Unity, not uniformity

One of my daily devotionals included a story last week that was new to me. It’s perfectly fitting for a Memorial Day weekend post. It shared the story of “The Four Chaplains.” A Catholic priest, a rabbi and two protestant pastors, the four were aboard the USAT (United States Army Transport) Dorchester in the early morning hours of February 3, 1943, when a German U-boat torpedo ripped through her engine room. The ship, retrofitted from a commercial cruise ship, was transporting almost 900 others who would either die on impact shortly after or find themselves in the icy waters of the North Atlantic.

Despite their diverse faith backgrounds, they banded together, literally, and figuratively, to sacrificially serve others onboard. Many survivors would tell stories of the quartet’s selflessness: surrendering their own life jackets to those who needed one, giving away their gloves and being pretty much everywhere on the deck where they could help someone. Numerous witnesses reported that the chaplains locked arms, sang hymns and prayed as the ship sank.

The devotional I read shared their story as an example of the others before self life to which Jesus calls us. And it is. But I believe it is more than that. The Four Chaplains Memorial Foundation has as its mission statement: “to further the cause of ‘unity without uniformity’ by encouraging goodwill and cooperation among all people.” President Harry S. Truman said in his speech at the dedication of the chapel of the Four Chaplains on February 3, 1951: “This interfaith shrine…will stand through long generations to teach Americans that as men can die heroically as brothers so should they live together in mutual faith and goodwill.”

Methodist Pastor, Chaplain George L. Fox; Rabbi, Chaplain Alexander Goode; Reformed Church in America Pastor, Chaplain Clark Poling; and Father, Chaplain John Patrick Washington, set aside theological differences and diverse backgrounds to spend the last moments of their lives exclusively in the service of others. They were men of God who didn’t need any man to issue them orders to know what to do in that moment.

With so much dividing us today, this Memorial Day weekend is a fitting time to remember them and remember that unity need not mean uniformity. That is especially true of brothers and sisters in Christ. Let us not be divided by doctrinal differences but instead be united by Christ at the cross. Let us cling to the words the Apostle Paul wrote 20 centuries ago:

Therefore, remember that formerly you who are Gentiles by birth and called “uncircumcised” by those who call themselves “the circumcision” (which is done in the body by human hands)— remember that at that time 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 by the blood of Christ. Ephesians 2:11-13 (NIV)

Paul was making it clear that it was no longer just Jews who were God’s chosen people. Salvation through Jesus Christ was available to all willing to receive it, and without adhering to “the circumcision” and other Jewish laws. Yet, Christian churches today are divided by much: politics, specific doctrine and old disputes.

Let us this Memorial Day follow the example of the four Chaplains, three Christians and a Jew, who didn’t give a thought to their differences. They were not uniform, but they were united in the cause of serving others under the God of Abraham.

We can unite in love without compromising what we believe, regardless of what belief system it is that divides us. Let us honor all who gave all in the service of their country by remembering that and living it out every day.

There are many remembrances and memorials honoring the Four Chaplains that can be found around the United States. You can learn about them and more about these four men at ArmyHistory.org and Wikipedia.

— Pastor Jerry Bader

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