Seven score and ten years ago, our fathers embarked on an adventure of slaughter that would soak the ground with blood. We have our wars today, but have sent them overseas, like so many other difficult endeavors. We hear about them from a distance, and remain mostly untroubled as we wait for the price of gas to fall, the stock market to rise, and a cheaper way to get cable TV. But the nation we populate today was forged in bloodshed, close-up and personal: first in a revolution, and then refined in a civil war that one soldier called a “carnival of blood.” 625,000 soldiers died in the Civil War – about a third of them in combat, the others from illness or other causes. The war unfurled carpets of dead bodies on battlefields from Gettysburg to Vicksburg and beyond, as the machinery of war grew ever more efficient and effective.
One of the great heroes of the war (on this side of the Mason-Dixon line) lived around the corner from here on 19th Street, and was a member of this parish. General George Gordon Meade commanded the Army of the Potomac at the bloodbath of Gettysburg where the tide of the war began to turn toward victory for the Union. Not long after the war, General Meade would be buried from this church, with President Ulysses S. Grant in attendance.
An odd discovery was made in the aftermath of Gettysburg when they finally got around to cleaning up the battlefield. Of the weapons gathered up, some 24,000 rifles were still loaded, suggesting to some historians that a great many soldiers were reluctant to fire their weapons. Hard to say. Easier to say that a great many were perfectly willing to do so.
On another battlefield in Georgia, the bloodiest battle after Gettysburg, the story is told of a Confederate soldier who decided he was unwilling to kill the advancing Yankees, and stood on the battlefield firing his weapon directly up into the air. When his captain threatened to shoot him if he didn’t aim at the enemy, the soldier is said to have replied “You can kill me if you want to, but I am not going to appear before my God with the blood of another man on my soul.” How things turned out for the soldier does not appear to be part of the historic record.
The Bishop of Georgia at the time said that “to shed such blood as we have spilled in this contest for the mere name of independence, for the vanity or the pride of having a separate national existence, would be unjustifiable before God and man. We must have higher aims than these.” But if those higher aims were to justify the enslavement of other human beings, then they have been shown to be worthless.
A Yankee preacher declared from the safety of Rhode Island that the dead were “the price and purchase-money of our triumph,” and that “in this blood our unity is cemented and forever sanctified,” which is easier said from Providence than from Richmond or Atlanta.[i]
As the end of the war was nearing, President Lincoln could invoke the providence of the divine hand, which “has its own purposes,” by quoting the Psalms: “The judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.” And when that great man died from his own bullet wound on Good Friday of 1865, at least one earnest clergyman made the connection to the Passion of our Lord, asserting about Lincoln that “one man has died for the people, in order that the whole nation might not perish.”
The blood flowing through the veins of this nation belongs to men and women of other generations, and yet it has not forged us into one nation, nor could it ever. And yet as a people, a society, a nation, we have not stopped looking for other men to kill in the hopes that we will accomplish some righteous deed, and prove ourselves good. That we are not alone in this regard does not excuse us, for we can only be responsible for ourselves.
We cling to the notion that there are certain murders that will be good for us; that it will be expedient that one man, here and there, should die for the people. The target changes from time to time, but the idea remains more or less the same. But even the bullets fired into the wisest father this nation has ever known on that Good Friday of 1865 did not make us one nation, under God. His sacrifice could accomplish little more than grief and sorrow that lingers to this day when we reflect on it.
Was it really that idea – that one man should die for the people – that riled the crowd, and convinced the governor to crucify Jesus? Perhaps, although it seems a bit far-fetched. Something turned the crowd from their cheers of Hosanna! to the cries to crucify him. Maybe it was precisely the fear that he really was the Messiah, and therefore blood was sure to be spilled – since they assumed the anointed one would soon raise an army and take up arms – that they preferred the idea that his blood should be spilled rather than theirs. Who knows?
Today we are swimming upstream in the blood of history to the veins of one who was guilty of nothing. His blood is mingled now with the blood that seeped into the soil from here to Mississippi, more or less. Was there something noble in the sacrifice of all those men seven score and ten years ago? No doubt there was. Was there something holy in it? Maybe so. Did it accomplish, as Lincoln asserted, the purposes of God? We console ourselves with the thought that perhaps it did.
But only once have God’s purposes required the offering of blood, and on that Good Friday, it was his own blood to shed.
We continue to yield to the tempting notion that there is more bloodshed that can accomplish righteous deeds, and we devise ways to carry out this desire in broad daylight, as though it were less gruesome, somehow, than the self-inflicted carnival of blood this nation endured all those years ago. Would we do better to fire our ammunition into the air, if we must shoot at something, than to appear before our God with the blood of other men on our souls? The folly of bloodshed in war persists in the vain hope of righteousness, even as the thought that Jesus’ death and bloodshed meant anything at all sounds more like a fairy tale to many people. And so we continue to put more hope in the blood that we can shed than in the blood that was shed for us.
In his second inaugural address, Lincoln said all he needed to say about slavery when he said that “it may seem strange that any man should dare to ask a just God’s assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men’s faces. But,” he went on, “let us judge not, that we be not judged.”[ii] He might have said that it is stranger still to ask God’s assistance in wringing righteousness from another man’s blood. Still, we must judge not, that we be not judged.
But it would be wise of us to learn how strange and costly it is for us to imagine that we could ever wring anything but misery and suffering out of bloodshed, and certainly not righteousness. For the righteous spilling of blood, that has the power to redeem all the blood ever shed, and which is somehow redeeming all that bloodshed by the secret workings of God’s grace, was accomplished once and for all by God when he gave his Son to suffer and to die on a green hill far away.
Preached by Fr. Sean Mullen
Palm Sunday, 2011
Saint Mark’s Church, Philadelphia
[i] All quotations except Lincoln’s are from Drew Gilpin Faust, This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War, New York: Vintage Civil War Library, 2008
[ii] Abraham Lincoln, Second Inaugural Address, 4 March, 1865