Years later, a stranger is severely injured in an accident; learning of an urgent request for blood donors, the young man walks three miles to donate blood and three miles back for a person he never met.
The sensitive, devout, compassionate man I’m writing about was Desmond Doss, whose story I learned about from reading LewRockwell.com, especially this wonderful piece by Ellen Finnigan. After the release of Mel Gibson’s film, Hacksaw Ridge, Doss’s heroism and faith are becoming more widely known. This reviewer said the film reminded him of Sergeant York. Yet I think such comparisons, although laudable, miss the obvious and that is Desmond Doss from a young age internalized Christ’s central teaching. And by his actions, he showed how he could serve his country to become not only the best of patriots but also follow the commandment: “Thou shalt not kill.”
Laurence M. Vance has written convincingly against the misconception, as he puts it, that the Sixth Commandment is against murder and not killing, hence so many who consider themselves Christian believe that to kill during war is exempt: Conscientious Objector... Best Price: $13.99 Buy New $20.43
Thus, the general evangelical consensus is that the Hebrew word underlying the word kill in the sixth commandment means “murder.” Most of the Christians who make this argument do so, not because they know anything about biblical Hebrew or Bible translation, but because they are trying to justify Christians killing for the state in Iraq, Afghanistan, or wherever else the government has sent or will send its soldiers. This gives them something to fall back on when the recitation of their “obey the powers that be” mantra doesn’t quite do the job.As the biographical film showed, Doss considered himself to be a “conscientious cooperator,” not an objector. Ms. Finnigan wrote:
When the military tried to send him to a conscientious objector camp, he insisted on going to war! Doss believed that the United States was fighting for freedom, including religious freedom, and that it was an honor to serve his God and his country. He wanted to serve—but in a way that was consistent with his beliefs. His beliefs were very simple: He couldn’t picture Jesus killing people, but he could picture Jesus with a first aid kit.While watching the biographical film of Doss, entitled The Conscientious Objector, what surprised me most was how his fellow soldiers held Doss and his beliefs in abject contempt—his devout holding to the Sabbath and reading the Bible among the acts that infuriated them—and instead of letting him alone and respecting him, their unjustified, malicious abuse was inflicted against him by men who probably thought of themselves as Christians, abuses that Doss suffered stoically. Yet in his quiet devotion, his willingness to suffer humiliation and pain and never retaliate, Doss understood a central teaching of Christ:
34 And when he had called the people unto him with his disciples also, he said unto them, Whosoever will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me.As scholar Ralph Earle explains in his monograph on the Gospel of Mark:
35 For whosoever will save his life shall lose it; but whosoever shall lose his life for my sake and the gospel’s, the same shall save it.
36 For what shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul? Redemption At Hacksaw ... Best Price: $17.97 Buy New $17.97
37 Or what shall a man give in exchange for his soul?
42. The Cost of Discipleship (8: 34-9: 1).(Ralph, Earle. Mark- Everyman’s Bible Commentary (Everyman’s Bible Commentaries) (Kindle Locations 927-932). Moody Publishers. Kindle Edition.)
Deny and take up are both in the aorist tense, suggesting definite decisions of self-denial and crucifixion with Christ (cf. Gal 2: 20). But follow me is in the present tense of continuous action. Following Jesus is a lifelong assignment, lasting until death. Verse 35 simply underscores the truth of verse 34. The one who wishes to save his life will ultimately lose it. But the one who loses his life in loving service to others for Christ’s sake will find that not only has he saved it but he has multiplied it in those he has helped. It is a simple fact of life that those who try to get all finally lose all, while those who give all actually get all in the end.
In his decision to be a healer and not a killer, to use his faith in God to save lives and not to take them, Doss escaped and transcended the cycle perpetuated by the power of might, a cycle seemingly no one can escape as Simone Weil wrote in her essay The Illiad, Poem of Might:
Might is that which makes a thing of anybody which is under its sway. When exercised to the full, it makes a thing out of man in the most literal sense, for it makes him a corpse…Love was the secret of Desmond Doss escaping the crushing effect of might, of war; Doss not only retained his humanity but showed its best aspect because he understood what Christ instructed and exemplified it; hence the miracle of his courage and the lives he saved. As Ms. Finnigan wrote:
Such is the nature of might. Its power to transform a man to a thing is double and cuts both ways; it petrifies differently but equally the souls who suffer it, and of those who wield it. This property of might reaches its highest degree in the midst of combat, at that moment when the tide of battle feels its way toward a decision. The winning of battles is not determined between men who plan and deliberate, who make resolution and Desmond Doss Conscient... Best Price: $9.97 Buy New $8.71 carry it out, but between men drained of these faculties, transformed, fallen to the level of inert matter, which is all passivity, or to the level of blind forces, which are all momentum. This is the final secret of war. This secret The Iliad expresses by its similes, by making warriors apparitions of great natural phenomenon: a conflagration, a flood, the wind, ferocious beasts, any and every blind cause of disaster…
The art of war is nothing but the art of provoking such transformations. The material, the procedures, even the inflicting of death upon the enemy, are only the means to this end; the veritable object of the art of war is no less than the souls of the combatants…this double ability of turning men into stone is essential to might, and a soul placed in contact with it only escapes by a sort of miracle. Miracles of this sort are rare and brief…
Other moments wherein men find their souls are the moments when they love.
In the film, Doss is shown being incredibly brave under fire, but the filmmakers do not convey just how impossible it was for him to survive or to do what he did. He was one of three men to hang the cargo net from the ledge of the Hacksaw Ridge. He volunteered. (In the film, if I remember correctly, he arrives and the net has already been secured.) You see: to hang the net was impossible because you would have to get up on the ledge where the Japanese had clear lines of sight from their fortified positions. To maximize your chances of survival, you had to stay low to the ground, crawl, and even then, your chances were scant. There is a photograph of Desmond Doss standing up—silhouetted—on the ridge. He didn’t get shot. The guns were silent while he was up there. Why? How? Nobody could explain it.(The autobiographical film makes clear that machine guns jammed.)
The net allowed the Americans to scale the cliff, from which point they could try to take the ridge. They climbed up and got driven back down twice before they succeeded. On top, it was a bloodbath. Not only did King James, His Bible,... Buy New $17.83 Desmond Doss run out time and time again into enemy fire, defying all odds of being shot and killed, or captured and tortured, but as a man of slight stature, he did what Arnold Schwarzenegger couldn’t do in his heyday: He singlehandedly dragged and/or carried 75 men from up to 125 feet away to the cliff, secured them with a special knot, and lowered them down—again, singlehandedly—over the 400-foot cliff to safety. He saved 75 men in twelve hours, which meant he saved one man every 10 minutes. Desmond Doss’ friend who spoke at the screening said that Desmond once told him that after he had carried and lowered the first three men, he had absolutely no physical strength left. None. He just kept repeating the prayer: “Please, Lord, help me get one more. Please, Lord, help me get one more.”
Weil also notes that the wielders of might, the victors of the moment, are not exempt from becoming its victims:
This retribution, of a geometric strictness, which punishes automatically the abuse of strength, became the principal subject of meditation for the Greeks. It constitutes the soul of the Greek epic; under the name of Nemesis it is the mainspring of Aeschylus’ tragedies.Achilles was thought to be god-like due to his might; he wins immortal glory but is fated to lose his life. Simone Weil’s commentary on an Ancient Greek epic poem of war is relevant to life itself because the consequences of might are what characterize the reality of war; as she noted, the only moments of grace in the poem were those moments when men loved. Yet before I knew of the history of Desmond Doss, in my novel The Cloak of Freya I wrote a scene where the Norse god of wisdom and my protagonist discuss The Iliad:
“If I understood one of Homer’s meanings or what I think is the most important lesson, and I’m not sure that I did—no matter how heroic, even in war killing takes a great deal from a man’s soul. The promised glory isn’t equal to the pain of loss of someone you loved, that separation from the one you love. Yet Homer, perhaps realizing the nature of man, understood the never ending cycle of war and pain and seeking ‘immortal glory’ was inevitable, yet ultimately futile and tragic—the will of Zeus. Still, I don’t know if an Ancient Greek would see things that way and I’m reading into the text something that isn’t there. Jesus and Nonviolence:... Best Price: $2.41 Buy New $5.00Desmond Doss distanced himself from the evils of war by saving lives and not taking them; for the only escape from the curse of might is love—Doss even treated the wounded Japanese. In a moving scene in the documentary film, a Jewish officer who didn’t want to serve with Doss, who wanted nothing more that he be cashiered, ultimately recognized his courage after he saved his life among so many other men.
“Anyway, to me Achilles was most heroic when he fought his monstrous nature, when he became compassionate towards Priam, the enemy, who was just as much a victim of fate—or his nature—as Achilles was. When he showed Priam mercy he became truly godlike…
“In my faith, if I understand it, what matters most is how we present our soul to God. Except we’re all flawed but we have to do our best; at least towards our fellow human beings we’re supposed to follow the Beatitudes, to ‘love our enemies.’ It’s easier said than done. Love isn’t always returned. But that’s not the point, is it? It’s the offering of love that matters. But then it’s so easily rejected; people place so many conditions on it.”
I think this commentary on Mark’s Gospel is relevant to understanding Desmond Doss:
[Mark 9:33-41] While Jesus was thinking and talking about His coming passion, His followers were filled with pride and selfish ambition. They all wanted the chief place in the Messianic kingdom they expected Him to set up when they arrived in Jerusalem. His mind was set on the cross; they were thinking only about crowns. So Jesus sat down, as Jewish rabbis always did when teaching, and called the twelve (v. 35). His opening words cut right across their false values of life: “If any man desire to be first, the same shall be last of all, and servant of all.” The two marks of true greatness are humility and service. This is one of the most frequently Mark- Everyman's Bible... quoted sayings of Jesus in the gospels.Ralph, Earle. Mark- Everyman’s Bible Commentary (Everyman’s Bible Commentaries) (Kindle Locations 1012-1017). Moody Publishers. Kindle Edition.
Desmond Doss was severely injured and became disabled although he could have easily died; yet I want to offer my own understanding of his heroism and Doss’s true understanding of Christ’s power and message. I believe what Desmond Doss accomplished was indeed a miracle because he prayed to God for strength to save lives. And I also believe this miracle is not available to Desmond Doss alone; I truly believe that people of faith will be given extraordinary power to save lives in extraordinary circumstances. It is a sad fact that wars continue to this day and people who, as Mr. Vance has noted in his exceptional writings, consider themselves Christians do not truly follow the way of Christ.
Yet I hope that others will be inspired by the faith and courage of Desmond Doss, of his pure understanding what it truly means to follow Christ, and choose to serve God and country as he did.
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