On the days of July 1st to July 3rd 1863, the Union and Confederate armies clashed in the largest battle of the American Civil War at a little village named Gettysburg. More than 160,000 soldiers dressed in blue or gray entered those Pennsylvania fields, and a staggering 51,000 became casualties in the fighting.
Some of the fiercest combat occurred on the last day of the battle with what historians call “Pickett’s Charge.” General Robert E. Lee ordered an advance of some 14,000 Confederate troops led by George Pickett, across an open field, to take Cemetery Ridge held by Union troops and artillery dug in on the other side.
The battle lasted less than an hour and not half of the Confederate troops survived. It was a bloody end to the deadliest battle in the Civil War’s history. The Union was the accepted “winner,” but winning is a term hardly appropriate for so much suffering.
Fifty years later, in July 1913, surviving veterans of the armies that fought that day returned to Gettysburg for a reunion. It was the largest gathering of Civil War veterans ever assembled, with more than 50,000 in attendance. The youngest veteran was 61 years old, and the senior member claimed to be 112.
In that summer the world was once again on the edge of war (Isn’t it always?). There were terrible fears – socially, politically, and economically. But for a few days the nation set aside its anxieties and turned its attention to those old men once again assembled on the rolling hills of Pennsylvania.
The Washington Post wrote of the Gettysburg reunion: “Nothing could possibly be more impressive or more inspiring…than this gathering. They feel the thrill of bygone days, without a knowledge of its bitterness, which, thank God, has passed. But even more touching must be the emotions of these time-worn veterans, as they assemble on an occasion that in itself constitutes a greater victory than that of half a century ago.”
As part of the reunion, surviving members of Pickett’s Charge assembled for a reenactment. The old Union soldiers took their position on Cemetery Ridge, and the old Confederates marched across the open field as they had done fifty years earlier.
Frederick Buechner says, “Then an extraordinary thing happened,” as the old Union soldiers moved out to rush down at the old men marching across the field. “A great cry went up, only instead of doing battle as they had a half century earlier, this time they threw their arms around each other. They embraced and wept.”
Buechner goes on to use this as an example of the new world in which we can live. The old animosities and former battles between people that could not live together are gone. We are brought together as one people, not because of the flag we wave, but because of the love that Christ brings – even among those who were bitter enemies.
God’s love in Christ knows no limit. Serial killers, thieves, prostitutes, Wall Street pirates, dirty politicians, exploiters of the innocent, the enemies of our way of life: He doesn’t approve of injustices – God forbid – but still he loves all those in his world.
“While we were still sinners,” the Bible says, “Christ died for us.” Once we were God’s enemies but in Christ God took the necessary, loving steps to reconcile us to himself. So it is that when we love without limit, when we love those who are our enemies, we are reflecting the nature of God. No, it is not practical. It is not right, fair, or justifiable; but it is love.
Forgiveness of our enemies is not natural, because humans are innately violent. But when we follow and are changed by Jesus, we are set free from the slavery of our human nature and what the world declares as normal. To follow Christ means we have found a new way to live, set free to love those we once hated. And when we are no longer fastened to what we once were, that is the greatest victory of all.