his way, and the unrighteous man his thoughts; let him return to the LORD, that he may have compassion on him, and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon.

For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, declares the LORD. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.

God’s ways are higher than our ways. His love is greater than our love. He was willing to sacrifice His Son for the sake of those on the side of sin and lawlessness that we may have hope of life after death. That’s why we take the time to memorialize this innocent death.