Lesson 14: Gettysburg and Revelation

GettysburgOne of the questions Revelation raises is, “For what should we give our lives?” Martyrdom is a primary feature from the beginning to the end of the book. The Apostle warns dying for the Pax Romana serves evil. Even though the empire claims to be founded on law, it really depends upon the military suppressing all opposition so the wealthy can enjoy their luxury. In contrast, John argues being washed in the blood of the Lamb commits believers to a nonviolent love that is willing to die for God’s Word. The Gospel is based on words not weapons.

Recent events in Gettysburg, my hometown, convince me that John’s message is still relevant. Because we are the site of the critical battle in the Civil War and Lincoln’s famous address, our little borough plays a special role in our national narrative that has changed over the years.

The first narrative was articulated by Lincoln when he dedicated the Union cemetery. He called on those gathered to honor the dead by committing themselves to a new birth of freedom for our nation. The president carefully described this liberty as a dedication to the proposition that all men are created equal. Because the narrative was clearly praising soldiers who gave their lives to end slavery, Black troops felt welcomed to the early reunions.

Before long, the narrative was deliberately changed to depict our town as a shrine for peace. Our mission was to remind people of war’s horror that forces brother to kill brother. Anniversaries became occasions for bringing the separated states back together again. They featured veterans shaking hands as well as uniformed soldiers of both the North and the South marching in parades and reenactments. An eternally burning peace light was erected at a prominent place. Crossed union and confederate flags were used as a symbol of the battle.

If the southern cause was clearly absent in the original narrative, that of Black Americans was ignored in this one. The honor of soldiers giving their lives for both sides became the focus of the narrative. The fragile nature of this narrative became apparent after Viet Nam when opposition to the war was interpreted as dishonoring those who gave their lives for their nation. The valor of the warrior, rather than the cause for which he died, dominated the message.

A sign that the narrative continues to break down was evident at this year’s anniversary. The headline of the Huffington Post article by Chris Mathias sums up the collapse: “Guns And KKK Members At Gettysburg Confederate Rally, But No Foes To Fight.” Today, unveiling the truth falls on the press that is presently persecuted far more than the church. The article reported how fake news spread a rumor that a violent anti-fascist group was coming to burn confederate flags, desecrate southern monuments, and urinate on rebel graves. Although the group announced they had no intention of attending, a number of opposition groups appeared armed and in military garb to protect confederate symbols.

The common message of these groups was that the confederate flag is a battle flag. When we respect it, we honor those who fought and died under it. However, the pledge recited by the Sons of the Confederacy included a salute to the cause for which it stands. The speeches made clear freedom was defined as the liberty to do and say anything you wanted and that this specifically meant carrying weapons, forming private militias, and expressing hatred of other races and religions. Although the groups said they were present to support law enforcement, their actions indicated they saw themselves as vigilantes. Chants of “Bring it on” suggested they were aching for a fight.

One episode supports Revelation’s warning that such advocacy of violence is self-defeating. Although no enemy appeared, there was one causality. An armed man carrying a confederate flag shot himself when he rested his flagpole against his holster, unintentionally discharging his weapon that fired a bullet into his leg.

Silly as this might sound, it reminds us that merely giving your life to just any cause has no merit in itself. The martyrs honored in Revelation witness to the Lamb’s love in sacrificing himself for a Gospel truth that truly frees all people.

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