Did they die in vain?
The men and woman, near 4,500 of them, who lost their lives in our service in Iraq, did they die for nothing?
That is a question asked on national newscasts and in family homes over recent days as an army of Islamic terrorists has swept across soil stained with American blood. Cities and regions liberated at the cost of American lives have fallen in hours to the worst sort of religious monsters.
And we wonder if it was all for nothing. We wonder if they died in vain.
It is natural to ask such questions. It is natural to entertain such fears.
Because our faith teaches us that the offer of a sacrificed life, laid down in the cause of freedom, is sacred in and of itself, whether or not that sacrifice is appreciated or accepted by others.
The pattern is found in the death of Jesus, who the vast majority of Americans at least nominally worship.
The example set by Jesus is a pattern for the sacrifice of our service members. It has ever been thus. The law of time and eternity is that freedom can only be bought at the price of blood. Jesus purchased our spiritual freedom by laying down his life; members of the military purchased our political and social freedom by laying down their lives.
Jesus died to free us from the bondage of sin; soldiers die to free us from the bondage of men.
Those sacrifices are paired, because humankind cannot be spiritually free unless it is socially free. Oftentimes, men must die to buy us freedom of conscience and religion so that we may embrace the spiritual freedom faith in Christ offers us.
As the original lyric of the “Battle Hymn of the Republic” taught: “As He died to make men holy, let us die to make men free.”
Jesus taught that a man could have no greater love than to lay down his life for his friends. He did that, and for more than 200 years the men and women of the American armed forces have done that, too.
So what does this have to do with Iraq?
That answer is also found in the example of Jesus.
Sadly, the sacrifice of Jesus – and all that it offers – is rejected, at least for now, by the large majority of the earth’s inhabitants. Jesus died for countless people across the globe who spurn what his death offers them.
How can followers of Jesus expect their own sacrifices to be treated any differently?
If people sometimes reject the offer of spiritual freedom, why should we be surprised if they sometimes reject the offer of political freedom?
If they mock and reject his death, can we be surprised if they mock and reject our deaths?
And neither can we be daunted.
Because though much of humankind has yet to embrace the gift of Jesus’s death, the value and sacredness of his sacrifice is in no way diminished. Neither is the value and sacredness of our sacrificed sons and daughters diminished by the seeming rejection of circumstance and the Iraqi people.
The nobility of a gift is in the giving, not the receiving. The sacredness of Jesus is found in what he did, not how people reacted to it. Likewise, the sacredness of what our service members have done is found in their deeds, not the deeds of others.
No, those near 4,500 Americans did not die in vain, they died in glory. The glory that is found in completely selfless service to others, in the laying down of life for one’s friends – even unmet friends of a foreign culture and clime.
Whether those friends accept it or not is a matter of moral choice for them which has no reflection upon us.
Americans fought and died to give Iraqis freedom. We opened a door, but it is up to them to walk through it. And it is up to them to match our deeds with theirs, to mingle their blood with ours.
Our sons and daughters have shown them the way, our sons and daughters have done their duty, our sons and daughters have paid the price.
And nothing can diminish that.
Not the tides of war, the circumstance of a moment, or the reversals of a battlefield.
They died for a holy cause – for freedom – and that is never in vain.