"Those who fail to learn from history are condemned to repeat it,” British statesman Winston Churchill observed back in 1948. The warning remains important today and it’s fitting to keep in mind as we commemorate another Memorial Day, honoring those who have given their lives defending our nation in war.
Some older Americans still remember when it was called “Decoration Day,” because of being a time to honor the war dead by decorating their graves with flowers. Regardless of how we mark this annual observance, it’s important to call to memory the many thousands of lives of men and women who sacrificed through numerous wars so we can still enjoy freedoms we so easily take for granted.
Sadly, there are factions of our society that want to rewrite history, erasing times and events they find distasteful or offensive, and re-envisioning the past as they would like it to be told. In my view this is problematic on many levels, but within the context of this day we should hearken back to Churchill’s immortal words.
We all can point to regrettable, even terrible moments in America’s past. Take your pick. But to remove them from remembrance, or whitewash them to reframe them into something they were not, imperils us for repeating these hateful times when humanity was functioning at its darkest.
To reinforce this importance, we need look no further than the ancient Israelites, for whom God had performed unimaginable wonders: freeing them from four centuries of slavery in Egypt; parting the Red Sea for them to cross with the Egyptians in hot pursuit; miraculously providing water, then manna and then quail, enough to feed probably more than a million men, women and children for 40 years of wandering.
How could a people forget all of that? And yet, the Scriptures tell us that repeatedly, they did.
Amazingly, it didn’t take the Israelites long to forget how the Lord had blessed them. While still meandering in the wilderness, a consequence of their failure to trust in God’s protective care, Moses admonished them, “Remember how the Lord your God led you all the way in the desert these forty years, to humble you and to test you in order to know what was in your heart, whether or not you would keep his commands…. Your clothes did not wear out and your feet did not swell during these forty years” (Deuteronomy 8:2-5).
Why did Moses issue this warning? Because as he said soon afterward, “Remember this and never forget how you provoked the Lord your God to anger in the desert. From the day you left Egypt until you arrived here, you have been rebellious against the Lord” (Deuteronomy 9:7). We find many similar admonitions by various prophets throughout the Old Testament.
Apparently things didn’t change much even after Jesus Christ’s earthly ministry. How quickly we forget. The apostle Paul had to remind his protégé, Timothy, where to keep his focus as he conducting his own ministry. “Remember Jesus Christ, raised from the dead, descended from David. This is my gospel, for which I am suffering even to the point of being chained like a criminal. But God’s word is not chained…. Keep reminding them of these things” (2 Timothy 2:8-14).
It's important never to forget what the Lord has done in each of our lives, leading us to become part of His eternal family. Writing to followers of Christ in the ancient city of Ephesus, Paul offered this reminder as encouragement: “remember…you were separate from Christ, excluded from citizenship in Israel and foreigners to the covenants of the promise, without hope and without God in the world. But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far away have been brought near through the blood of Christ” (Ephesians 2:12-13).
And it’s critical to remember how God has guided us through hardships and times of adversity in the past to shore up our faith for facing the uncertain future: “Remember those earlier days after you had received the light, when you stood your ground in a great contest in the face of suffering…. So do not throw away your confidence; it will be richly rewarded. You need to persevere so that when you have done the will of God, you will receive what he has promised” (Hebrews 10:32-36).
On Memorial Day, we pause to remember the many who gave their lives on battlefields near and distant so we could be a free people. But for those who call themselves disciples of Jesus, every day is a memorial day for bringing to mind all that He has done for us, what He continues to do, and what He has promised to do in eternity future. We dare not forget.