On a recent road-trip to Kentucky my son, Nate, and I visited a Civil War site, the Mill Springs Battlefield, where Nate’s great-great-great-great-grandfather, George Hendricks, fought with the 10th Indiana Infantry. Some of what went on there involved hand-to-hand fighting. One story that came from that battlefield was told by a Union private who remembered long after the battle that as his company pursued their retreating enemy with bayonets fixed, he came across a Rebel soldier hiding behind a tree. He clubbed the man down with the butt of his rifle. His enemy looked at him and begged, “Don’t kill me.” The Union soldier told this enemy, “It is too late for talk.”
The story struck home. In many ways our public speech, societal and international relations are embattled, fearful and disturbed. We may feel pressured and anxious to get control over this. It’s common to say, for example, of our politics today that we “take no prisoners”. The problem with that is that it ends discussion and the prospect of reconciliation or agreement while it is actually not too late to achieve them. A Christian is called to something different from anxious provocation; a Christian is at least called to refrain from making things worse. John Wesley’s first simple rule is, “Do no harm…Avoid evil…” And Jesus counsels, “Love your enemies…Pray for those who persecute you…” (Matthew 5:44).
Harming others can certainly tempt us. As Henri Nouwen wrote, “When we have been deeply hurt by another person, it is nearly impossible not to have hostile thoughts, feelings of anger or hatred, and even a desire to take revenge.... Still, whenever we move beyond our wounded selves and claim our God-given selves, we give life not just to ourselves but also to the ones who have offended us.”
There is time for talk—and for mercy; it is never too late. What if we practiced Wesley’s rule, and Jesus’ sacred directives, to set aside the metaphorical bayonets of hostility in our stressful conflicts? A brief pause in the brutality of the Crusades occurred in August 1219, when St. Francis of Assisi called directly on Al-Kamil, the Sultan of Egypt, and spent several days in discussion with him, attempting to restore peace. I understand he also appealed to the Pope to do the same. As far as I know, neither of these discussions reduced the hostilities of that Crusade, but I don’t think that matters as much as his decision to keep praying for his enemy and to keep seeking paths of reconciliation. Francis showed us a Christian’s way, even in conflicted situations, when he prayed, Lord, make me an instrument of thy peace…