The Untold Story of Veterans Day

/The Untold Story of Veterans Day

There is a great irony that occurs every November 11th in the life of the Church.  Nowadays most churches in the West have chosen on that day to commemorate Veterans Day.  It is a day set-aside by many churches to honor those Christians who have bravely served in the military. However, historically throughout the centuries, the Church has paused on that very day for quite a different reason.  Traditionally, November 11th has been set aside by the Church to reflect on the life of a Christian military deserter named Martin of Tours.

Martin was born in 316AD, four years after Constantine became emperor.  It was a time when the Roman Empire was in major transition.  In the decade before Martin’s birth, Christians faced severe persecution from the Emperor Diocletian, who in 303AD passed edicts that ordered the destruction of all Christian places of worship and the death of any Christians who refused to offer sacrifices to the Roman pagan gods.  But with the conversion of Constantine in 313AD, Christianity became a legal religion.  Christians were no longer persecuted by the Roman Empire, and by 321AD (at the time when Martin was five years old) Christianity had become the established religion of the empire.  During Martin’s childhood, Christianity shifted from being an intensely persecuted religious sect to being the official religion of the Romans.  Christianity was now powerful and central.

Martin was born into a non-Christian family.  His father had progressed through the ranks of the Roman army to the point of becoming a senior officer.  The military mindset was so engrained in the minds of Martin’s parents that they chose to name him after Mars, the god of war.  Most historians believe that during this time the Romans had a policy that required sons of military officers to join the army.  Against his will, Martin was assigned to a cavalry unit.  Thankfully, for the first couple years, Martin’s unit saw no combat since their orders were to protect the emperor during ceremonies.

During this time, Martin attempted to live more like a monk than a soldier.  For example, military officers in the Roman army each received a servant.  However, Martin switched roles with his servant.  He would clean his servant’s boots, instead of the other way around.

One day Martin’s regiment was sent to Gaul (present-day France).  His once ceremonial unit would now see combat.  It was in Gaul, on a bitterly cold winter day, that Martin’s life would forever be changed.  That day as he rode his horse to the gates of the city Amiens, Martin met a poorly dressed beggar.  The man was huddled beside the gate, shivering in the cold.  Overcome with compassion, Martin stepped down from his horse, took off his warm wool cloak, cut it in half with his sword, wrapped the one half around the freezing beggar, and then attempted to keep himself warm with the remaining half.

That night Martin dreamed of Jesus wearing the half of the cloak he had given the beggar.  In his dream, Jesus remarked to the angels and saints surrounding Him, “See, this is the half-cloak that Martin gave me, though he has yet to be baptized.”

The next morning, on the day before a planned battle, Martin committed his life fully to Christ and then laid down his weapons, saying to his military commanders, “I am a soldier of Christ.  It is not permissible for me to fight.  I will not draw sword again.”  When ridiculed as a coward, he offered to stand unarmed in front of the ranks.  He would rather be slain than slay.  Martin chose to risk death in order to love his enemies.

It is this event that the Church throughout the centuries has paused to remember every November 11th.  Needless to say, this day now signifies a drastic contrast in the life of the Church.  On the very day when throughout history churches have paused to honor the Christian soldier who would not fight, we now honor those Christian soldiers who do.

Regardless of our personal stance on the matter, hopefully we can all agree that November 11th starkly reminds us that the Church throughout time and place has often taught and embodied opposite ethical stances on the permissibility of Christians using violence.

Over the coming days I plan on posting a series of reflections on the early Christian attitude to the permissibility of Christians employing violence.  One of my chief aims is to enable you to become familiar with the early Christian teaching and writing on the subject.

Finally, as always, I wrote this post in hopes that it would spark a conversation amongst us.  Are you aware of other stories throughout Church history that highlight the varied stances Christians have taken on the use of violence?  Are there ways I could improve the content of this reflection?  What questions or reaction did this reflection stir within you?

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About the Author:

Husband, father, writer on Jesus' approach to peacemaking, and North America Coordinator for Servants to Asia's Urban Poor ( Servants is an international network of Christian communities living and working in the slums of Asia and the West, participating with the poor to bring hope and justice through Jesus Christ.
  • Martin

    A fitting irony for the patron saint of soldiers. His image has been carried by countless men seeking both protection and destruction over the centuries.
    I’d very much like to discuss your book and bounce ideas off you; email would be a more appropriate means of correspondence if you don’t mind disclosing it.

  • I did not know that about November 11th in the Church calendar. It is also noteworthy that, originally, Nov. 11th was Armistice Day, marking the day that fighting ceased in WWI:

    The deep meaning of that armistice remained in the
    minds of World War I veterans a half century later
    when the U.S. Congress, in one of its clueless moves,
    changed the observance of the federal holiday from
    November 11th to a certain Monday of October. Memorial
    Day, Veterans Day and Washington’s Birthday
    were all moved on the calendar in order to create
    three-day federal holiday weekends.
    Because of the war that had followed that “War to
    End All Wars,” President Eisenhower had signed a
    law that broadened the meaning of “Armistice Day”
    by making it “Veterans Day” in 1954. But in the
    minds of the World War I generation, the memory of
    that armistice still held sway.
    in the late 1960s when Congress changed the
    date, I can still remember my grandmother adamantly
    asserting that Armistice Day was November 11th,
    NOT the fourth Monday of October….
    one decade after changing
    the date, Congress, in 1978, restored the observance
    to November 11th.–from Oh Holy Night: The Peace of 1914 [about the Christmas Truce]