By Monica, The Lamb Catholic Worker Columbus, Ohio
|The real Desmond Doss|
There is a new movie in theatres called "Hacksaw Ridge" about a World War II conscientious objector, Desmond Doss, who wanted to go into battle and be a medic to save as many lives as he could. He refused to even touch a gun; and ended up saving 75 men by hauling them to safety sometimes under a hail of fire. "By their works you will know them."
His character speaks volumes of what it would look like to follow Christ's "new command" modeling of Christian nonviolence by his refusal to bear arms and kill another, and by others subtleties in the movie. One is trying to save Japanese fallen soldiers as well - a true "mark" of a Christian - of loving our enemy and doing only good to our persecutors.
The sole time in the entire New Testament that Jesus used such strong and clear language that this action "will PROVE that you are sons and daughters of your heavenly Father," was when He gave the "new command" to love your enemies. The only action that Jesus says will be your mark to be "called sons and daughters of your heavenly father" is in the beatitudes when He says, "Blessed are the peacemakers."
That, and the crystal clear role-modeling of Christ and our first Church leaders, are what made our Catholic Church 100% pacifist for the first THREE HUNDRED YEARS. The writings, modeling, and traditions of Jesus, the Apostles, Tertullian, Origen, Maxmillian, St. Justin the Martyr, and others prove this. See Fr. Richard McSorley's book, "The New Testament Basis of Peacemaking."
Desmond's part is as bright as a city on a hill, his actions no different than they would be in heaven, as Christ calls all of us to be in the "Our Father," - "Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done on Earth as it is in Heaven."
While the movie is an eye-opener of the truthful grisliness of actual warfare, which Fr. McSorley emphasized as always "taking on a life of it's own," in horror, evil, and savagery, there is still an uneasiness of Desmond joining in the fray of the barbarism and killing of the enemy all around. It is also an eye-opener to the societal pressures of soldiering and the military as evident in a subtle artfully placed scene of Desmond describing basically how badly young men wanted to prove themselves through this and that a few of those he knew who were rejected by the military killed themselves.
The backdrop of this era would have included unmentioned societal pressure from famous actors and actresses playing numerous military roles in movies, in songs, --- very very glamorous. When a particular society or church glamorizes soldiering, the pressure can be great among the youth.
Another key point is that there were other ways to end World War II. My father always said that there will be no justification in heaven for all the firebombing we did knowing that Japan was going to surrender, nor over the nuclear bombing of Nagasaki - the incineration of the entire city of innocent civilians, the most Catholic city in Japan - after we saw the effects and horror of what we had just done in Hiroshima a couple of days before, with countless innocent women and children.
At the movie's point of the war, the Japanese were now defending their country, and failed to do this in this battle (Okinawa). This explains the Seppuku or Hara-Kiri "honorable" ritualistic Samurai death of the Japanese leader in the tunnels - another unsettling part of the movie involving the glorification of warriors/killers. It was touching of Mel Gibson to include it though, the fact that these people were very similar to ourselves.
Moreover, it is commendable to be willing to die for others, no doubt. Jesus said that there is no greater love than to lay down one's life for one's friend. Laying down one's life and killing many other lives who are someone's brother, son, cousin, friend, nephew, grandson,.. while laying down one's life to do it are two separate things though. Ghandi said, "There is a cause for which I would give my life, but no cause for which I am prepared to kill."
Fr. George Zabelka, the chaplain over those who dropped the bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki spent the rest of his life as a reluctant prophet preaching against being a part of all war, especially because modern war will always involve the nuclear possibility, especially among newer politicians who have said that they have no problem with "nukes."
Our Catechism teaches us to try as hard as possible to avoid war altogether: "Because of the evils and injustices that accompany all war, the Church insistently urges everyone to prayer and action so that the divine Goodness may free us from the ancient bondage of war." (#2307: p. 615, publ 1995).
Desmond's part in World War II is the same dilemma of St. Peter Clavers' help with the slaves and inadvertently the slave owners, at the major port of slave trade, Cartagena, in South America. This was typically their first stop from Africa, and sometimes involved the humiliation of wheeling and dealing for their sale.
It is said that he baptized over 300,000 people in a 40-year span there and took care of their sicknesses, wounds and diseases tenderly, at this first stop for these victims' new future life of slavery. It is not known if he tried hard to stop the slave trade or not, nor if he believed it to be unstoppable and so, wanted to ease immense spiritual and physical human suffering. It appears though, as taking meticulous care of sheep knowing they are being led to the slaughter. While the genuine great care has intrinsic and moral value, being even a small part of the wider machine of what is going on also takes on moral dimensions.
In many ways, it may have made the horrific, barbaric, and evil slave-trade more palpable and justifiable. He spent most of his last days starved and very ill-treated by an ex-slave; and felt he deserved it for his sins. His suffering may be completely unrelated to his actions, as many many saints' end of life suffering is simply to bring them into the cross of Christ. It reminds one though of John Newton, the slave trader shipmaster who wrote "Amazing Grace," after finally coming to realize the grave sin he was committing being even a small part of the slavery industry at all, with its cruelty in the name of greed.
Desmond's father also suffered greatly for his "sins," with severe post-traumatic stress syndrome. I was relieved to see that Gibson had included this as well. He became a much more violent man from having soldiered in World War I, according to Desmond's mother ("If you could have only seen him before..."). What was not included was the extremely high suicide rate of veterans, with 5-7,000 returned veterans from our most recent war in Iraq killing themselves each year.
Yes, great good can be done amidst grave evil, but at what point do you say that you will not be part of the overarching evil of murdering in war itself? Would Jesus have used a gun to kill someone, even an enemy? Would His apostles? Would Jesus have even helped or enabled other people to kill their enemy or would he have stopped them?
What did He say to Peter when he drew His sword? He did not simply say, "Peter, this must be for now for the salvation of the world; I must suffer and die for peoples' sins." He made a sweeping judgment on using the sword at all against another person harmfully -- "Those who live by the sword will die by the sword." Peter was even using it in self-defense, or defense of Christ.
The most touching part of the movie, to me, was how much Desmond read the little Bible his wife Dorothy gave him. My father taught us what his mother taught him - from her Methodist and Catholic convert roots. This was that if we want to know how to be in this world, if we want to always do what is right and always avoid what is truly evil, we need be SURE to always heed two major things. These are: the red print, the words of Christ (that in her Bible were red) and the Ten Commandments.
For the very last part of Advent and hopefully as a yearly tradition, my fervent prayer is that Catholics will take upon themselves to read - within a one- to two-week period - an entire Gospel, to truly truly know what only Christ himself lived, taught, and promoted. It could be during Advent or Lent when we draw ever closer to Jesus, the Word made flesh.
Our understanding sometimes gets very confused with ways of old that He himself contrasted - "before it was to love your countrymen and hate your enemy BUT NOW I say love your enemies..." "Before it was you cannot commit adultery, BUT NOW I say that he who looks with lust at a woman has committed adultery in his heart..."
He furthered everything so that we must strive, hard as it may be, to be perfect as our heavenly Father is perfect. It is interesting that He states this just after commanding that we love our enemy and do only good to those who hate us. They are connected - "being perfect as the Heavenly Father" and loving our enemies. It is the new criteria, of the New Way. That is the mark we shoot for, in our actions, especially those involving the life and death of sacred human life. These harder teachings and points of emphasis in Jesus' words and actions are truly the most difficult, profound, and beautiful!
Can you imagine if we Christ followers listened to Christ fully and by our works we were known as Desmond Doss is known? Can you imagine how happy He would be if our actions looked strinkingly different from the world's, like a city on a hill? To not cling to "human tradition" but solely to Christ and His Way with its new commands?
Can you imagine what he would think as He looks down from Heaven and as sees His followers only loving their enemies, only doing good to those who hate them, only blessing those who curse them... seeing us leap for joy when we are persecuted and our name is denounced as evil, all because of living out His way? Come Lord Jesus, come!