Americans have forgotten how to forgive

The haunting refrain of “The Ballad of the Dying Rebel Soldier” sings: “Oh, Parson, tell me quickly, will my soul pass through the Southland? Will it see the hills of Georgia and the green fields of Alabam’?”

Most of the gaunt men who died for the Confederacy, as most ordinary men who died in any war, thought, no matter which side they fought on, that they were dying for a just cause, or at least one better than that of their enemies. This fact does not mean that everything about such wars was just. We today may laugh or sneer at this presumption that my side is worthy and yours isn’t. But to do so, I suspect, trivializes the truth that wars, as Thucydides saw, are ultimately fought over real issues that men have been unable to resolve by other means. The losers in most wars have had at least some justice in their cause.

In Arlington Cemetery, we find a monument to the Southern soldier. It seemed fitting some years after the Civil War that some representative Confederate soldiers would lie buried there in Robert E. Lee’s old property beside the many more Yankee dead. Why was it fitting? It was fitting because at least some on both sides were wise enough to understand that all the issues of justice could not be resolved by men. They realized that reconciliation and forgiveness were the only proper way to preserve the now held-together union and gradually get along together after arms had decided the victor.

{mosads}On the Southern monument, the Ladies of the Confederacy placed the enigmatic Latin words of the Roman Poet Lucan. In effect, it says that the gods had decided the victor by arms. Yet justice, in the symbol of Cato, remained the badge of the conquered.

Is it really wrong, we wonder, that we be reminded, ever so gently, that there were those who thought, and so fought, that their cause too was just? We seem to be launched on a delayed spate of posthumous imperfect judgments. The ancient notion was that God is the ultimate judge in such affairs. We now claim it for ourselves as if we were gods.

In an 1929 essay titled “The Age of America,” G. K. Chesterton wrote:

“There seems to be more vital interest in the Civil War in America than in the Civil War in England. It was more of a fight to the finish; and they were a very much finer set of people who finished. … But the American Civil War was a real war between civilizations. It will affect the whole history of the world. There were great and good men, on both sides, who knew it would affect the whole world.”

Chesterton was right. This war is still affecting the whole world. There were in fact great men on both sides; I think of Richard Weaver’s essay “Lee the Philosopher.” To deny this greatness is a form of cultural blindness.

There are two ways to kill a man. One way is to shoot him outright. In that case, he dies as a symbol of the reason for which he was shot. This reason becomes the epitaph of his life. The witness of Socrates falls into this category. His legal death ultimately testified to the justice of his case, not to that of the city.

The other way to kill a man is to eradicate all memory of his existence, all he said, all that was said about him — the houses he lived in, monuments, writings, photos, even quotations and public records. But when we go to the trouble of erasing the memory of someone because we do not approve of what he stood for, we create a hole in history. Something that was there is missing. We no longer know of what we speak, but we insist on speaking it anyhow.

In “The Human Condition,” the German-Jewish philosopher Hannah Arendt talked of vengeance. How does one stop it? An eye for an eye was a principle of justice found in the Old Law. Justice cannot really be stopped by justice since more than justice is always involved in issues of justice. The great men on both sides who fought the American Civil War understood this in a way that their descendants do not.

Those who actually fought knew that real issues of both justice and injustice were found on both sides. It is a form of Manichaeism to maintain that one side was all right and the other all wrong. Arendt wisely argued that the only thing that could stop vengeance was mutual forgiveness, itself a free and responsible act that must be recognized by both the forgivers and the forgiven.

What we seem to witness is the erosion of the covenant of forgiveness. This erosion leads us back to the posthumous eradication of the enemy, to the elimination of his memory in the light of our now infallible judgments about a past we know so little about that we cannot see the poignancy on all sides.

The southern poet Donald Davidson wrote: “Late Answer: A Civil War Seminar.” It began: “We too have names that blaze on mouldering stone, / And I have seen men’s tears fall where they slept….” It has been the pride of this nation that a great Civil War, bloody as it was, could end in relative dignity.

No doubt the ending of this covenant of reconciliation, if that is what we are seeing, will bring back into world history those single-minded utopian forces that never accepted the finiteness of man’s worldly condition nor the limits and complexity of human justice.

The Rev. James Schall, S.J., author of “A Line Through the Human Heart: On Sinning & Being Forgiven,” is professor emeritus at Georgetown University.

The views expressed by contributors are their own and are not the views of The Hill.


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