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Following Jesus

What Are You Willing To Stand Up For?

November 7, 2016 by

I first heard of Desmond Doss, the protagonist of Mel Gibson’s new film Hacksaw Ridge, some years ago, reading a coffee-table book about winners of the Medal of Honor. I was at the apartment of an old friend, an Army veteran who served three consecutive tours in the jungles of Vietnam. The air that evening was stodgy with the sour scent of his cat’s litter box and the smoke of cheap cherry cigarillos. We sat in attentive stillness.

My friend’s focus on his TV was disrupted as I put down the book in astonishment and shared what I was reading. Doss’s exploits – saving a reputed seventy-five lives during a battle on Okinawa in April 1945 – were astonishing. That he did it while refusing to carry a weapon because of his religious conscientious objection was incredible. How did this man find the faith that enabled him to stand up for his beliefs – and not only this once, but repeatedly – and distinguish himself courageously in the most hellish of circumstances?

Less enthralled with the details of Doss’s story than me, my friend curtly responded, “Yeah, how’s that song go: ‘If you stand for nuttin’ you’ll fall for anything’” and took another sip of his Keystone Light. He proceeded to shuffle to the door in his rundown slippers to call in the cat for the night. “Here, meow, meow. . .” That was my cue to resume the silence.

I remembered that evening as I left the theater after watching Hacksaw Ridge. Since then I’d read whatever I could find about Doss’s life, and I was interested in how he would survive the Hollywood treatment. The review in the Chicago Tribune calling it “the most bloodthirsty movie about a pacifist ever made” was on point; war really is hell, but then again, I didn’t need Mel Gibson to teach me that.

movie poster

So to fully appreciate the meaning of Desmond Doss, it’s instructive to look beyond the blood and guts; the most thought-provoking parts of film actually occurred off the battlefield. There’s his interaction with his tormented father, a greatly damaged World War One veteran; his relationship with Dorothy, his nurse/girlfriend (and later wife), as she visits him in military prison; his repeated clashes with military brass and his fellow soldiers over his refusal to touch a gun. These presented me with a few questions.

Doss’s belief, founded in religious conviction, that killing was the greatest sin, was perceived as pure cowardice, as unmanly, as the sign of feeble character. But what defines courage? It’s not a one-dimensional virtue, all hard-bitten muscle and smoking firepower. What about moral bravery, that concealed strength to stand alone for something that means something to you? It won’t make you popular and it’s harder to attain, but in the end it has perhaps more of an enduring consequence. Through his steadfastness and faith, and through his actions, Doss disproved those previous judgments, to the point where even the President of the United States took notice.

Hacksaw made me think about the importance of having conviction, of being wholehearted in my own conscience, of truly knowing right from wrong, and letting that guide me and, in the end, define me. I was reminded of Martin Luther’s resolute words as he stood before his own tribunal: “I am bound by the scriptures I have quoted and my conscience is captive to the word of God. I cannot and I will not recant anything, since it is neither safe nor right to go against conscience."

I tried to explain all this to my inquisitive ten-year-old son as we sat together after I got home. He still has a few years to go before I show him any Mel Gibson movies, but he was curious about it, and I took a moment to share my thoughts with him. Not only my thoughts on the film, but also my fatherly hopes for him as he grows into manhood.

I remembered again my friend the Vietnam vet and cat lover. He knew my son – and me – well, and he’d often quoted Proverbs 22:6 to me: “Train up a child in the way he should go; even when he is old he will not depart from it.” Doss’s father did exactly this, presenting to him, in boyhood, an illustrated copy of the Ten Commandments. It depicted Cain killing his brother Abel. Doss later said, “And when I looked at that picture, I came to the Sixth Commandment, ‘Thou shalt not kill,’ . . . I wondered, how in the world could a brother do such a thing? It put a horror in my heart of just killing, and as a result I took it personally: ‘Desmond, if you love me, you won't kill.’”

I hope my son finds his own path, guided by a very personal and grounded faith, and that he then finds the courage to hold true to this path, no matter the consequence. There’s a scene towards the end of the film in which Doss and his commanding officer have a conversation, each man carrying his weapon: Doss a Bible, the officer a rifle, each fully prepared to stand by their choice. I don’t know which weapon my son will choose, but I know I’m his best example.

The apostle Paul tells us to “Be watchful, stand firm in the faith, act like men, be strong” (1 Cor. 16:13). That’s sometimes a tall order, but as Doss shows us, difficulty is no excuse. Which weapon will you pick up, and how many lives will you save?

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About the author

Jason Landsel

Jason Landsel

Jason lives in upstate New York at the Woodcrest Bruderhof.

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  • good article

    Tom