"But I say to you who hear, love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you." Jesus, in Luke 6:27-28
It was finished! This terrible thing some believed could never happen did happen: Americans were killing Americans on American soil. Once begun, it seemed to have no end---dragging an entire nation into the abyss, tearing a country, states, churches and even families apart in a vicious soul-wrenching struggle of death. But at last it was finished!
The American Civil War, also known as the War of the Rebellion, was over!
On this last official day of war, emotions still ran deep on both sides, a dangerous mix at any point in history, but most certainly a deadly mix after the heat of a long and difficult struggle. Two armies now had to face each other one last time, as a vanquished and humiliated Confederacy surrendered itself to the will of a deliriously celebratory Union army. An army, one might add, tempted, as we humans often are, to gloat and taunt.
This time, the two foes would sort out how to behave now that the battle was finished.
Joshua Chamberlain positioned his Union soldiers on both sides of the road that morning. Selected by Ulysses S. Grant to oversee the surrender of the Confederate Army at Appomattox Courthouse on April 12, 1865, Chamberlain watched as the entire Army of Northern Virginia marched in battle array toward his troops.
Leading that defeated army up the dusty road was John Gordon, picked by Robert E. Lee for this difficult and humiliating exercise. Eyewitnesses described Gordon's face as downcast, eyes searching out some distant place on the ground in a symbolic gesture of resignation and grief.
Victory often breeds defeat when winners gloat. Defeat often breeds disaster when losers are defiant. On the heels of the most vicious bloodletting in American history, there was little reason to believe in those "better angels of our natures" Abraham Lincoln called out in his first inaugural address.
Then something strange took place.
Gordon heard clanks and rustles among the Union troops, and knew in an instant what was happening: Chamberlain had ordered his troops to salute the defeated enemy as they passed! No gloating here, no loud taunts or vicious reprisals: Only silence and the moving picture of soldier saluting soldier, each side describing scenes of grown men with "cheeks wet with tears."
It was left to the vanquished to match this kindness, and Gordon did not miss the moment. History notes that "at this clatter of arms he (Gordon) raises his eyes and instantly catching the significance, wheels his horse with that superb grace of which he is master, and drops the point of his sword to his stirrup...," returning in defeat the graceful salute offered in victory.
Once before, in Scripture, two such armies met with darkness on the horizon, only to rejoice as Esau and Jacob ended their anger with a loving embrace. It is their spirit, and the spirit of Chamberlain and Gordon, which we Christians must manifest if we are to discover ways to live and labor alongside many who refuse our faith. Whether we're engaged in commerce or politics or diplomacy or even meaningful debate, it is we---the ambassadors of Christ---who must refuse to be seen as the faces and forces of hate, or to be heard as the voices of anger and envy.
We were once an enemy of the Savior, rebelling even as our souls pled for peace. On the day we surrendered our being to the power that is greater than our will, we were met with the scene of a Heavenly Father racing to embrace us, and a Kingdom of Heaven roaring its welcome to our soul. Let the memory of that moment change the way we greet every debate, every challenge, every enemy of our faith; making in us a mirror image of the grace and mercy which we ourselves now know.