There has been a surge of attention given to the WWII vets who are fast dying off. The remnant who are healthy enough are being taken in Honor Flights to the Washington DC WWII National War Memorial where their buses deposit their frail bodies. These gentlemen and women either walk or are wheeled to the negative pool where they can remember their contribution to America’s freedom. The large pavilion pillars marking the battle sites where many watched their buddies die, rise high into an open sky. It is all so surreal. Usually a state senator meets the vets to offer the gratitude of the country. After a lunch down in the district, they are flown back to their home state with awakened memories of harder days when the skies were blackened by grenades and gunfire.
So, too, Hollywood has resurrected the WWII genre with films like Saving Private Ryan and most recently the Mel Gibson directed movie called Hacksaw Ridge. Though I am not inclined to go to violent movies, my friend—a Vietnam veteran—went twice, the second time with his wife. Something touched him deeply in that movie about a man, Desmond T. Doss, who joined the Army with no intention of ever touching a gun.
It is a true story. Desmond Doss was scrupulously kind even when he was taunted in the barracks by the 77th Division battalion. It is a strange story of a young man who wanted to serve his country by helping out his unit as a medic. He refused to carry a weapon because of his personal and religious beliefs as a Seventh-day Adventist. Doss said, “My dad bought this Ten Commandments and Lord’s Prayer illustrated on a nice frame, and I had looked at that picture of the Sixth Commandment, ‘Thou shalt not kill.’ There’s a picture that had Cain and he killed his brother Abel, and I wonder how in the world could a brother do such a thing? I’ve pictured Christ for savin’ life, I wanna be like Christ go savin’ life instead of takin’ life and that’s the reason I take up medicine.”
The heart of the story unveils the single-hearted grist of Desmond Doss who put himself in harm’s way to save seventy-five wounded men in Okinawa when the United States was attempting to take the island 340 miles south of Japan. It was one of the most intense and violent surges of the war’s history. Doss managed to lower the men over the Maeda Escarpment (Hacksaw Ridge), one at a time. He spent twelve hours atop the Ridge while mortar, artillery, and machine gun fire threatened. He saved them all including his harshest critic, Captain Jack Glover, who realized Doss’ goodness as he watched him go back to save each life.
Doss received the Medal of Honor for his heroism from President Truman October 12, 1945. He died in Alabama on his farm at the age of 86.
Over the past several weeks, you and I have climbed the mountain of the beatitudes with the Jesus. In a way it is another battleground where Jesus barges into the legalism of the day with words that will cut through the hourglass of time, challenging Christians to walk on higher ground. From this holy mountain, Jesus offers to the world, then and now, an alternative vision for life. Blessed are the poor in spirit, the people who mourn, the people who suffer for justice, the people who are merciful, the clean of heart, and the peacemakers. Living the beatitudes will form us to be the salt of the earth and a light to all nations. This call is not arbitrary but marks us as disciples of the Lord.
Perhaps we have compromised too much and watered down the very tenants that Jesus taught that are core to the kingdom of God. One more Sunday, we must listen to the contradictory remarks of the One we call Savior! “You have heard it said… But I say to you…” And we must weigh in the balance whether we will live the mandates, or not.
Today Jesus deals with violence and our response to it. It is clear, we are not to be violent. In fact, as Catholic social teaching opens up for us, non-violence has a greater effect upon folks caught in the crossfire of aggression. All we need do is study the non-violence of Gandhi and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. as they forged their way through systemic change. Recently the TV media reached back to its civil rights archives showing a young Congressman John Lewis with others marching in Selma, Alabama, to the Edmund Pettus Bridge where they were met by state troopers who beat them with billy clubs. John Lewis’ skull was fractured. The film of the event was broadcast throughout the country and the day became known as “Bloody Sunday.” The marchers did not retaliate and the one-sided bloodbath expedited the voting rights of our brothers and sisters of color.
Jesus is asking us to love our enemies. This is not a milquetoast kind of approach to violence. It means that we, at our core, understand the development of conscience as we become sensitized to injustice. It calls us to see all persons as made in the image of God. All persons have dignity and violence against anyone has its ramifications. In the end, the civil rights movement was successful because it had a leader who taught and lived non-violently.
To turn the other cheek is to make the violent look into our eyes. To offer our cloak when someone has taken our clothes is to defy the bully with kindness; to go the extra mile with someone who forces us along the road is to befriend the enemy and perhaps offer some time to dialogue on a human level.
In reflecting on the Gospel reading for this Sunday, Pope Francis noted that when we pray for those who harm us, for those we call enemies, two things happen. One, grace begins to fall upon the enemy at some level we may never see. But more, Francis adds that praying for our enemies helps heal us as well. “Every heart wounded by sin—as each one of us has—must undertake this journey of healing in order to be more like our ‘heavenly Father (who) is perfect.’” Thus, Jesus repeats the most important commandment of the Old Testament: Love your God with all your heart, and with all your strength, and with all your soul, and your neighbor as yourself.
Perhaps no one realizes better than our aging WWII vets the scars that war leaves on the soul. Jesus points to an alternative vision, one marked by cheeks turned, cloaks offered, and miles walked. A challenge for us all.
Mary K. Matestic, MTS
in our lives today, we have many enemies: personal enemies that keep us weighed down; addictions that entrench us, behaviors that put off those we love, habits that lead us to sin. We pray that you might help us become liberated from the shadows of sin. We pray also for the enemies around us, people who distract us with their annoyances, their biased world views, their ways of stalling our progress. Hold them in your arms and give them the grace of love. We pray for our national enemies, those systemic realities that keep our brothers and sisters who are poor oppressed. Liberate our country to reach out to the sorrowing with mercy and forgiveness. Finally, we pray for our world, and the hostile forces in nations that hold up arms and violence as a way to control. Father, hold these too in your arms and turn around barbaric thinking so that all may be one, as you are in the Father. We ask this in the name of Jesus, the Lord.