Today, September 17, 2012, marks the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Antietam (also known as the Battle of Sharpsburg), which is widely considered to be the single bloodiest day in American history. The estimates are that 22,700 Union and Confederate soldiers were killed, wounded, or missing by the end of that battle, which was fought to what most historians agree was a tactical draw. It was a critical battle in the American Civil War and the first major battle that could even marginally be considered a Union success (which says something about General McClellan and the Union leadership, that a draw might be considered success). Five days after the battle, President Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation which declared that on New Year's Day, 1863, slaves in areas then "in rebellion against the United States shall be then, thenceforward, and forever free." For areas not deemed to be in rebellion, slavery would be unchanged. It was a watershed moment in American history.
I have been to the Antietam battlefield many times and, in many ways, it is the most compelling battlefield park in my mind. Antietam is not surrounded by the commercialism of Gettysburg or the intrusion of modern development as many other such places. The fields still bring forth crops as they did in 1862, but the monuments tell the silent story of a very violent and desperate day when those same fields were cut down by musket and artillery fire as if swept away by a scythe. Standing in places like the Cornfield or The Sunken Road or Burnside's Bridge, the silence is both eery and deafening.
One of the places that I have gravitated toward on the battlefield is the Dunker Church, located in the vitual apex of the battle. This little white church was home to a small congregation of German anabaptists called "Dunkers" because of their method of baptism. Their official name was the German Baptist Brethren, the forerunners of the Church of the Brethren.
The Antietam NPS web site describes their lifestyle and practices: "Dunkers practiced modesty in their dress and general lifestyle. Other Christian principles which the Dunker's stress are: pacifism, members both North and South refused military service; the brotherhood of man, including opposition to slavery; and temperance, total abstinence from alcohol. A typical Dunker church service supported their beliefs in simplicity. Hymns were sung with no musical accompaniment from organ, piano or other instruments. The congregation was divided with men seated on one side and women on the other. The churches were simple with no stained glass windows, steeple or crosses."
It's ironic, then, that one of Alexander Gardner's most famous pictures from the American Civil War is of dead soldiers in the yard of a church that wanted nothing to do with war. The sharp contrast between the desire for peace and the specter of war is striking.
Some might say that the Dunkers were being unrealistic in their pacifism. Some may have even thought them cowards for not rallying to the flag as so many did in those heady days of the war when both sides believed they were close to victory. Surely they were out of touch with the way the world actually works–a world that believes that young men have to die in order for a cause to be advanced.
I look at this picture today, however, and I wonder if the Dunkers were actually the brave ones on the field that day. They chose not to take up the sword, participate in the carnage, and they did so because they actually believed the words of Jesus, who taught his followers to love their enemies, to turn the other cheek, to endure suffering with patient endurance. They believed in a crucified savior who did not retaliate against the ones who nailed him to a cross but, in a stunning reversal, forgave them instead. Most people believe that Jesus was brave in going to the cross, but they'd rather fight than join him there. The Dunkers believed that they were people of the cross and chose to take that road rather than the road to war.
I think about the Dunkers whenever I hear the war rhetoric in our culture. We are so eager to pull the sword or the gun. Much of that rhetoric eminates from people who claim the name of Christ. Both the Union and the Confederacy claimed God's divine blessing on the righteousness of their cause and then went forward to butcher one another. War is a human reality, to be sure, but the Gospel teaches us that it need not be an inevitable necessity. Jesus advocated for his followers to chose another way. This haunting picture from that bloodiest of days stands as a visual reminder of the choices we must make.
So while we stand today on this anniversary in sober celebration and in honor of those on both sides who marched bravely into the firestorm of minie ball, shell, and sword, I will also stand in honor of those who bravely chose the other way–the way of peace. As you read the commemorative articles and specials today, I want to encourage you honor the dead by praying for the day when war will be no more and young men–indeed, all people–will come home for good.