Friday, March 09, 2012

The Charitable Spirit of R.E. Lee Toward His Enemies

I am writing an essay on the history of the Lees of Virginia for my father. His mother (my grandmother), Julia Margaret Lee, is the great-grandchild (10x) of Richard Henry "The Immigrant" Lee I. Revolutionary War hero General Lighthorse-Harry Lee and Civil War Confederate General Robert E. Lee are cousins to our family, descending from another son of Richard Henry "The Immigrant" Lee. While researching the paper I am writing, I came across the funeral message preached at Robert E. Lee's funeral. By all accounts this man was a genuine Spirit-filled man, known for his virtue and character. One can't help reading the funeral message, however, and realizing that when Christian men like Robert E. Lee feel compelled to go to war against their brothers, this world is truly living under a curse.

After the Civil War, both sides gave tribute to the gentleman soldier Robert E. Lee. He became President of a university in Lexington, Virginia that now bears both his name and that of the founder of our country--Washington and Lee University.  While persuing this university's excellent collection of Lee papers, I came across the following anecdote of Robert E. Lee that spoke to my heart:
Robert E. Lee was once asked what he thought of the efficiency of a certain officer of the army. The officer in question had professed to be Lee's bitter enemy. Robert E. Lee spoke very complimentary of the officer. A friend of Lee interrupted him and said, “That man is your worse enemy!” Lee replied by saying “I was asked what I thought of him, not what he thought of me.”
The world would be a better place were we all able to exhibit Lee's charitable spirit toward those who consider us their enemy.


Bob Cleveland said...

He showed the same characteristic that made David "a man after God's own heart". In David's case, it was seeking out and showing mercy to Mephibosheth, the remaining member of Saul's family.

We need more like Robert E. Lee, and like David, today. Even partially, so they can show such compassion for fellow believers, if not for the enemy.

Muff Potter said...

Even Northern liberals such as myself are moved by the character of Robert E. Lee.

Anonymous said...

Few people today have reigns on their soul like Lee did.

John Wylie said...

First of all, excellent article. I love history in general and civil war history in particular. For my birthday last year one of our young preacher boys bought me a replica Confederate shell jacket. I treasure that gift because it speaks to how well the young man knows me. Second, you are related to Robert E. Lee? The scripture says that we are to confess our faults one to another and I would like to confess envy at this point.

Ramesh said...

It is refreshing to hear about R.E. Lee. In earth, we have Six Degrees of Separation (on the average), in heaven we have Two (on the average) or One Degrees of Separation.

Steven Stark said...

Good story! Especially in a world where we're encouraged to dehumanize our "enemies." Thank you for posting this.

On a similar note, I love how the Dalai Lama refers to China as "my friends, the enemy."

Laura said...

Now, as a Connecticut Yankee, this is scary territory...

It is true that Lee , from all accounts, was a man of integrity and character. Haven't I read that he had conflicting thoughts about the war and that Lincoln wanted him to lead the Union?

And, this is an excellent point about how we, as Christians, treat and view those who are the so-called "enemy".

I sometimes think that as a marginally conservative (liberal by many "churchy" standards but conservative to secularists) person it is interesting to me that so many of the artists, writers and musicians that I relate to would claim a philosophy very different from mine.In todays Christianity, this might make them the "enemy". I don't think that these differences should stop us from relating to, communicating with, or enjoying the expressions of these creative individuals.

So, it would be inconsistent for me to have an automatic melt down alarm go off when the positive attributes of a Confederate American are heralded, would it not?

Here is where I want to work very hard to avoid being as inconsistent as I think the modern Christian church can be when picking and choosing what individuals are above reproach and given more slack due to other redeeming qualities....

For example, it always bothered me in the Ted Haggart tragedy that there was a vast outpouring of prayer and sympathy for him- but I didn't see any tears or vigils for the guy that he was with in the hotel room. Maybe I missed it.

One theme that is important to me is that no matter what, all people have the spark of God's creation in them, and as such, are capable of worthy and beautiful things. I see this in the life of Robert E. Lee. BUT.....

Here is the stumbling block for me. I am a homeschooling mom who feels INCREASINGLY marginalized because of what I (and many others) see as a pollution of the homeschool community with pro-Southern, revisionist, sentimental and airbrushed Confederate sympathy! If you are not in this community, you might not believe it, but it is there and it is very alarming. There are curriculums and books being used in homes that suggest that Lincoln was akin to the devil and slavery was not so bad...And if I hear one more time that slavery had nothing to do with the Civil War, my head might start spinning around! Read the articles of the Confederacy from several of the states, or Davis's own words, for heaven's sake!!!

So, enough of a rant. All this to say that we can learn alot from Lee...and how sad that the wreck we make of this world threw a good man like him (and many others) into the "wrong" side of things...though maybe the message from all that is maybe we are all on the "wrong" side sometimes, and the important thing is to have the grace to admit it and not demonize those who would do the same to us.
I loved the Ken Burns documentary on the Civil War precisely because it was told largely through the poignantly beautiful words of young men who held on to love and character in the midst of brutality and death.

Paul Burleson said...


I want to say "thanks" for a thoughtful, well written and insightful comment. I have to say that you rang a bell with me personally.

It probably started with your description of yourself with this... "I sometimes think that as a marginally conservative (liberal by many "churchy" standards but conservative to secularists) person..."

I'm thinking you're my kind of people.

Laura said...

Pastor Burleson, I would like to comment one more time on this piece. You might have anticipated that this would be a very non controversial article, which in one sense it is- but in addition to the thoughts on a worrisome tendency among some conservative Christians to romantisize the Confederacy, here are some other questions that come to mind.

I am not trying to point out inconsistencies in your thinking; rather, I am trying to sort out my own.

How do we compare Lee's reluctance to call any man his enemy with the example you cite of the officer who threatened to throw pig blood on Muslim combatants, who you seem to agree with? I have difficulty in balancing the issues of God, government, and war. How is the Christian to view such tactics? I do not believe any country is "Christian"- though I think that America was certainly founded on many generic Judeo-Christian concepts-and I agree that to apologize for burning any items that were used in warfare by the enemy is absurd- but we are talking about two very different kinds of warfare here, I think? Am I mistaken? I guess that I always go back to the incompatability of justice and mercy that I think can ONLY be joined by Christ.We cannot compartmentalize our faith if we are at how does a Christian view an "enemy"? Thank you for your patience.

Wade Burleson said...


You ask, "So how does a Christian view an "enemy"? after saying "I have difficulty in balancing the issues of God, government, and war."

Amen. I agree. There are HUGE difficulties.

I do not believe that anyone should ever confuse Christianity with government or vice versa. "My kingdom is NOT of this world" Christ said.

I think this is the point I was attempting to make with R.E. Lee and the general who fought the Muslims in the Pacific. One will HAVE to wrestle with how a Christian can be a soldier and be called to do brutal things to his enemy by his government in order to protect his homeland (war), and how he is to 'love his enemy' in the kingdom of Christ.

There are no easy answers. You either avoid war (Mennonites), separate church and government (Baptists) or somehow attempt to proclaim your war a 'just' war and claim God on your side (as to all 'holy' wars).

I tend to agree with you. Ultimate justice is meted out by God. Until then, we live in a fractured, cursed world.

M.J. Austin said...

Yeah he had enough integrity to fight to keep black people as slaves. If he was such a great guy he would have been fighting on the right side not the bigoted side. And this comes from a native Virginian.

-Mrs. Austin