COMMENTARY: The heroic example of real-life war hero and conscientious objector Desmond Doss offers lessons for Christians in a world increasingly hostile to our beliefs.
“I feel my values are under attack,” says Desmond Doss in Mel Gibson’s Hacksaw Ridge. It’s a line that echoes the sentiments of millions of Americans today — with very different, even opposite, values.
Doss, a devout Seventh-day Adventist, wanted the right to religious accommodation for his principled nonviolence: to be allowed to serve in a combat unit in the Pacific theater in World War II without carrying a weapon, an accommodation his commanding offers were unwilling to grant. Hacksaw Ridge is about war and violence, but it’s also about individual freedoms, religious liberty and conscience rights.
In America today, Christians and others have long been concerned about threats to religious liberty — concerns that were sharpened in the era of President Barack Obama. With the Obama era giving way to the era of Trump, other groups of Americans — including many minorities, undocumented immigrants and their families, women, Muslims and gays — feel under attack, as well.
Strange as it might seem, I think Andrew Garfield’s character, an Appalachia-born country boy who belonged to an unusual religious sect, is in some ways a hero for our troubled times.
I know our world is very different from the early mid-20th century milieu depicted in Hacksaw Ridge. I’m aware of the incongruity of looking for moral wisdom in an ultraviolent war film directed by a disgraced traditionalist Catholic with a long list of well-known sins and failings.
But Hacksaw Ridge isn’t just the story of how a real-life war hero successfully defended his conscience rights in court against government oppression. It’s also the story of how he went from being despised and dismissed by his fellow soldiers to being honored and accepted by them — and that’s not just fiction or wishful thinking. The real Doss actually went from being regarded as a coward and a traitor at boot camp to being regarded as his unit’s good-luck charm at the Battle of Hacksaw Ridge, ultimately becoming the first conscientious objector to be awarded the Medal of Honor.
What are some lessons we might take from Desmond Doss in Hacksaw Ridge?
Take resistance and opposition in stride. Don’t waste time in self-pity, complaints or criticism.
During basic training at Fort Jackson, Desmond is harassed and bullied; one night, he is beaten. Throughout his ordeal, he never complains, even refusing to identify his attackers to his commanding officer. Naturally, this wins him a measure of grudging respect from his ashamed attackers.
I’m not saying we should be doormats, particularly when confronted with adversaries who feel no shame and regard their enemies as less than human. But few things are less attractive than members of majority communities (like white American Christians) self-righteously complaining about their own victim or martyr status.
Christians have been told to expect persecution, and in many parts of the world, it is far more dangerous to be a Christian today than under Nero or Diocletian — more dangerous than ever before in history, in fact. In America, though, most Christians are likely to face nothing much worse than insults or verbal abuse on social media.
Long experience has taught me that the ancient Jewish sage who observed that a soft answer turns away wrath was onto something — as was the Prophet from Nazareth who told his followers not to resist one who is evil, to turn the other cheek, to love our enemies and pray for our persecutors.
Meeting disrespect with respect is a powerful move. Even when it doesn’t impress your attacker, it often makes a positive impression on other people.
Find common ground. Find ways to build bridges rather than burn them.
“When the Japs attacked Pearl Harbor,” Desmond tells the officers at his court-martial, explaining why he volunteered, “I took it personal.” When he looks at his gun-toting fellow recruits, Desmond doesn’t see impious, impure enemies of his faith or his principles. He sees his own countrymen, fellow soldiers engaged in a common struggle.
A common struggle, of course, implies a common enemy. Decades ago, the Soviet Union and the Cold War provided a common enemy offering Americans a cause to rally around. Fifteen years ago, the Sept. 11 attacks briefly did something similar. But the “War on Terror” eventually morphed into another front of the culture wars, and, today, for many Americans, the main enemy is other Americans.
There are real and serious divisions between the left and the right. Fear and hatred — on both sides — can make them seem deeper and more far-reaching than they are. We can’t ignore or gloss over our differences, but we don’t have to allow the most extreme versions of both sides to dominate the discussion and define the issues for the rest of us. Most conservatives aren’t Ann Coulter; most progressives aren’t Amanda Marcotte. (No moral equivalences are implied there, incidentally.)
One of the worst tendencies of social discourse today is how each faction exploits and magnifies the worst and most hateful excesses of the other side. The most poisonous voices of the extreme right are probably few, but progressive outrage gives them an echo chamber. Likewise, conservative outrage gives an echo chamber to the most anarchic voices on the extreme left: for example, calls for violence against police.
As soon as we start to resist that tendency on our own side as well as on the other — and criticizing the extreme wing of our own side as well as on the other — we have something in common with those on the other side who are doing the same thing. After that, it’s not hard to find other things we agree on.
Common ground doesn’t have to mean only co-belligerence in shared struggles. It can involve shared personal experiences or cultural affinities. In Hacksaw Ridge, Desmond and a formerly antagonistic recruit named Smitty discover they have things in common (for instance, neither had a stable father).
When Christopher Hitchens and Presbyterian pastor Douglas Wilson toured the country debating the existence of God, they bonded over a shared love of P.G. Wodehouse. One of the things I love about film criticism is that movies offer a point of common ground with atheists and agnostics, Muslims and Hindus, and people who are politically very different from me. It helps us all to see one another as fellow human beings, first and foremost.
Be humble. You don’t have all the answers; don’t pretend to.
“This is Satan himself we’re fighting,” a psychiatrist challenges Desmond. “What are you going to do, hit him with your Bible? What do you do when everything in your world is under attack?”
“I don’t know, sir,” Desmond answers. “I ain’t got answers to questions that big.” There are many big questions out there that are hard to answer. We can’t fully explain why suffering and evil exist. We don’t know much about the psychological origins of same-sex attraction or homosexuality. Our faith doesn’t give us a complete response to gender dysphoria.
The Catholic faith has always been a sign of contradiction in the world. There is no way to proclaim what we believe without offending and angering some people. We don’t have to make it more offensive.
Serve others sacrificially, including those different from you. Do what you can to make the world a better place for everyone.
“With the world so set on tearing itself apart,” Desmond declares at his court-martial, “it don’t seem like such a bad thing to me to put a little bit of it back together.”
It’s a great line, but what really matters is that Desmond follows up his words with actions. His great achievement, of course, is single-handedly saving the lives of scores of wounded servicemen on the battlefield at Okinawa’s Hacksaw Ridge. Astonishingly, not only did Doss save men on his own side, he even treated wounded Japanese.
Very few of us will have the opportunity to prove our worth on any battlefield in the world the way Doss did. Still, in our own ways, we can try to focus on putting a little bit of the world back together.
We can’t ask for empathy from others if we don’t empathize with them. We can’t ask others to stand up for us if we don’t stand up for them. If we want those who don’t share our faith to understand the challenges we face, we ought to try to understand the challenges others face.
If we want to continue to make the case for religious freedom, we have to defend it across the board — not only for ourselves, but also for Muslims and others. If we want freedom of religion to mean more than freedom of worship, we need to put the practice of our faith at the service of the needs of our communities: feeding and caring for the poor and needy, etc.
White Christians speaking about challenges to religious freedom won’t have much credibility for many listeners if we don’t empathize with the challenges posed to black Americans by racial injustice. The same goes for Catholic conservatives (both men and women) who are hostile to any form of feminism as such, who haven’t assimilated Pope St. John Paul II’s teaching on “the importance of true Christian feminism” (see Evangelium Vitae, 99).
We must also empathize with the struggles of those of our neighbors who identify as “LGBTQ.” The Church’s teaching on homosexuality and sexual identity is, of course, a great obstacle here, and we cannot compromise our beliefs. Yet our faith also tells us that those with same-sex attraction “must be accepted with respect, compassion and sensitivity. Every sign of unjust discrimination in their regard should be avoided” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2358).
The clear implication of these lines is that such individuals have not always been accepted with respect, compassion and sensitivity and have suffered from unjust discrimination. Despite much vocal pro-gay advocacy in our day, the burden of entrenched prejudice and oppression — in which so many Christians have been complicit — remains heavy. If they regard us with anger and pain, that’s understandable. Our response should be understanding, sorrow and humility, not defensiveness or self-righteousness.
In some (not all) ways, the position of Christians in the increasingly post-Christian West is starting to resemble that of the early Christians in the Roman Empire. The establishment and the culture are less naturally sympathetic to our interests than they once were.
In this situation, it behooves us to take note of the tack of the early Christian apologists. They sought to persuade the authorities and their neighbors that Christians were not enemies of the empire or the emperor: that good Christians were good citizens who prayed for their pagan leaders and loved and served their pagan neighbors.
This doesn’t mean not proclaiming the fullness of what we believe, including all the teachings the post-Christian world finds most unacceptable. It does mean carrying out our mission like Jesus — and, in his own way, like Desmond Doss: as a suffering servant. We should know how to take fire without returning it, to wage our warfare not against flesh and blood, but against powers and principalities, for a reward far greater than any medal.
Will some still attack our values, our religious liberty? Of course. But we’ll be in a much better position to defend them.