Last week, my family and I returned from 9 days of touring France, including 6 days in Paris and 3 days in Normandy (click here for my updated photography page). Part of our interest in this trip was a sort of pilgrimage to visit the American cemetery near Omaha Beach, where thousands of Americans died on D-Day. In preparation, before we left, we watched the horrific opening scenes of Saving Private Ryan, to get more of a sense for what happened on that epic day.
I don’t cry very often, but when I surveyed 9,388 crosses and stars of David at the American cemetery, I wept. I replayed in my imagination what happened at this site, and I connected with the sacrifice made on our country’s behalf. Watching filmed testimonies at Pointe du Hoc only reinforced this, as survivors recounted what it was like going into this day, how young most everyone was, and how afraid.
Many talked about how they prayed, and how they felt like their ultimate sacrifice – though tragic – might be needed: for God and country.
It was a rainy and terribly windy day when we visited the American cemetery. As my daughter, Ellie, descended the steps overlooking Omaha Beach, I would guess a 50 mph wind gust caught her and blew her down. We thought she had twisted her ankle, and we decided we were done for the day. So, we started to drive back to our home base.
On the way back, though, we came across signs for one of the several German cemeteries in the region. This also seemed to be an important part of the D-Day story. Even though the rain and wind had only worsened, we pulled out our umbrellas to walk these grounds as well.
The feeling was less patriotic and even more somber at the German cemetery. It also was confusing. Like most Americans, I am used to the “us vs. them” narrative of World War II. We were the “good guys;” the Germans were the “bad guys.” But, when we inspected the approximately 21,200 grave sites of similarly young Germans, I couldn’t help but notice how they were marked by crosses as well.
I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised by this. I’ve studied and written about the role of Christians and Christianity in the Holocaust. I know many Germans also thought they were called to military action for God and country. But, still, I was struck. How could both sides of World War II mark their dead by crosses?
What does it even mean to identify with the Christian cross?
Of course, the cross initially came into prominence because it was used by the Romans as a means of torture and execution. But, because Jesus was one of those crucified on a cross, for Christians, it became a symbol of God’s love and sacrifice. At its best, maybe it also helps forge a connection between Christ followers and God’s unconditional love and grace as well as a personal commitment to live self-sacrificially for others.
Witnessing the cross at both the American and German cemeteries makes me pause, though. I wonder if the cross is used symbolically for other reasons more often. Do people who wear a cross necklace, for instance, realize they are wearing a means of torture and execution?
Maybe more importantly, my visit to Normandy and to the American and German cemeteries helps me better appreciate how it is insufficient to simply believe we are sacrificing for God and our group – and to forge ahead as self-proclaimed martyrs – without some critical thought. We need to consider the content of our sacrifice as well.
Maybe the ultimate criterion for Christian behavior is this: Does our action really demonstrate a desire to love our neighbor as ourselves?
As Christ followers, we would do well to put great effort into honestly answering this question in our daily lives. And – given our incredible human capacity for self-delusion – it may not be enough to simply check our motives. We need other sources of accountability as well. For instance, we may allow some well-grounded family members and friends – who know us well and whom we trust – to correct us when we risk missing this mark.
Otherwise, even though we identify with the cross, we may find our behavior ends up on the wrong side of history.