On the second day of battle, when Major General Dan Sickles moved his men out in front of the Union lines at Gettysburg, some officers thought it was a mistake. Indeed, his actions generated controversy at the time and even today the debate continues.
What was not debated was whether General Sickles had grit.
During the battle that day, while riding his horse amidst the flying bullets and artillery, Sickles was struck in the leg by a 12 pound cannon ball. The cannon ball completely destroyed his lower leg, leaving it hanging in shreds with the white bone visibly exposed to the elements. The general had the presence of mind to create a tourniquet from his belt, without which he would have bled to death there on the field of battle. Even in the midst of his shock and pain, as he lay on the ground, he was aware that the rumor was circulating among the troops that he had been killed. Determined that his soldiers not lose heart, he ordered that he be placed on a horse and that someone provide him with a lit cigar. Mounted on his horse with the cigar clenched in his teeth, he proceeded to ride through the troops, leg bone sticking out, puffing ostentatiously on the cigar. All of this to provide a public demonstration to the troops that the general still breathed.
He found his own way on horseback to the infirmary. There he presented himself to the doctors who undertook the task of hacking off his leg above the knee.
No. No one ever claimed General Sickles lacked grit.
What interests me about stories like these is that they put the lie to Darwinian evolution's central deceit: that all organisms are only motivated by their own propagation. No soldier who threw himself on a grenade to save the life of his buddy ever did so to ensure the survival of his own genes.
The surprising presence of self-sacrifice in the world, in many different forms, suggests that something more is stirring than merely the survival of the species. Perhaps the great gobsmacking surprise of our existence is that unselfishness and sacrifice represent the central themes of the universe.
But while examples of self-sacrifice may be clues to the meaning of all things - what Francis Schaeffer would have called "leftover beauty" - our lurking infatuation with the material world threatens to crowd out the memory that in God's economy, the condition of human hearts counts for more than the distribution of material things.
Lefty Christians operate in a state of confusion regarding the Bible's teaching concerning our obligation to the poor. Jesus' prophecy that the problem of poverty will never be solved in the world suggests that there is more to his call to help the poor than the utilitarian concerns about material goods that so consume the thinking of lefty Christians. God, who possesses all things, doesn't require confiscatory taxation at the hands of pagan bureaucrats in order to help the poor.
I have no need of a bull from your stall
or of goats from your pens,
for every animal of the forest is mine,
and the cattle on a thousand hills. Psalms 50:9-10
Notwithstanding the lefty Christians' salivating fascination with their neighbor's possessions, there is nothing virtuous about advocating policies that exploit the coercive power of the state against your neighbor. You cannot pursue righteousness through the pocketbook of your friend. Coercive charity is a contradiction in terms.
What Jesus seeks is a transformed mind and heart, from which voluntary sacrifice is born out of compassion. The Christian leftist inclination to pound the drum in favor of coercive government policies betrays their actual understanding of Jesus' teaching about the poor. To wit, rather than understanding Jesus as making a profound statement about God's desire for transformed hearts, the lefties have interpreted his teaching as merely a tiresome crypto-Marxist lecture on the illegitimacy of private property. The inevitable coerciveness of lefty policy prescriptions presupposes that Jesus' concern was not so much the transformation of the human heart as it was the unequal distribution of economic goods.
But when Jesus said "No one takes my life from me. I lay it down of my own accord", he wasn't just talking smack in the moment. It seems that he was, rather, articulating some foundational principles on the meaning and means of true sacrifice. Voluntariness is a distinguishing characteristic. Unselfishness is central to God's power. What else are we to make of the scene in Revelation where at the center of the throne - the very symbol of God's authority and power - "was a lamb, looking as if it had been slain"?
My previous remarks about lefty Christians shouldn't be taken to mean that the human temptation to use coercion as a substitute for the development of character confines itself only to the left. Conservatives have not shown themselves to be entirely immune to the siren call of the state's power as a shortcut to virtue. Whatever you want to say about the relative merits of various laws regarding abortion, if you have millions of young women who are seriously prepared to contemplate the killing of their unborn children, you have bigger problems on your hands than whether they do it before or after 20 weeks gestation. This is not a commentary on whether or not we should have these laws. I only mean to observe that there is a conservative inclination to find satisfaction in the passing and enforcement of laws, as if they were an end in themselves, when what's desperately needed is the transformation of human hearts.
It is seductive, this notion that virtue can be obtained through the manipulation of material goods or through the power of the state.
When God gave instructions against having other gods before him and against the making of "graven images", I suspect He was anticipating our abiding inclination to embrace and worship whatever is in front of our eyes. The apostle Paul observes in Romans that the great downfall of man was characterized by a humanity that "worshiped and served created things rather than the creator".
The inclination to seek ultimate meaning from material things - the materialist superstition - has long plagued mankind. Even Christians are not immune to the temptation to believe that manipulating people and things can be a shortcut to virtue.
But God...God has not forgotten the human heart