One hundred fifty years ago today 51,112 soldiers lay dead after the Battle of Gettysburg, July 1-3, 1863. (That is seven thousand less American lives lost in three days as the entire conflict in Vietnam [58,209 American war dead]). The Union Army won the battle. Many consider that Union victory the turning point of the war, but both sides suffered heavy losses (Union Army – 23,049; Confederate Army – 28,063). (http://www.army.mil/gettysburg/statistics/statistics.html )
Lutherans played a significant role at the onset of the battle. The Lutheran Theological Seminary at Gettysburg (LTSG) sits within the National Park set aside to preserve the battleground. One of the original buildings was used as a lookout for the Union Army on July 1, and then used as a field hospital. The seminary recently restored the building and opened the Seminary Ridge Museum to the public (http://www.seminaryridgemuseum.org) in time to commemorate the battle’s anniversary. On June 30, 2013, Presiding Bishop Mark Hanson of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) and Seminary President Michael Cooper White led an evening vesper service at the Peace Portico (built in 1913) commemorating the events of long ago with ongoing ministry today.
I took a summer course at LTSG in 2009. Since the school sits right in the battlefield I would take long walks in the morning before class, stopping to read markers and memorials along the way. It is an easy place to lose your sense of time in, imagining this sleepy town erupting with 157,289 troops divided in two armies descending upon it and the horror they brought with them over those three days. The Civil War was about many things – the rights of states and the central government, the culture clash of North and South, and of course what has been dubbed as America’s original sin: slavery. President Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address given on November 19, 1863 during the consecration of the Gettysburg National Cemetery not only defined the battleground, but reframed the war. It would take another two and a half years for last shot to be fired, and for General Robert E. Lee to surrender to General Ulysses S. Grant at the Appomattox Court House in Virginia, April 9, 1965.
What have we learned in one hundred fifty years?
It seems clear to me that the struggle for freedom – both personal and political is never over. The United States of America has endured more wars, more bloodshed, more battlefields across the globe and continues to stay vigilant against ongoing threats to the cause of freedom and representational government. We have come a long way as people since 1863. Leaders like Martin Luther King, Junior have brought to American consciousness that when we say, “all people are created equal” we have a lot of work to do ensure that equality is protected. Whatever you think of him politically, the election and re-election of Barak Obama as president is worth cultural commentary – the mere idea of an African America serving in that role would have been inconceivable a few short decades ago. At the same time our internal struggles as a society from post-Civil War Southern reconstruction, Jim Crowe laws, the Civil Rights movement, last week’s decision by the Supreme Court to strike down the Voting Rights Act, the Trayvon Martin murder trial, the Paula Deen’s highly publicized racial slur, and the economic disparity many people in the United States continue to face along racial lines reveals that as far as we have come, the stain of America’s original sin still lingers. We still have a long way to go.
Where do we go from here?
July 4 is tomorrow. Appropriately we celebrate all that is good about our country – a culture that frames its outlook from the framework from the Declaration of Independence, our Constitution, the Bill of Rights and subsequent amendments, a history full of adventure, expansion, global importance, intellectual and technological advances, and an outlook that anyone, regardless of their background, has the ability to achieve great things. These are quintessential American ideals, and with gusto we should indeed celebrate the opportunities we have – because we live in land such as ours. But we should not gloss over the struggles and ongoing challenges that have brought us here. We should remember the fallen who gave their lives to protect us, we should remember those who have been denied not only the voting booth, but the respect we should afford all human beings, we should also remember those whose land and lives we’ve trampled on to fulfill our self-proclaimed “manifest destiny,” we should remember those who gave up everything they ever knew so that we as their descendants could make a better life, and we should empower those still struggling to do the same. A day like Independence Day can ironically provide an opportunity for us to acknowledge that we continue to be captive to sin, and cannot free ourselves…whatever else we as a people or as a society is able to (or is unable to) ultimately accomplish.
As I look back over the last one hundred fifty years since the Battle of Gettysburg, over the past two hundred thirty seven years since July 4, 1776, and across the past two millennia plus some odd years since the arrival of Jesus in the manger, I am reminded that in Christ we live in this paradox:
We live in the tension of claiming and giving the gift of freedom,
and only by faith in our deep dependence on Christ
can we be truly free.
For you were called to freedom, brothers and sisters; only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence, but through love become slaves to one another. For the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” (Galatians 5:13-14)