Tuesday, November 15, 2016

Hacksaw Ridge: Losing and Saving

My Dad doesn't get to the movies very often.  Actually, the last film he saw in a movie theatre was "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" back in 1975!  I'm not quite that bad, but I can go a year or two without seeing a film at the theatre.  This past week, however, I went to see "Hacksaw Ridge," and boy am I glad that I did.  Although violent (as war tends to be), the film had a wholesomeness about it that left me feeling like I had spent a couple of hours with some exceptionally good and virtuous people. 

The true story of Desmond T. Doss is inspiring.  Doss enlisted in the Army during World War II, but did so as a conscientious objector.  He wanted to serve his country, but because of strongly held religious beliefs, he refused to bear arms, to use violence, or to take human life. Because of his principled stand, Doss was despised, mocked, and brutalized by his trainers and by his fellow soldiers.  They did everything possible to get him to betray his principles.  When that failed, they tried to force him to quit. When that failed, they courtmartialed him. Again and again, attempts were made to get Doss either to compromise his principles or to quit altogether.  He stood firm. Ultimately, he triumphed and was allowed to serve as a medic.  

When one watches the film you cannot help but feel for Doss. He is trying to do what he believes God wants him to do. He is not trying to hurt anybody. He wants to serve and to risk his life like all the other soldiers. The only thing he cannot do is to use violence. But everyone tries to coerce him. Everyone tries to persuade him to back away from his deeply held beliefs "even just a little bit." Or, they try to get him to leave the system. If he would just take his religious principles elsewhere but not try to live them in the Army, then that would be fine. Either his religious principles need to be forgotten or Doss needs to be forgotten.  But Doss doesn't yield. He stands firm. He stands firm graciously and politely, but he stands firm.

Standing firm in religious beliefs is not always easy. Standing firm on principle is not always easy. Sometimes people's reputations, livelihoods, and even their lives are put on the line. It can be made even more difficult when friends attempt to persuade the person to "give in just a little bit." We saw this, for example with the Little Sisters of the Poor and the government mandate requiring them to provide contraceptives and abortifacients to their employees. Even Catholics would say to the sisters, "It's not such a big deal. Just do it and then you can continue doing all the good work that you do." I imagine it must be most distressing when even your friends and comrades attempt to persuade you to give up your deeply held religious principles. I have to be honest, if somebody were shooting at me, I'd want to shoot back! I, however, deeply respect and honor another person being a conscientious objector to all forms of violence. I admire that person, especially when they are willing to suffer such drastic consequences for their beliefs.  It is in the finest of American traditions to respect the deeply held religious beliefs of others and to make every reasonable accommodation for them.

When someone is willing to lose prestige, power, their livelihood, their reputation, and even their life for some deeply held religious belief, we ought to stand up and take notice. If the person has something to gain by doing it, perhaps it makes us more suspicious. But, if the person has everything to lose by standing firm, it ought to merit our attention. It's easy to go along with the crowd. It's easy to go along to get along. Risking everything, however, is very difficult. And risking everything and remaining peaceful is even more difficult. But one thing that often seems characteristic of those who are willing to lay everything down is their equanimity. They are not beating the war drum. Instead, they are so confident about the rightness of their position that they become increasingly more peaceful.

(Spoiler Alert for the Movie) Desmond Doss single-handedly saved 75 men at Hacksaw Ridge. Even after everyone else had fallen back and returned to safety, he remained on the ridge looking for wounded. All night long, he found wounded soldiers, treated them, carried them to safety, and then lowered them off the ridge using a system of ropes and knots.  He was under constant enemy fire. He was ultimately awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor. Many men would eventually owe their very lives to the man they had previously accused of cowardice. The man who was willing to stand his ground for his religious beliefs was also willing to stand his ground for his comrades. The man who endured the assaults of his comrades became the man who withstood enemy fire to save his comrades.

It can be very tempting to demonize, mock, and punish those who hold firm in their religious beliefs, especially those beliefs that deviate from the popular culture (whatever that may be at a given moment). The life of Desmond Doss, however, ought to serve as a poignant reminder to all of us that the people who are willing to lose everything might just be the ones who will save us.

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