I stand by the response I wrote to my friend about pacifism in my previous post, especially the parts about not forming a "canon within the canon" of Scripture and sensitivity to both the personal and the social consequences of the Bible's ethical teaching, which sometimes coexist in paradox. However, I wrote the response to my friend months ago, a bit before I attended my latest Doctor of Ministry residency, an experience which unsettled my confidence on this issue.
But before I talk about that experience, I need to sketch background by describing my personal journey of understanding and evaluating the American Civil War.
I'll never forget my 5th-grade teacher giving me her weighty copy of The American Heritage Picture History of the Civil War,
which I still treasure. As a boy my excited thoughts on the Civil War
were simple and predictable. War was glorious and thrilling. And the
Union forces were the good guys for straightforward reasons: (1) they
were from the North, like me; (2) what they did freed slaves; (3) they
won. Then and through Ken Burns' awesome documentary a few years later,
the war was fun for me. The good guys prevailed against an honorable
I dropped the subject for a long time, picking it up again as a young
adult. My perspective had changed. Suffused with political theory as I
had become, the war seemed to me a tragic bloodbath over rival
constitutional truths, a sweet tension between the One and the Many
delicately arranged by our Founders turned into a tug-of-war and
wrenched to one out-of-balance pole not by reason but by force. A war
that in one way nobody won . . . except for slaves, who didn't in fact
really win for another hundred years or more.
Now I'm back at it again, older still. I am doing a doctoral thesis on an abolitionist active during the Civil War, and research has propelled me into the war and its causes at much greater breadth and depth than I have ever looked at it before. In my study over the last year I found myself taken out of what I thought was my
mature balance, thoughtfulness, seeing-all-sides-of-the-question and
sent back to my childhood. The magnitude of slavery, the true, deep,
often invisible rottenness of it, and the extent of its tentacles
suffused through American life in all states, in all classes, has
staggered me. Now,
despite my sympathy for soldiers on all sides, despite my loss of
youthful bravado and my fear of war, despite my realist's appraisal of
the impurities in the Union cause . . . if I was suddenly transported
back to 1861, I would enlist under the United States flag in a second.
At least, that's what I thought before my last residency. My cohort is composed of a healthy mix of Northerners and Southerners (with a Canadian and a Korean to boot) who love each other dearly and who have very different takes on the war. We are more intimate friends now than when we started our program, and at our last residency our subject matter took us closer to the Civil War era. There was some good-natured banter about nomenclature—is it "The Civil War" (or "The War of the Great Rebellion") or "The War between the States" (or "The War of Northern Aggression")?—but there was an edge that you could feel under the joking, an edge that sometimes emerged into serious (and, thank God, peaceable) conversations.
It was here that I was forced to confront something that my friend X pointed out in his message to me weeks before. If I know a believer who is my brother in Christ, with whom I have shared sweet fellowship, with whom I have prayed and worshiped and embraced and even wept, how could I go into battle with the possibility that I could intentionally slay him? It is unthinkable. No matter how wrong he is in his political convictions it is difficult to imagine any justification for personally putting a Christian brother to death because of it.
But that experience of fellowship with a Christian brother is just an outworking of the union we have with Christ and with each other in Christ. We would have that union whether we had ever met or not. That means that even if the men across the field from me were total strangers, if any of them were born from above in Christ then we have that very same union that it would be ghastly to strain by purposely killing each other.
Three days ago I stood on the ridge where the first shot was fired in the Battle of Gettysburg exactly 150 years before. 150 years ago thousands of men, most of them professing Christians, slaughtered each other on those fields and woods and hillsides. I believe that the war was a pitiable, tragic shame though I also believe in my bones that the Union cause was right, if not without flaw. But would I really have shot or bayoneted or clubbed to death an anonymous Christian brother for it? Would I have endured the terror of impending death in the roar and smoke and sprayed blood and shattered bones, eyes fixed in fear and rage on my enemy, only to suddenly, in the blink of an eye, find myself dumbstruck in the blazing throne room of Almighty God looking at the very man I had just killed, who had also just killed me?
The day after the battle both sides remembered that exactly four score and seven years before a group of revolutionary leaders ratified the text of America's Declaration of Independence. Both sides believed they were fighting to secure the result of that revolution. I think about the earlier struggle in much the same way as I do the Civil War. I believe that the principles of the Declaration are right, that they elevated a revolt against paying taxes into a moral stand worth taking and a cause worth fighting and dying for. But would I have bayoneted an unknown Christian Englishman or attacked my Christian, Loyalist neighbors for it?
The dilemma is this: if I believe that a cause is just, but I refuse on principle to fight for it, then do I really believe that the cause is just for anyone to fight for it? But if no one fights for it, then how will the government do its duty to uphold justice?