Robert E. Lee had an important choice at Appomattox in April 1865: the choice for war or peace. He was cornered, his army was starving, it wasn’t possible to hold things together. A probe of enemy lines that told him fighting a battle in that place was not only a losing proposition, but the sure destruction of his army. The Confederate president wanted to continue the struggle by “Missouri” tactics, where the troops would disperse and emerge to ambush and harass the enemy. Lee could have taken to guerilla warfare, with small groups of men resisting from the mountains and marshes, let the Union occupy the South but make it difficult for them, keep the wounds of war fresh. This was what Union commanders feared at the end of the war: that the entire South would become like lawless Missouri.
It was Lee’s sense of honor that made the difference. His soldiers were farmers transformed by four years of conflict, they didn’t want to give up, but they were at the end of their rope. Continuing the struggle wasn’t worth the cost to the country in Lee’s mind: the cause was lost, the struggle was over, the soldiers needed to become farmers again. He chose to contact Grant and surrender. Afterward, Confederate troops in the field contacted him, asking him what to do. Lee told them what he told his men as he dismissed them after the surrender: “Go home, raise your crops, obey the Law.” This simple set of orders changed everything and helped the country heal. Most of those men did what he told them: they changed how they lived their lives and made real peace possible. It’s true that many of the wounds left by the Civil War haven’t healed, but if not for the wisdom of Robert E. Lee, it could have been much, much worse.
John the Baptist talked to people on the fringe and beyond. Tax collectors were infamous for being corrupt, they could charge anything as long as the graft wasn’t too extreme. Soldiers were bullies, and always unhappy about their pay. They knew they were in need of transformation, their lives weren’t complete, they needed healing. They came to the Jordan to find John, to find a way out of the hopelessness of their lives. What’s remarkable about what John has to say is that he doesn’t tell them to leave their professions, even though they were unacceptable by Jews of the day: he tells them how to practice them justly. Living in peace is about accepting reality, even harsh reality, and for these people, who were doing jobs that needed to be gone no matter how inglamorous, living in peace meant living in peace with their neighbors, adjusting their expectations to accommodate the needs of others.
How we live our lives matters. It’s easy to go gung ho with our own agendas, our own ambitions, and not pay attention to how our lives affect others. At time we pay no attention to whom we may impoverish as we seek to accumulate wealth, whose backs we climb up as we move upward. All of us have something important to do with our lives, all of us contribute to the welfare of others as well as our own. It’s our sense of honor, the responsibility we take for other’s well being, that determines whether we are living in peace with each other on the most basic level.
We are called to be messengers of the Prince of Peace, people of Charity and Compassion, representatives of Immanuel. We aren’t called to be judges and we aren’t called to be enforcers. If we choose the wrong methods, if we aren’t peace of peace, justice and compassion, we risk undermining the message and all Jesus asks us to do.
Our guide is at the table of the Eucharist we share. This table is the community we’ve been called to, the people Christ has chosen for us to share our lives and our faith with. How we treat them, how we do what we do, is our response to Christ’s gift to us.