Gettysburg, the largest battle of the Western hemisphere, was fought a hundred and fifty years ago this week. Between the North and South, it would produce roughly fifty thousand casualties.
They didn’t die blindly. Virtually all of those who fought at Gettysburg knew that the war would turn there. Robert E. Lee had so successfully repelled attacks against his native Virginia that, in the summer of 1863, he could invade the North in order to force the war’s end by capturing a large Union city, possibly Washington itself.
The Union vastly outnumbered the Confederacy in troops and resources, but the South would fight to collapse while the North constantly questioned the wisdom of continuing the war. A Southern victory at Gettysburg would probably have produced two decisive results. Europe would have granted recognition to the Confederacy and calls for peace in the North would have compelled Lincoln to grant independence.
Until Gettysburg, the Army of the Potomac had almost always occupied the wrong fighting ground. Here, it was General Lee who was forced to assault, over a three day span, the Union forces holding Cemetery Ridge, just south of the town. On successive days Confederate soldiers seized, but could not hold, the right and left flanks of the Union lines. Some call the third day the "high water mark" of the Confederacy, when Lee sent twelve thousand men across a mile and a half of open ground in a frontal assault against the union center. Hopes for Southern independence effectively ended with the failure of what came to be known as Pickett’s Charge.
But rather than focus upon the historical weight of Gettysburg, ponder this stray, but searing, recollection, recorded in Allen Guelzo’s Gettysburg: The Last Invasion(2013). It occurred on the second day of battle, during intense fighting for a wheat field that would become infamous.
Hilary Herbert, the colonel of the 8th Alabama, remembered years afterward "one little boy in blue, apparently not more than fifteen years old," mounted "on the lead front horse" of a limber (hitch) but unable to get his own horse to pull away because the two horses behind him were dead in their traces. "I was near enough to have touched him with my sword," remembered Herbert, wincing with the thought. And then "the dust flew from his jacket just under his shoulder blade, and he fell forward dead" (319).
Lessons from history get complicated. History isn’t the record of the all that happened in the past. That’s quite beyond us. History is the recollection of what matters to us. That’s why it’s always being rewritten. Some people say that those who forget history are doomed to repeat it. Some say that, if we could remember all of the evil perpetrated by human beings, we couldn’t possibly believe in God.
Think about that fifteen year-old boy and all the innocents like him. He probably willingly enlisted for the cause of union, but he was nevertheless the victim of humanity’s evil.
When people argue about the existence of God, believers often talk about the beauty and order of nature; non-believers point to the world’s evil. Strange as it sounds, I think the existence of evil — not what we call the evil of the natural world (floods, tornadoes, sickness) but the moral evil that we human being perpetrate — is the great cipher of God’s existence.
We understand how evolution could produce disease and drought, but look deeply at something like Gettysburg and then argue that nothing more than blind evolution is at work. If nature can produce such great moral evil, the stuff we perpetrate, then nature isn’t indifferent. It’s positively malign.
And since I can’t believe in an indifferent nature, and won’t accept one so "creatively evil," I choose to trust in the ultimate triumph of good, to believe in God. What choice is there is the face of history’s evidence? One has to stare into space and ignore history to call the world indifferent. If the world is meaningful, then it is a great battleground of good and evil, as one cannot exist without the other. I choose the good.
Of course, some would ask, if God does exist, why doesn’t God eliminate evil? The Gospel gives the answer. The disciples would like to see moral evil eliminated outright, even if they have to perpetrate a bit of their own. "Lord, do you want us to call down fire from heaven to consume them?" (Lk 9:54). But Jesus abides. Admit it, he tolerates evil. He journeys on to another village, where he tells them, "Foxes have dens and birds of the sky have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to rest his head" (9:58).
Why does Jesus wander? Why doesn’t he stay and fight evil wherever he finds it? Why didn’t he remain in one place and heal everyone who came to him? What good is a Messiah who won’t battle moral evil and eliminate natural evil?
Jesus came to preach, which is to say, he came to impart knowledge, indeed, for him, the only truth that mattered. What is that truth? That our world comes forth from a God who is good and that good will ultimately triumph.
Atheists are right. God could prove his existence in an instant by eliminating evil. That would certainly establish the existence of God, but it would also eliminate the strategic struggle of good and evil that we call the human person.
Saint Paul told the Galatians, "You were called for freedom, brothers and sisters. But do not use this freedom as an opportunity for the flesh; rather, serve one another through love" (5:13). As the Gospel sees it, salvation comes, not through strength and its ability to suppress, but through insight and its ability to call and compel. A little boy in blue died at Gettysburg. Of course God could have stopped his death by stopping Gettysburg, by stopping America, by stopping the human drama itself. Instead God calls us upon our freedom, the independence that truly matters. We are called to remember, to learn, and then to act.
1 Kings 19: 16b, 19-21 Galatians 5: 1, 13-18 Luke 9: 51-62