Giving One’s Life for One’s Friends: A Secular or Religious Value?

The self-sacrificing love of friends has a religious origin, even if it has secular expressions. Precisely by putting us in touch with the sacred, with a perception of reality that transcends our day-to-day existence, such values give human life its meaning and make our “secular” civilization possible. Attempts to censor expressions of these values show how difficult it can be to disentangle their religious and secular uses.

Fifteen years ago, our twenty-year-old son Thomas was killed in action in Iraq. He had joined the Army out of high school, inspired by the need to defend our country against terrorism after the 9/11 attack. He was deployed to Iraq despite his personal view that this particular war was a mistake. Once there, though, he fought and even volunteered for dangerous missions to protect his friends. He did a very good job—he was the only U.S. soldier who died in Mosul, Iraq on that day. The friends he made in the Army still correspond with each other, and sometimes with us.

At Thomas’s Catholic funeral, the readings and homily centered on John 15:13: “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” That reading is also used on the feast of St. Maximilian Kolbe, who gave his life for a fellow prisoner in Auschwitz—and whose name Thomas had chosen for his confirmation name. But John 15:13 was also featured this year at the secular Memorial Day service at our local community cemetery, in largely “unchurched” Washington state.

This willingness to die for one’s friends, as in wartime: Is it a religious or secular value? The U.S. Supreme Court recently grappled with that question, and came up with some inadequate answers.

This willingness to die for one’s friends, as in wartime: Is it a religious or secular value? The U.S. Supreme Court recently grappled with that question, and came up with some inadequate answers.

 

The court’s 7-to-2 decision in American Legion v. American Humanist Association has been hailed as a victory for a benevolent attitude toward religion in public life. Its immediate beneficial impact is to leave standing on public land a Peace Cross in Bladensburg, Maryland honoring forty-nine local residents who died in World War I. In addition to the names of the fallen, the base of the cross is inscribed on its four sides with the words “Valor—Endurance—Courage—Devotion.” Plaintiffs said the cross represented an unconstitutional “establishment of religion,” and demanded that it be removed or have its arms cut off to create an obelisk.

Supreme Court precedent led the justices to apply “the Lemon test,” from the court’s 1971 decision in Lemon v. Kurtzman: Government is not engaged in an unconstitutional establishment of religion if its action has a “secular” purpose, does not have the principal or primary effect of either advancing or inhibiting religion, and does not involve excessive entanglement with religion. Five of the seven justices in the majority commented that the Lemon test may not be the best standard for assessing public monuments of long standing; some even criticized the test as unworkable in general. But in this case they tried to apply it to the situation at hand.

The majority and dissenters had opposing views of what the cross symbolizes—that is, whether it expresses a religious or secular message. Justice Alito’s majority opinion emphasized that over the years it had become a “central symbol” of World War I, acquiring a legitimate “secular” meaning as “a symbol of sacrifice in the war.”

A majority of the justices added: “Even if the original purpose of a monument was infused with religion, the passage of time may obscure that sentiment. As our society becomes more and more religiously diverse, a community may preserve such monuments, symbols, and practices for the sake of their historical significance or their place in a common cultural heritage. . . . With sufficient time, religiously expressive monuments, symbols, and practices can become embedded features of a community’s landscape and identity. The community may come to value them without necessarily embracing their religious roots.”

The dissenting opinion by Justices Ginsburg and Sotomayor, at the other extreme, insisted that the cross symbolizes “sectarian beliefs”: “The Latin cross is the foremost symbol of the Christian faith, embodying the ‘central theological claim of Christianity: that the son of God died on the cross, that he rose from the dead, and that his death and resurrection offer the possibility of eternal life.’ . . . By maintaining the Peace Cross on a public highway, the [Maryland state] Commission elevates Christianity over other faiths, and religion over nonreligion.”

The majority opinion’s discussion of the cross as a secular symbol of sacrifice failed to notice that the root meaning of “sacrifice” is “to make holy.” And it added that the rationale that justifies longstanding public monuments would not necessarily extend to allowing a new religiously expressive symbol like a cross on public land. It seems that any religious meaning of a memorial cross is harmless because that meaning is largely obsolete. But in that case, why would it be a problem to put up a new cross now, almost a century later, when that meaning presumably is even more obsolete?

But the dissenters’ claim about a purely sectarian religious symbol is also problematic. Without necessarily believing in Jesus’ divinity, resurrection, or offer of eternal life, one can surely recognize him as the key figure in history who taught and embodied the message of John 15:13. In that case, the cross may remind us of the willingness of Jesus, “the man for others,” to die on the cross, and because of this can symbolize anyone’s willingness to lay down his or her life for others. Ironically, the minority opinion also failed to notice that the obelisk preferred by the American Humanist Association originated as a religious symbol of the Egyptian sun god Ra—and the largest surviving obelisk stands at the center of St. Peter’s Square.

In short, the distinction between secular and religious self-sacrifice is not as simple as many of us may think.

But why even speak here about sacrificing for one’s friends? What about the idea that a soldier killed in war dies for his country?

 

But why even speak here about sacrificing for one’s friends? What about the idea that a soldier killed in war dies for his country? That message was immortalized by the Roman poet Horace, before Jesus was born: “Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori.” Sweet and proper it is to die for one’s country. That motto has a long history, and is inscribed over the rear entrance to the Arlington Memorial Amphitheater—designed in 1913 and built in 1920. By the time the Peace Cross was built in 1925, however, the saying had lost some appeal, due to the horrors of World War I recounted in Wilfred Owen’s poem titled (sarcastically) “Dulce et Decorum Est.” The poem was circulated privately in 1918, shortly before Owen himself was killed in the war, and published in book form in 1920. After describing a fellow soldier’s ghastly death from a chlorine gas attack, he writes to an imagined friend that if he or she had witnessed this,

My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.

Owen originally dedicated the poem specifically to the poet Jessie Pope, who had propagandized in favor of the war, but later thought better of this.

As a symbol of noble sacrifice the ancient motto is also somewhat tainted by its original source. Horace was essentially a court poet to Caesar Augustus, writing to inspire Romans to do their emperor’s bidding and defeat the Parthians or be considered abject cowards. Perhaps a bit harshly, John Dryden called Horace “a well-mannered court slave.” In any case he lived in a pagan society which considered the state as having broad authority over the lives of its citizens, not having heard the Christian message about the unique and unrepeatable dignity of each individual made in the image and likeness of God.

In a society that has embraced the dignity and rights of the individual, the claims of a nation may seem a distant and abstract value compared to the sacrifice of individual human lives—especially when the war is justified not by the survival of that nation, but by broader considerations of long-term interest or respect for treaties with other nations, as in World War I.

And in fact, soldiers who have faced battle know this very well. In his book We Were Soldiers Once . . . and Young, Lt. Gen. Harold Moore, who led the first major U.S. combat mission against North Vietnamese insurgents in the Ia Drang Valley in 1965, acknowledged love of country as one kind of love that led him and others to join the Army. He then says:

Another and far more transcendent love came to us unbidden on the battlefields, as it does on every battlefield in every war man has ever fought. We discovered in that depressing, hellish place, where death was our constant companion, that we loved each other. We killed for each other, we died for each other, and we wept for each other. And in time we came to love each other as brothers. In battle our world shrank to the man on our left and the man on our right and the enemy all around. We held each other’s lives in our hands. . . .

Soldiers of any faith or no faith, including Thomas and his friends in the Army, have experienced this more transcendent love. Yet the pagan world prior to Christianity could make little sense of it. That world’s two great treatises on friendship come to us from the Greek philosopher Aristotle, in Book Eight of his Nicomachean Ethics, and the Roman orator and statesman Cicero, in his essay “On Friendship.” But Aristotle treats a good man’s willingness to die for his friends or his country simply as an elevated kind of enlightened self-interest, because “he would prefer a short period of intense pleasure to a long one of mild enjoyment, a twelvemonth of noble life to many years of humdrum existence, and one great and noble action to many trivial ones” (1169a20 et seq.). Aristotle says such a man is benefiting himself more than the friend. And Cicero, though he is credited with having a more idealistic idea of friendship than other Roman writers, asks: “Where on earth are you going to find anybody who will be keener to advance his friend’s career than his own?” Someone who is willing to value a friend more than himself, he says, is “almost superhuman.”

It is in Christian accounts that we find this kind of love honored, not as a noble kind of selfishness, nor as superhuman, but as a pattern for human life. In paragraph 86 of his great encyclical The Gospel of Life, Pope St. John Paul II says of great acts of heroism:

These are the most solemn celebration of the Gospel of life, for they proclaim it by the total gift of self. They are the radiant manifestation of the highest degree of love, which is to give one’s life for the person loved (cf. Jn 15:13). They are a sharing in the mystery of the Cross, in which Jesus reveals the value of every person, and how life attains its fullness in the sincere gift of self.

Christians hold that we are created to love as Christ does, and Christ’s example brings this innate meaning of our own lives to its fullness. But a non-believer can recognize the cross of Jesus, the ultimate “man for others,” as a paradigm instance of the “gift of self” that transcends secular calculations of our self-interest.

This self-sacrificing love of friends, than which there is no greater love: Is it religious or secular? In my view it joins the ranks of other key values that are most compellingly found in a religious, especially Christian, account of human life. Others include the idea of marriage as a bond parted only by death (an idea that Jesus insisted on, rebuking even Moses’ accommodation to people’s “hardness of heart”), the unconditional love of parents for their young children as their equals in human dignity (Jesus’ example of “letting the little children come to me” departed from the prevailing Jewish view of that time that children were to be seen but not heard, and turned upside down the pagan idea that the head of the family could treat them as disposable property), the idea of innate and unalienable human rights, arising from (one could almost say dumbed-down from) the idea that God created each and every one of us out of boundless love.

These ideas have a religious origin. If cut completely free from their religious roots, as many try to do in our society, they weaken and may die. Yet precisely by putting us in touch with the sacred, with a perception of reality that transcends our day-to-day existence, they give human life its meaning and make our “secular” civilization possible—especially if it is to be a civilization of valor, endurance, courage, and devotion. It would be a good thing for this to be more fully recognized in our culture, perhaps even in our laws.

A version of this paper was presented at a November 2019 conference sponsored by the University of Notre Dame’s de Nicola Center for Ethics and Culture, “I Have Called You Friends.”

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