“Nothing But Honor”

Elevating honor as a guiding principle can yield personal and cultural greatness. However, obsessing on honor for purposes of personal pride can poison relationships and cripple a cause. The American Civil War presents us with a riveting case-study for this humbling dynamic.

First, some fiction. In the movie “Gone With the Wind,” we heard this exchange:

Scarlet O’Hara: “Take me away with you. There is nothing to keep us here.”

Ashley Wilkes: “Nothing but honor.”

Wilkes was refusing a tempting offer to leave his wife. His honor stood as the last remaining defense against indecency.

The culture that gave rise to the Civil War revered honor. Many great men and moments rose from this reverence. But it also allowed dangerous vices to thrive under a cloak of honor.

When Abraham Lincoln was elected in 1860, the animosity between the North and South was epic. Did this passionate divide prevent in-fighting in each opposing camp? No. Acrimony was intense among political factions in the South and in General Robert E. Lee’s high command. The North was no different. Lincoln faced political chaos in Washington and insubordination from his high command. Many officers on both sides feuded throughout the war over questions of honor.

Union General George McClellan (1826 –1885) had an ego that far outpaced his abilities on the field. He once snubbed his Commander-in-Chief making Lincoln wait and then just going to bed. He privately referred to Lincoln as “nothing more than a well-meaning baboon,” and “unworthy” of his high position. Unduly cautious, he kept losing to inferior numbers and making excuses. Later Union generals, often under pressure from Lincoln, were reckless with the lives of soldiers, many of whom perished senselessly in a blaze of “honorable” glory. Meanwhile, tension and bitterness pervaded the Union high command as the pecking order constantly shifted. Gen. Burnside (famous for his sideburns) disliked Gen. Hooker who conspired against Burnside to replace him. General Pope sustained a serious defeat at the Second Battle of Bull Run and found a scapegoat in Gen. Porter. In the end, Lincoln went through five highly problematic military commands to finally win the war.

On the Confederate side, Gen. Joe Johnston (1807 –1891) was, as one historian put it, “morbidly jealous” of Lee. He was obsessed with rank and feuded bitterly with the thin-skinned Confederate President Jefferson Davis.

Gen. A. P. Hill (1825-1865) was touchy on matters of personal honor. In 1862, he engaged in public arguments with James Longstreet over who deserved the most credit at the Battle of Glendale. Longstreet placed Hill under arrest for insubordination and there was talk of a duel. Lee intervened and transferred Hill and his “Light Division” to Stonewall Jackson’s Army of the Shenandoah. Soon, Hill clashed with Jackson over marching orders and Jackson had Hill arrested and charged. Lee intervened again, trying to get his officers to see a bigger picture. Later, Hill sought a court of inquiry against Gen. Ambrose Wright. Again, Lee intervened reminding Hill that Wright was not a professional solider but a politician who left the safety of his office for duty on the field. He told Hill not to humiliate Wright and make the best with the officers he had. After all, that’s what Lee did twice with Hill.

Robert E. Lee was an exceptional leader, able to transcend the squabbling in his ranks to stay focused on the larger mission. When the war began, Lee explained his loyalty to Virginia saying: “I would sacrifice anything but honor to save Virginia.” In the end, he could not do it. He led countless young soldiers to early graves fighting valiantly for a “lost cause.” Near the war’s end, many Confederates regarded surrender as dishonorable and clamored for guerilla warfare in the hills. Seeing a bigger picture, Lee followed a deeper sense of honor and surrendered at Appomattox. Union Gen. Ulysses S. Grant, known for brutal tactics in war, treated Lee honorably and took care to ensure that the terms of surrender would be as honorable as possible for both sides. After the war, Confederate leaders engaged in a war of words to spin the causes and effects of the war they lost. The “Lost Cause” narrative finessed the role of slavery and focused on “state’s rights” as the primary cause. This ignores the secession speeches in 1860 claiming slavery as the cornerstone of civilization. The “Lost Cause” writers were often more concerned with the South’s honor than reporting the full truth.

Many officers cited above were the cream of the crop. Their skills and virtues distinguished them for significant service. I focused on their vices to illustrate that notions of honor can yield mixed results. It led to high levels of loyalty and courage worthy of our admiration. It also fostered low levels of folly as egos postured for glory. Most virtues rise out of a duel between competing passions and priorities. Forces inside us all are caught up in a dance for dominance. Real love must take the lead over lust, honor over pride, courage over bravado, humility over timidity, liberty over license, justice over legalism, hope for wishful thinking, patience over procrastination and so on. Every virtue has a counterfeit double that is easily mistaken for the real thing.

Fear and Faith

If Halloween is a celebration, then what are we celebrating? Judging by the cute skeletons, goblins, ghosts and grave-yard symbols on our doors, windows and walls, it’s fear and death. Maybe it’s our attempt to laugh at death. Perhaps it rose out of the homage we pay to death with winter looming near.

Either way, millions of Halloween celebrants will be looking for ways to scare and be scared—all in fun. They will decorate their homes and bodies with symbols of fear and death. Some will send their children into the streets in disguises to threaten neighbors with a “trick” if they refuse to offer up a “treat.” Again, it’s all in fun.

I support fun. I also support facing our fears head on. We should do this every day of the year, not just October 31. And the pursuit of fun should not stop us.

The Bible recognizes fear as a prominent feature of faith. The Psalmist sings:

  • “Worship the LORD with reverence and rejoice with trembling.” (Psalm 2:11).
  • “Surely His salvation is near to those who fear Him.” (Psalm 85:9)
  • “The Lord reigns, let the peoples tremble.” (Psalm 99:1).
  • “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.” (Ps 111:10)

Jesus recognized a healthy kind of fear. He taught, “Do not fear those who kill the body but are unable to kill the soul; but rather fear Him who is able to destroy both soul and body in hell.” (Matthew 10:28).

So, God’s word faces fear head on. It affirms faith-filled fear and blasts faithless fear to kingdom come. The phrase, “fear not” pervades its pages. King David prayed, “The Lord is my light and my salvation; Whom shall I fear?” (Psalm 17:1).

Old hymns, written in tougher times, are good at turning fear into faith. In 1887, Jesse Brown Pounds wrote:

    “Anywhere with Jesus I can go to sleep,
    When the dark’ning shadows round abut me creep,
    Knowing I shall waken never more to roam,
    Anywhere with Jesus will be home sweet home.”

It was Jesus who faced death fearlessly and took the sting right out of it. Because of the cross, Paul could preach, “Death is “swallowed up in victory!” (1 Corinthians 15:54). Paul had the ultimate answer to Halloween:

    “For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Romans 8:38-39)

Fifteen centuries later, Martin Luther echoed that theme in his song, A Mighty Fortress is Our God:

    “And though this world with demons filled,
    Should threaten to undo us.
    We will not fear for God hath willed,
    His truth to triumph through us!”

Here’s a scary thought: Had Jesus bypassed the cross and lived for himself, death would still be in charge, demanding the final word over us all. Fear of the faithless kind would reign and Halloween would be all too real.


By the way, October 31st is also the day Martin Luther nailed his 95 Theses (protests) to the door of the Wittenburg castle church in Germany in 1517. Happy Reformation Day this October 31st.

Resting in Peace
(Visiting Civil War Battlefields)

Civil War battlefields stir our souls, humble our hearts and muddy our minds. I know because I recently visited battlefields at Harper’s Ferry, Manassas, Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville, Spotsylvania, Antietam, Richmond and Gettysburg. Wow!

Old battlefields are among the most peaceful places you can visit. The tall grass sways winsomely in the breeze. Rustic crooked wooden fences define the boundaries. Noble monuments stand still and silent. Old barns feature bullet and cannon ball holes forever unrepaired. Visitors are not in a hurry. The notion that we are treading on the bones of countless long gone soldiers who perished in a blaze of violence somehow multiplies that feeling of peace. The word reverence applies.

Monument to the 45th Pennsylvania Volunteers at Antietam, Maryland.
Many stone and bronze monuments dot the landscape. They tell powerful stories and stand as vestiges of a time when artists labored to portray honor rather than horror. Yet we know that both honor and horror were woven together in the tragic stories that inspired each monument. But the vast majority of stories that played out on that field long ago will never be told, heard or fully understood.

The deafening sounds of countless gun shots, bullets whizzing by, canon fire, boots on the ground (for those lucky enough to have boots), desperate commands, rebel yells and trumpet blasts have all faded into the distant past. So have the haunting moans and groans of the wounded and dying after the battle. So have most of the hopes and dreams that died here.

Yet, a patriotic visitor can still somehow hear those sounds. The peace one senses from grass swaying, leaves rustling and birds singing is unforgettable, and yet, incomplete. Questions keep ringing in your mind.

Most visitors want to hear about the troop movements, the casualty counts, the heroics, the “what ifs,” the profiles of great leaders, the blame games and more. We ask which side was outnumbered. When we learn which side won, we wonder what winning actually meant. Was slavery worth all this? Was slavery really the point? We presume to second-guess the motives of the main players. We judge the strategies in hindsight, with no bullets blazing past our heads. The horrendous statistics you hear from guides or see on plaques just cannot land in a comfortable place in your mind. Yet you want more.

You go to the Battlefield Visitor’s Center and see black and white photographs of the same fields you just toured. Instead of the beautiful green landscape that gave you such peace, you see decaying bodies piled up on each other. You cannot put those two pictures together in your mind no matter how hard you try.

You realize that statistics don’t really count. Photographs don’t tell the full story. Famous quotes and speeches inspire, but you fail to get a good grip on the real context. That entire world is long gone. You feel anger and awe at the same time. Your brain is spinning and your heart is broken for people you never knew.

Suddenly, you realize the rest of your group is waiting for you in the van and they are hungry for lunch!

Life goes on.

Editors Note: All pictures in this post are taken by Joel. Please enjoy the photo gallery below as much as I did.

Battlefield of First Manassas (Bull Run); July, 1861). Here, Union Colonel James Cameron, brother of U.S. Secretary of War Simon Cameron, was killed in action. His brother Simon was among the crowd of spectators who came out from Washington, D.C. to picnic on the high ground and witness the battle from afar.

Battlefield at First Manassas (Bull Run). Monument to Stonewall Jackson in the distance, near where he got his famous nickname for holding ground against the Federals.

The Sunken Road, Battle of Fredericksburg (Dec. 13, 1862). 3,000 Confederate infantrymen lined up here and decimated the charging Union forces who lost 8,000 trying to overtake this wall.

Burnside’s Bridge at the Antietam National Battlefield (Maryland) where some 500 Confederate soldiers from Georgia held off repeated attempts by the Federals to take the bridge on September 17, 1862. The Battle at Antietam was the bloodiest single day in American military history and much of the blood was spilled here.

Battleground outside the Dunker Church, Antietam, September, 2014.

Battleground outside the Dunker Church, Antietam, September, 1862.

Monument to Maj. Gen. Gouverneur Warren who graduated 2nd in his West Point class of 1850. On July 2, 1863, he recognized the importance of holding Little Round Top just in time. His quick action may have been the difference at Gettysburg.

1st Pennsylvania Cavalry (sculptor: H.J. Ellicott). A soldier at ready (Gettysburg).

Holy Moly Matrimony

Here are your new thought rules:

  • Marriage is generally whatever anyone wants it to be (so long as politicians, lawyers or judges can be found to back them up) between consenting adults who feel like they are in love. It’s called, “marriage equality.” No one can be excluded.
  • Humans, like animals, don’t have any real moral choice about how they love or which gender they are drawn to. They just think and act on pure instinct and/or biological programming when it comes to sexual attitudes, attractions, proclivities and pursuits.
  • Public elementary school curriculums must change to reflect the new rules.

Any questions? Actually, I have a few:

  • Does “marriage equality” require marriage to be anything anyone wants it to be? If not, what limits or inequities are you willing to support; when, where, who, how and why? Too much thinking? Sorry, let’s move on.
  • Should gender have anything at all to do with our definition of marriage? Do we need any definition at all? Of course, under the new gender-free rules, “fatherhood” and “motherhood” must yield to “whateverhood.”
  • Should 55 people be free to “marry” if they so please? How about five? Three? Should marriage laws be like speed limit laws just to keep us safe?
  • Should we also respect bisexual marriage rights? If so, each consenting bisexual “spouse” would need to have a partner from both genders with which to alternate. And the other “loving” bisexual partners would also need multiple choices. Or is “holy matrimony” only for homosexuals and heterosexuals, thus discriminating against bisexuals?
  • Isn’t it a bit dehumanizing to claim that we have no choice in our attitudes, habits, identities, influences and inclinations regarding sexuality? Maybe we can explain the sexual orientations of dogs, cats and lab rats by saying they are “born that way,” but not human beings. Are we free moral agents or mere products of programmed forces that control us inside and out?

My Declaration of Independence:

As multiple definitions of marriage “evolve,” such terms as “husband”, “wife”, “father”, “mother”, “grandfather” and “grandmother” will become less meaningful. The state of California has already passed measures to cleanse public documents from such allegedly horrific and hateful terms. Moral ‘make-it-up-as-u-go-ism’ is the new wave.

Actually, definition is necessary for meaning to exist. Holy matrimony is the willing union between one man and one woman. Thus, “marriage equality” and “holy matrimony” cannot co-exist. Holy means “set apart” or “unique.” Its’ inherent boundaries are sacred. “Anything goes” is anti-holy. Jesus defined marriage, “from the beginning,” as two (male and female) becoming one. Then He added, “What God has joined together, let no man separate.” (Matthew 19:4-6). Now that’s holy!

I hereby declare my holy independence from the new thought rules of today.

Spiritual Alzheimer’s

How important is memory? Could you have an identity without it? Could you enjoy old relationships? Could you develop new ones? Without a memory, is it possible to cultivate such traits as trust or gratitude? No, no and no. You could live forever in the moment, but is that living?

Memory loss is nothing anyone in their right mind would choose. Alzheimer’s disease is a memory killer, profoundly tragic and painful for its victims and those who love them. First, it causes confusion, mood swings, irritability and even aggression. It hinders speech and victims may lose control of their bodily functions. The short-term memory goes first and long-term memory is not far behind. It destroys one’s ability to think. It is a slow death sentence. The average life expectancy upon diagnosis is seven years. The burden on care-givers over this time is great and it must be done largely on a one-way-street. Alzheimer’s is degenerative and there is no known cure.

Let’s take the next step. When a nation loses its memory, it also loses its identity and purpose as a people. It spirals into chaos, strife and ingratitude. Citizens live for no higher a cause than themselves or their group. Living for momentary satisfaction, we idolize leaders who tickle our ears with haphazard promises. Suffering from national Alzheimer’s, we lose touch with a candidate’s history. We support whoever makes us feel better. Forgetting the past, we re-elect leaders who run up debts beyond the reach of our children and grandchildren. Such nations face a slow death.

    English author George Orwell (1903 –1950) once said, “The most effective way to destroy people is to deny and obliterate their own understanding of their history.”
    The brave and outspoken Russian author, Alexander Solzhenitsyn (1918 – 2008), wrote, “To destroy a people you must first sever their roots.”

What about Jesus’ church? Do we need a good memory? Should we strive to remember and understand our past? Or, should we just live in the moment?

These questions sound theoretical but they are huge. Every time the church takes the Lord’s Supper, we enrich our main memory. But it can’t stop there. Ignorance of church history (our story ) leaves Christians in a state of historical and spiritual “Alzheimer’s.” Lacking a good memory, we end up with a poor sense of God at work in the world over time. This diminishes our gratitude for our forebears. Far worse, it undermines our trust in God and cultivates a loss of meaning and purpose for our lives together and our role in the world.

Forgetful faith is oxymoronic and cannot stay strong for long. The worship of God in both testaments of the Bible is often described as a collective call to remember God’s marvelous deeds. Keeping our covenant with God involves the lifelong discipline of remembering His blessings and purposes. Can you articulate what they are?

Remembering is the root system for faith. Don’t let yours die.