When we think about our military men and women in fighting situations (wherever that might be), we know they’re in difficult circumstances. War makes for that, doesn’t it? About a century and half ago, our country knew not just war–but an internal one, which pitted neighbor against neighbor. There are even records of families that had members fighting against each other.
When it’s over, we tend to see the war differently than it was perceived at the time it was happening. We look at it with hindsight and the benefit of historical perspective. To those who fought in it, it was chaos, uncertainty, and the most difficult of times. It was impossible to see things as they really were because they were entirely focused on surviving. The Red Badge of Courage or All Quiet on the Western Front are useful in helping us to understand the mindset of war.
All of this is to say that it’s not hard to understand at some level the crime of desertion. Different people respond differently in crisis situations and surely there is some truth to the notion that none of us knows how we might respond until we are confronted with such a situation. And while the deserter preserved his life, he did so at the great cost of losing the respect of everyone, including himself.
In the novel, Across Five Aprils, Jethro Creighton is too young to fight in the Civil War. He has to stay at home and work the farm while his older brothers and cousins go off and serve as soldiers. When he is out working in the field one day, he hears something in the woods nearby and when he goes to investigate, he comes across his cousin Eb, who has deserted. He is on the run–but to where? There is nowhere he can go that his deed won’t follow him. He has no future and he knows it. In the heat of battle he made a selfish decision to save his life and by doing so, he ended up forfeiting it both legally and practically. He is remorseful–if he could change things he would. But now he has no hope. He confesses to Jethro, “I was an awful fool—at least you got a chance in battle—maybe it’s once in a hundred, but it’s a chance. This way, I got none.” Despairing for his cousin, Jethro writes a letter to President Lincoln asking what can be done. Lincoln writes back and tells Jethro he has decided to grant amnesty to all deserters who will return to their posts. (Lincoln actually did issue such a decree in March of 1863).
Blessed are the merciful! Lincoln’s decree may have been a good move politically and militarily, but it was more than that–it was a good move because it brought hope and healing to people who had deserted their posts. When the Christ came into the world Matthew would be inspired to take up his pen and write that “the people living in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of the shadow of death a light has dawned,” (Matthew 4:16). Mercy is good news because it brings hope with it.
Would it be too much to say that we’ve all deserted our posts in one way or another? We’ve all felt the deep, stinging shame of our sin and known the heartache of failing God and others. Jesus Christ came into this world so we could know both hope and healing and return to our posts. It didn’t come cheap because they were obtained at the price of a rugged Roman cross. Do we deserve this chance? Of course not. That’s why they call it grace.
See you at your post.