Monday, October 15, 2007

Taking Sides

On Saturday, my wife and I took our eight-year-old grandson, Noah, to visit Stones River National Battlefield here in Murfreesboro. This is the site of the Battle of Stones River, an engagement that lasted from December 31, 1862, to January 2, 1863. The battle is characterized by historians as having the largest percentage of casualties on both sides, a total of 23,515--some 13,600 on the Union side and about 10,600 on the Confederate side.

Once inside the Visitors Center, we found ourselves in front of a map showing the initial deployment of forces. This produced Noah's first question: "Which one is our side?" This led to some discussion. His mother's family grew up in the South--Mississippi and Alabama--and she was born in Tennessee. Noah's father is originally from Indiana, and all his family lived in the North. We talked about this for a few minutes, and then he asked, "Who were the bad guys and who were the good guys?"

The historian in me tried to keep the details simple: It all depends on how you look at it! If you were a soldier from the North, you were concerned about preserving the Union, not letting your friends down, and staying alive. If you were part of the Confederate forces, you probably saw yourself as defending your homeland from invaders, being a good comrade to your fellow soldiers, and staying alive. Among the common soldiers of both sides, slavery was not the issue. Economics was not the issue. Who was good and who was bad? Depends on your perspective.

Now we can argue that in the long run the preservation of the Union and the eventual end of slavery were worthy outcomes to a bloody "uncivil" war, but I was led to think about our tendency to want to divide every issue into "good" versus "bad" and "us" versus "them." Such a dichotomy leads inevitably to confrontation, conflict, and demonization of the enemy. We no longer confront an enemy but a stereotype of a real person. Of course, this is the easy way out and avoids dealing with the complexities of any situation.

Jesus was careful to avoid the "us" versus "them" mentality. His mission was inclusive. His was a desire to reconcile all people to God. Everyone was and is a child of God, worthy of His love. This didn't go down too well with some of the religious leaders of Jesus' day, but he didn't seem to care and went ahead and loved them all.

As our visit to the battlefield came to a conclusion, Noah observed, "I guess I like both sides." I think that's Gospel.