Warriors and Public Servants

My father died this past February. After several years of slow decline, he passed away free of pain, surrounded by three generations of family, and confident of life everlasting in Jesus Christ. Those circumstances, along with the enduring good bonds he helped instill in our family, made the visitation and services that followed less difficult.

The only glitch, for me, came at the interment, where the funeral director, an able and friendly man, sat waiting to present my mother with the American flag that was my father’s due as a four-year veteran of the World War II Army Air Corps. Given the careful planning we had put into all the other ceremonies, I thought it awkward to have this moment just happen, and so– though not the least in antiwar sentiments among those present–I gave forth with a few remarks. They were not scripted, and not among the most coherent I have ever uttered.

That awkwardness came back to mind a few weeks ago at the news of the death of the Reverend Harold Dekker. Rev. Dekker deserves mention in these pages in part because he was a friend and colleague of the cluster of men who, fifty-five years ago, founded Perspectives magazine’s forerunner, the Reformed Journal. With some of them he served on the faculty at Calvin Theological Seminary, where he taught missiology. He was also sometime radio preacher for the Christian Reformed Church’s Back to God Hour and spent several terms on the Grand Rapids City Commission. In these posts and as co-founder of the intentionally multiracial Grace CRC in Grand Rapids, he was particularly concerned with opening his church up to and securing justice for African Americans, whose “great migration” to the urban North was climaxing in the 1950s and ’60s. Harold Dekker wanted to get the CRC out of its ghetto–and make sure that African Americans were not boxed up in one of their own.

That effort did not always win him favor. Neither did his forthright critique, in the Christmas 1962 issue of the Journal, of the way that Christian Reformed people generally understood the doctrine of limited atonement. Indeed, this piece might have been the single most controversial article the Journal published over its fortyyear history. Arguably, the firestorm he set off began a revolution in CRC theology; it certainly changed the way the denomination would thereafter deal with theological controversy.

What does all this have to do with awkwardness about American flags at funeral ceremonies? Simply this. People like Harold Dekker and the Journal’s founders were progressives in their place and time, and, almost to a man, they were military veterans. Harold Dekker was one, and the last surviving, of thirty-five military chaplains the CRC commissioned during World War II. For a peacenik like me who wants to be “progressive” in his own place and time, the hard truth is that this generation’s progressivism did not rise in spite of but in good part out of their military experience. Not that they became gung-ho patriots of the militarist stripe. Virtually all the teachers and pastors I know who are or were veterans viewed war with sadness and showed marked skepticism about armed adventurism abroad, especially under American colors. This was true even of my father, who never ever voted Democratic unless unbearable circumstances, like Richard Nixon in 1972, forced his hand. For the likes of him–and, I suspect, for Rev. Dekker–military service was hard duty one had to bear as part of a common obligation, not the macho game that the enthusiasts for preemptive war currently ruling in and about the White House indulge at safe distance while the less privileged suffer the consequences.

Yet for my father, for Harold Dekker, and for many more of their generation, military service was the thing, and the key thing, that got them out of their provincial upbringings and out into a wider world. They would respond in different ways and with different views, but they–along with the church and communities they served– would never be the same again. Fortunately, for many of them war duty was not the end but the beginning of a whole lifetime of public service, be it in formal office as with Rev. Dekker or in ordinary, endless volunteer work as with my father. Indeed, for them such local engagements went some way to redeeming the years lost in horror and bloodshed or in just plain loneliness.

I wonder whether my generation, with all our talk of peace and justice, will match their record of actual good works. The two draft-dodging presidents that our cohort has so far produced, Clinton and Bush II, give a mixed augury. But then, our key test may be approaching, right over the horizon.

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This issue of Perspectives features three articles on economic issues, a subject not likely to diminish in importance for North American Christians in the next few years. Todd Steen and Steve VanderVeen’s suggestion for how Christians might respond to the rise of mega-merchants like Wal-Mart highlights the notion of covenant. Just that is the theme of the declaration issued by the General Council of the World Alliance of Reformed Churches in 2004, with which the three denominations to which most Perspectives readers belong (the Reformed Church in America, the Presbyterian Church USA, and the Christian Reformed Church) are affiliated. Finally, we excerpt some of Carrie A. Miles’ new book, The Redemption of Love, which, alluding to the politics of “family values,” proposes ways that “marriage and family” can be “rescued from the economics of a fallen world.” We conclude with two valedictories: a review of the last play to be produced at the old Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis, and part of the sermon preached at Harold Dekker’s funeral. As always, we welcome your contributions and responses.

James Bratt is professor of history at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan, and co-editor of Perspectives.