Of God and Generals
By Audrey Stallsmith
We watched part of PBS’s Civil War documentary recently and I was struck by a comment about Robert E. Lee, to the effect that good men do the most damage. They can, in fact, inspire more loyalty than other men do. Would the Civil War have lasted as long as it did--and caused as many casualties--if Lee hadn’t been leading the Confederate side? Probably not.
But was Lee truly a good man? That’s hard to say at this late date. Although Lee wasn’t enthusiastic about Virginia’s secession, he reportedly felt honor-bound to defend his state. But, if secession wasn’t the right thing to do, what would make defending it honorable? In fact, for a military man leading rebels is treason, a far from honorable stance.
I’m guessing Lee’s position was simply an example of the old “My country, right or wrong” philosophy. Only, in his case, it was “My state, right or wrong.” This betrays the much larger brotherhood to which all Christians belong, where Christ is our commander and what he wants from us is more important than regional or national loyalties
Also, if Lee was a good man--reportedly a devout Episcopalian--how could he support the institution of slavery? According to R. E. Lee, a biography by Douglas Freeman, the Confederate general held “the prevailing view among most religious people of Lee's class in the border states. They believed that slavery existed because God willed it and they thought it would end when God so ruled.”
That sounds more like fatalism than Christianity to me! The New Testament makes it clear that Christians are now God’s hands in the world and part of our responsibility is to right injustice. Even the Old Testament was quite unequivocal that “A kidnapper must be killed, whether he is caught in possession of his victim or has already sold him as a slave.” (Exodus 22:16 TLB) And the traders who supplied the south with slaves were either kidnappers themselves or bought from kidnappers.
Of course, there are other Old Testament verses which--contradictorily--give rules for slavery. I’m guessing that, like divorce, the practice only was allowed “in recognition of your hard and evil hearts, but it was not what God had originally intended.” (Matthew 19:8 TLB)
The north’s hero, Ulysses S. Grant, came across as much less of a gentleman than Lee. He wasn’t particularly religious, drank too much, looked a bit on the scruffy side, and was a failure in almost everything he did except the military. His failures apparently included the presidency, since he seemed unable to control the corrupt elements in his administration.
Yet, as one long accustomed to things not going his way, Grant didn’t let occasional setbacks during the war discombobulate him but kept plugging away as he’d had to do all his life. Once he’d finally won, he insisted on forgiving his enemies and did his best to implement policies that assured freedom to everyone. He acted, in other words, much more Christian than some of the Christians did.
Although we may believe we are much kinder and more humane people in the 21st century than we were in the 19th century or Biblical times, we need only look at the depredations of Isis to see how close Old Testament type brutality still is. All that staves it off is true Christian principles—the idea that, as Paul wrote, “We are no longer Jews or Greeks or slaves or free men or even merely men or women, but we are all the same--we are Christians; we are one in Christ Jesus." (Galatians 3:28 TLB)