When We Worry About Our Persecutors

A few weeks ago, the image of Charleston shooter Dylann Roof standing in his cell with two armed guards behind him was live-streamed to the courtroom occupied by the family, which was in turn broadcasted to news networks. Something kind of amazing happened. The teary-faced family members forgave him, and in fact said that they were worried about him. Why should they be worried about the rotten-to-the-core white supremacist that just murdered their loved ones?

“I pray God on your soul,” said the sister of one of the victims.

There’s actually some kind of symmetry in this scenario, even if it doesn’t initially look like it makes any sense. If the trick to being being a good person is to do more good things than bad things, Roof has an astronomically negative balance, approximating the national debt of the United States. So if anyone’s soul is in need of prayers, it’s Dylann Roof’s.

Before he committed the massacre, Dylann Roof took pictures of himself posing with the Confederate flag (actually the second Confederate Navy Jack, but whatever) which led to a wave of vandalism with text reading “black lives matter” over memorials honoring the Confederate dead. A more polite kind of iconoclasm came in the form of calls to remove Confederate monuments and rename landmarks.

The monument in the header image of this post, Spirit of the Confederacy, was one of the targets. It depicts an angel carrying away a defeated and dying Confederate soldier, who appears to need help standing. the base inscribed with the words “Gloria Victis,” which means “Glory to the vanquished.” It’s an uplifting reassurance that even the dead who fought on the wrong side were cared for and granted immortality.

The average Confederate soldier was just a normal person. Maybe some of them owned slaves, but not many. Most were just average dudes who on one side of a brutal conflict.

But let’s say that they were mustache-twirling villains. Even then, shouldn’t we take a hint from the families of the Charleston massacre victims and hope for the best for our persecutors? That they find themselves in a place of beauty and love?

We don’t (or shouldn’t) go to war because we love the the enemy’s suffering. It’s a savage mindset to think that the losers of a war need to be crushed, destroyed and humiliated with their memories shat on. This kind of ruthless militarism is what needs to be consigned to the trash heap of history, not the memorials of our fallen enemies. Puritanical ideology brings out all kinds of heartless impulses.

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In the middle of writing this I came across a post on First Things about a sculpture of Saint Joan, entitled The Pieta of Joan of Arc.

It shows the heroine holding the head of her dying enemy in her lap, comforting him as a sister. It’s based on a real moment which had eyewitness accounts. When she saw her French comrades mortally strike this English prisoner, who was too poor to be ransomed, she rushed to him summoning a priest to perform last rites.

The scene is lovingly described by Mark Twain in his book on Joan of Arc—a work which few know that he wrote and even fewer that it was his favorite of all his books. One particular passage from it evokes so wonderfully the sculpture in Ft. Drum:

Toward the end of the day I came upon her where the dead and dying lay stretched all about in heaps and winrows; our men had mortally wounded an English prisoner who was too poor to pay a ransom, and from a distance she had seen that cruel thing done; and had galloped to the place and sent for a priest, and now she was holding the head of her dying enemy in her lap, and easing him to his death with comforting soft words, just as his sister might have done; and the womanly tears running down her face all the time.

Twain’s narrative of Joan’s unbiased compassion towards this enemy was in fact the initial inspiration for this commission. Fr. Cerrone felt Joan’s actions were emblematic of her selfless integrity in war in general and her prioritization of the spiritual salvation of everyone involved. Because it was a gift to all of Fort Drum, it was decided that the sculpture would be situated in a main entrance hallway, rather than the sanctuary of the chapel itself or the smaller Catholic chapel. The sculpture is flanked by large quotes by Generals McArthur and Patton about moral courage and integrity in war. Every day, it acts as a reminder of heroic compassion to soldiers and officers of the 10th Mountain Division, one of the most deployed divisions in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. To soldiers, then, who have often faced an enemy with little respect for internationally prescribed moral standards in war, Balan’s Pieta upholds the inherent worthiness of those moral laws which protect the dignity of each life.

Still, in focusing on her military and moral legacy apart from her religiosity we only scratch the surface both of her character and of the sculpture’s intended meaning. Joan’s is a story of a humble young girl who received divine visions directing her to do everything for which we still celebrate her. Many people today, Christians included, would sense a contradiction between Joan’s mystical saintliness and her sword. Outside of the places of worship, all public spheres are increasingly emptied of even rhetorical appeal to Judeo-Christian morality, and the military is no exception. We cling to lingering mores and uphold certain virtues, but as we lose their underpinnings, we lose the supernatural strength needed to live them out as this famous heroine did.

…These layers of symbolism in Balan’s Pieta reveal that what truly sets Joan’s moral integrity apart as “holy” is how much it embraced vulnerability and forgiveness. This kind of heroism does not necessarily involve victory; it very often might mean accepting loss. We know that Joan embraces this vulnerability because she refuses to deny her beliefs even with full knowledge of the consequences and because she forgives her persecutors at her death. Her forgiveness of this one, anonymous Englishman hints to her future pardon of all those who condemned her.

Why aren’t we allowed to deal with the Civil War with this same kind of gravitas? Our civil religion of “Union good, Confederate bad” isn’t an argument.

The Civil War was largely fought over the dignity inherent to human beings, but there are grave costs to war that we can easily forget about when we’re basking in the comfort of its favorable victory. The value of the lives of people, even those who are morally and politically in the wrong, is something that should never be minimized or forgotten. But maybe this is what happens when we replace real religion, with its actual moral underpinnings to temper our impulses to hate and hurt, with civil religion, which tells us that only the victors can be good guys worthy of our concern.

Updated: October 9, 2020 — 7:52 am
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