“You can’t compare men back then to men today. There’s just no comparison.”
So said one of the more compelling Civil War Reenactors I talked to at the “Battle of Waynesboro” in Waynesboro, Virginia last weekend. What he meant was that there was something that the combat veterans of the American Civil War understood, that they were men that had a qualitatively different understanding of life, manhood, strength, and honor than do men today. And frankly, after my brief, but intense, study of this period of history, I tend to agree. As much as I love the men I know, Grant, Lee, Frederick Douglass, James Longstreet, Joshua Chamberlain, the 54th Massachusetts, and all the men in the trenches that didn’t run, but stayed and fought “with honor” seem to me to demonstrate an approach to life that is, in some ways, far superior to what we do today.
I know they were wrong about things, most specifically about race. These men (Frederick Douglass and the 54th Massachusetts excepted), by and large on both sides of the Mason Dixon, could not wrap their heads around the idea that black people, in their humanity, their worth, their potential, and their value on the planet, were not one iota, not “one drop”, different or less than those of white skin color. Why this is true is beyond me really. But it was true. They had this dead wrong.
So how could I suggest that they were somehow living in a better fashion that we are? Again, let me state categorically, so no one misunderstands, that their lack of understanding about the actual meaning of “all men are created equal”, was at best a gross error, and in the worst cases, a heinous evil. So in the context of that error and evil, what am I suggesting that we should learn from these men?
Here’s the question: when it comes to the men you want to travel with, would you rather be running with people who will abandon you, even though they have the right answers to the biggest, most complicated moral and political questions of the day, or would you rather be depending on men who disagree with you about everything, but (given their honest-to-God understanding of the world) who live lives of integrity, honesty, perseverance, humility, and faithfulness, even if it costs them their personal, day-to-day feelings of “happiness” and “comfort?”
Oddly, we often seem to prefer the ones who agree with us, regardless of their character. My study of the Civil War is a personally convicting one, one that is driving me more and more to an uncomfortable place of examination and repentance for my latent idolatry of “feeling good” as in, “How are you today?”
I ran across a piece of writing yesterday that tried to explain a state of mind we civilians simply can’t understand: the military combat code of Honor (and the way this word functions among the military, it deserves to be capitalized). Simply put, honor means you will not abandon your comrade in arms, no matter what fire you are taking, no matter the odds of death, no matter the chances of survival of the man down in front of you. And frankly, I willingly confess this “battle” state of mind is one I have never experienced, and probably never will. Yet the piece also asserts that living in this state of integrity and commitment is a place of intense life and experience. And it makes perfect sense that that would be the case.
Obviously, the fact that this is all taking place as people are killing each other creates a very real irony, but my point is that men that enter into that kind of compact with each other experience something vastly different that they usual negotiations that take place in relationships among us regular folk. The question is very simple: how often do we break our word?
Frankly, its an embarrassing question. We want to say, “Depends on what you mean.” Yet somewhere in our gut we understand exactly what that means.
Jesus said few would find the road to life.
Strange that it would take the study of the American Civil War to make that clearer to me than its ever been.
Don’t hear me advocate for some American yahoo macho militarism–that’s not what I mean. Anyone who knows me knows immediately that’s not what I mean. But war is an apt metaphor for much of life, though I resist it because it’s so awful and so costly. But make no mistake.
So was the cross.
Christ was, among all the other descriptors, a man of honor.
Why do you call me lord…