By John James Kirkwood
This is pew #46, where Robert E. Lee used to sit with his daughters at Christ Church in Alexandria Virginia. It sits just across the aisle from the pew where George Washington had often sat. One day, after the war had ended, General Lee would rise from this pew and demonstrate the strength of true grace.
It was a relatively small church. The parishioners knew each other quite well. Or did they?
Families had helped build each other’s houses. Barn raisings had been a common, even social event. Their children had courted each other, some having gone on to marriage. They had stood together and cried together at the gravesides of countless loved ones over the past five years. They had gone through a most traumatic period as a community. Now it was time for the healing to begin.
Together in church one day they would be challenged and together most would fail.
Such is the story of human history and sadly of the Body of Christ known to the world as, “the Church.” Sometimes, there is but one man who has the courage of his convictions, and that sole man’s faithfulness in the heat of battle may melt the hard-hearted and inspire the lesser men around him.
One sunny day in a little Virginian church parishioners gathered to observe what is known in much of Christendom as The Lord’s Supper – the Eucharist. As the people were about to keep the ritual a young man, a young, “black man” entered from the back and approached the podium to himself partake.
There was a noticeable gasp, an uncomfortable drawn out silence for which even the parson seemed at a loss. For this was no mere mistake, this was an outright offense.
Did this man not know of his station in life? How insolent! He had his own place of worship, a “black” assembly, but this was “ours!” Something must be done!
Just when it seemed that chaos might break out a distinguished elderly man arose from a middle pew.
Well known and well respected not just in this little Virginia chapel but also in the whole of the Confederacy, even throughout the entire country; he would set things straight. When he arose there seemed to be a collective sigh of relief, the congregation was able to breathe again and some of the men were eager in their anticipation of the coming “fix.”
Approaching the young man, the young, “black man” whose head was now bowed as he knelt at the altar, the elderly gentleman to the surprise of those assembled took his place next to him. Next to the “black man.”
Without saying a word, he slowly knelt. His age and the cost of war made it slow but deliberate, then he looked his parson in the eyes and nodded as if to say, “get on with it,” bowing his head once more to await his turn.
It may have shocked some in attendance, though they’d never challenge their hero about this in public or in private. It most certainly shocked the young man who, rightly or wrongly, decided to interrupt a church service to make a statement.
The parson began the ritual and the young man, (who never really was that young, “black man” but a fellow believer, even a brother in Christ), was allowed to partake.
As the old man took the wafer, another man rose and slowly made his way to the front, and then another followed by yet another.
Not because of the will of the people or the wisdom of the parson but because of the courage of one old man what could have turned into a terrible wrong was made right, the wind and the waves rebuked.
It would have been very easy for the old man to stay in his seat, they were his friends, they were his family, and he was their hero. The peer pressure must have been overwhelming, but he did the right thing. He did the hard thing.
A few years earlier on another battlefield this “old man” faced the pressure of another battle with an overwhelming enemy. Outnumbered nearly three to one, poorly supplied and facing the annihilation of his army he had to make another hard choice. Surely the easy thing to do would be to retreat, fight the battle another day or at least dig in and let someone else take the initiative, but not he. He did the hard thing, what many would call the impossible: he attacked and he won.
Many may know what General Robert E. Lee achieved at Chancellorsville in early May of 1863 but only a few of what he accomplished in that little Virginia chapel after the war had ended.
Some say that bravery in the face of the enemy is the highest and most honorable of virtues. Others would argue that it is the courage one must muster in the face of friends, family and peers when those dearest to you are out of line. That is the epitome of valor!
Hollywood loves the charged ending with a charismatic character in righteous indignation calling down fiery condemnation on those in the wrong – a scorched earth campaign like Tom Cruise in A Few Good Men or Al Pacino in Scent of a Woman. Sadly, in the face of unrepentant sin, this is sometimes necessary. But notice the grace bestowed by the good general: grace to a young black man with an agenda, grace to a hesitant, paralyzed parson, but most of all, grace to the stilted crowd.
There was no condemnation here, no presumption about their character. The old general simply did the right thing and led by example, and he did it in a manner so as to give those in his company an “out” so that they too could join him in victory.
This is noble! This is magnanimous! This is the heart of true, Christian courage!
*To find out more about the inspiring life of Robert E. Lee, read R.E. Lee: A Biography by Douglas Southall Freeman (preferably the 4 volume set)