Matt and I recently had a heart-to-heart about the complexity of life. How for each man’s win there is another man’s loss. The context is that we were watching Gladiator, which I had never seen before, and the harsh reality of the history of the world was so stark. Man against man. Mortal combat. The taking of life for power. This is what sin reduces us to. It goes all the way back to the beginning of sin, when Cain rose up against his brother Abel and killed him out of jealousy. Actually, it began when Lucifer became jealous of God. Gladiator is a very poignant example of the repercussion of that struggle.
It shows up in everyday life. I recently got a new job for which I wasn’t the only applicant. One person gets their dream job; others don’t. Matt was just cast for a commercial—an audition he really threw himself into, and his effort paid off; others also gave of their own time and hearts but didn’t get the part. What does that all mean? How do you reconcile the connection between one person’s “success” and another person’s “failure” ?
Desmond Doss’s story is about the hit the big screen. I watched a short interview with Andrew Garfield, who plays Doss in the upcoming Mel Gibson film Hacksaw Ridge. He said that Doss was more of a “conscientious cooperator” than a “conscientious objector.” I liked that. It’s compelling to ponder what it would look like if the entire world decided not to bear arms against each other. But that’s not realistic. Sin was introduced into the world, and, as a result, history from the time of the Old Testament is riddled with war and the taking of life, sometimes with “good” intentions. Crusades, per se. How do you reconcile the connection between the loss of life for the purpose of saving life?
Mid-movie and somewhere deep in the crevices of our conversation, Matt pulled up a monologue by Anthony Hopkins as John Quincy Adams in the movie Amistad. Adams explains to the court that the South reconciled slavery in Biblical terms, arguing that there had been subordinates from the beginning of time, and that there had never been a civilized society in which a settlement did not thrive upon the labor of another—in theory, that slavery is God-ordained and that even in Eden one was pronounced subordinate to the other. The South further argued that, as war and antagonism are the natural states of man, so is slavery—in its purpose and in its inevitability.
Adams disagreed. He believed that the natural state of man is freedom. How could we reconcile slavery with what Adams termed “that annoyingly embarrassing document,” the Declaration of Independence, which states that all men are created equal? I would further question how we could reconcile slavery with the words of Jesus indicating that the whole law is summed up in loving our neighbor as ourself.
Back to Doss. His conviction not to take up arms for himself was not something he imposed upon the rest of the United States military. He simply remembered seeing the story of Cain and Abel depicted on a framed sampler as a child and being appalled that one brother could rise up against the other. His personal conviction against the evil of killing—against sin—began as a child. Woe be it to the man—or yes, of course, woman—who doesn’t live by what he or she believes.
That point is made so beautifully in the telling of the story of Desmond Doss, as it is in the story of King David or any other battle that has ever been fought and won. Or fought and lost. Inconceivably, God blesses the conscientious objector, and God blesses the warrior. Or perhaps God blesses obedience.
It’s important to remember that slavery, at its core, is not about race. It is about power. So it was with Maximus in Gladiator or Joseph in Egypt. Jealousy over power was the cause of enslavement. The cause of estrangement. The cause of death. Jealousy implies belief that one is better or more deserving than certain outcomes indicate. That one deserves the win and the other the loss.
This is not so.
Jesus washed feet. His disciples were appalled, embarrassed, and confused. In some churches, we remember that story, that moment that quietly became one of the most crucial and pivotal moments in Christian history, by washing each other’s feet once a month. Clean feet washed in the privacy of church walls. We choose whose feet we wash; if we push ourselves to wash the feet of someone who makes us uncomfortable, we pat ourselves on the back for having been selfless and Christlike. I’ve been there. I know from experience.
We stand up from that kneeling position, leave the dirty water in a bucket, sanitize our hands, and continue on self-absorbed.
Jesus wasn’t simply telling us to wash each other’s feet. He was telling us to embrace humility. Servanthood. Yes, in a way, slavery. He was begging us to completely let go of the notion that we can somehow expect others to serve us. It’s not an equation of “serve and be served.” It is not a causal relationship. It simply is. Serve.
In doing so, we find that equality is not the problem. The need for equality equates to the inception of selfishness. It is a different kind of moral problem than we think. Inequality is not the problem. We are the problem. Our sin. Our selfishness.
Matt takes the time to be moved and broken by these complexities. He challenges me to be kinder and more loving—to give the benefit of the doubt and to see the intrinsic value in others. He challenges me to be humble and to give all the glory to the Lord for every win and every loss. Those are seemingly cliche’ phrases that represent something unspeakably beautiful, and I am so thankful. He leads me by example.
We closed the night by expressing the thought that even though there are elements and dimensions to this life that we can’t begin to process, we have hope. The laughter is ordained along with the pain. We left a few questions hanging to chew on: What are we to do when we know the world is crumbling and the end is closer than ever? How do we smile through that? How do we enjoy the good when there is so much bad? What is a Christian to do?
As usual, C.S. Lewis eloquently sums up the essence of the dilemma:
“And out of that hopeless attempt has come nearly all that we call human history—money, poverty, ambition, war, prostitution, classes, empires, slavery—the long terrible story of man trying to find something other than God which will make him happy.” (Mere Christianity, goodreads.com)