On Tuesday of that week, we made a three-hour drive to Gettysburg. I had wanted to tour the Civil War battlefield since I was a boy, and my sons also expressed an interest in going. As anyone familiar with battlefields will note, it is ideal to visit during the time of the year of the actual battle. This way one gets an accurate impression of what the conditions were like when the fighting took place. Since the Battle of Gettysburg took place from July 1-3, 1863, we visited at the right time of the year.
I purchased an audio CD for the car and we took the driving tour around the battlefield. We got out of the vehicle at several places and spent some time looking around, and since I have that professor instinct in me, I couldn’t miss an opportunity to teach my sons. We began our tour at about one p.m. and finally finished around seven p.m. at the Soldiers National Cemetery, where Abraham Lincoln gave the Gettysburg Address on November 19, 1863. We spent so much time there and yet realized that we could return again and see things we had not.
During our tour, there were several moments that truly struck me as profound. There was the stop at the edge of the line of trees where General George Pickett and his men began the ill-fated charge over the three-quarters of a mile of open ground on which so many Confederate soldiers marched to their deaths. There was the eerie Devil’s Den that the South took control of, shredding the Union defenders. Then there was Little Round Top where the Twentieth Maine held the line against the Confederates at great loss. Finally there was the “copse of trees,” the concentration point of the Rebel charge on the last day.
I had several meaningful moments throughout the day where I said to myself, “We human beings seem to find a way to get what we so desperately wish to avoid.” So many of our best and brightest are lost in battles that we wish would not have happened. Countries continually find the conflict they hope to avoid with diplomacy. Communities experience pain and insult because we get so entrenched in our own unwavering points of view. Individuals knowing the great health risks in smoking and heavy drinking continue in reckless behavior hoping that they will not have to “pay the piper.” We know we need to eat less and more healthily, and we must exercise moderately as well, but we keep putting it off until we find ourselves physically unable to do what we should have and now cannot.
We human beings always manage to receive what we wish to avoid. This is not a new story. It is as old as the Garden of Eden and as true as the orbit of the earth around the sun.
In his Letters and Papers from Prison, pastor and theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer writes of liberation, “A prison cell, in which one waits, hopes—and is completely dependent on the fact that the door of freedom has to be opened from the outside....”
Bonhoeffer’s imprisonment was not self-imposed, and yet his words ring true for all of us. It is no wonder that God must free us from our prisons, self-imposed or not, both corporately and personally. It cannot come from us, for we are too busy falling into the very traps we wish to avoid, even though we set many of them for ourselves.
None of this proposes any profound solutions to our human condition and situation; indeed, to suggest a solution in the space of a few paragraphs would ignore the complicated nature of our dilemmas, both corporately and individually.
But one thing is certain: when one looks at what it means to be made in the image of God, albeit a cracked image, one understands why salvation cannot come to us from us; intervention from the outside is our only hope.