Monday, June 19, 2017

God in the Killing Fields

As Donald Trump’s presidency continues, I hear more and more things from the left about how Trump and the Republicans are a danger to democracy.  I hear how Mr. Trump or a Republican Congress will take away our rights and our freedoms.  I believe it is wise to diligently guard those rights and freedoms enshrined in the Constitution.  At the same time, there is a sense that the people complaining about our rights and freedoms, from both the left and the right, should get some much needed perspective.

I say this, having just read Intended for Evil:  A Survivor’s Story of Love, Faith and Courage in the Cambodian Killing Fields.  The book, written by a college acquaintance of mine, Les Sillars, gives our current discussion that perspective.  While we carefully guard our rights and freedoms, Sillars tells the powerful story of Radha and the Cambodian people whose rights and freedoms were taken away completely by the Khmer Rouge Communists.  What may or may not be happening in our country is nothing compared to the horror visited on this Asian nation.

Sillars’ story is based on extensive interviews and, it appears, a friendship with, Radha Manickam, an Indian citizen living in Cambodia at the time of the Khmer Rouge takeover in the 1970’s.  From a wealthy Hindu family, Radha became a Christian as a young man.  Soon after his conversion, the country was taken over by the Communists.

Interweaving Radha’s personal story with a birds-eye view of what was going on in Cambodia on a national and international level, Sillars tells a story of lost rights, powerlessness and random murder.  The Khmer Rouge evacuated the Cambodian people from their cities, forcibly settled them in the country to grow rice, and starved and worked them to death.  Radha’s story is depressing at times and hard to stomach.  The reader wonders how one man, and ultimately how a whole country, could endure that much brutality.

And yet, God’s hand shines through over and over in the story.  God is a work protecting Radha, providing food for him, overseeing the circumstances of his marriage and ultimately helping him escape to the United States.  While Radha’s story is one of profound loss at times – most of his immediate family died in the killing fields of Cambodia - it is also one of hope, since God never lets go of one of his own.

Sillars tell the story of both the rise and the fall of the Khmer Rouge.  Interestingly enough, a recent issue of Christianity Today chronicles the amazing opportunity for ministry that exists in Cambodia at the present time.  Christians are at work in many areas, from standing against the sex trade to planting churches among Cambodian national.  As Intended for Evil makes clear, God is able to take situations and circumstances that are brutal and redeem them for His glorious purposes.

So, by all means, stand up for the rights and freedoms we enjoy in our country.  Thank God for them on a regular basis.  Make yourself aware of the places where those rights are being eroded.  At the same time, always remember we may not have those freedoms forever.  But if they go away, it does not mean God is no longer at work.  In fact, it may be that God has even more opportunities to work, redeeming painful situations and bringing hope in places where, humanly speaking, it should not exist.

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Book Review: Clouds of Glory by Michael Korda

In May, the city of New Orleans removed the last of its Civil War monuments, a statue of General Robert E. Lee.  There has been great outcry by both sides of the political spectrum over the removal of these monuments.  The left is pleased to see them go, decrying them as continual reminders of the national sin of slavery and a debunking of the “lost cause” Civil War mythos.  The right, while agreeing with the evils of slavery, wondered out loud about forgetting our history as a nation and wondered whether the founders of our country, many of them slave-holders as well, would also soon be “removed” from public view.
In the midst of this discussion, I had the privilege of reading Michael Korda’s biography of Robert E. Lee entitled Clouds of Glory: The Life and Legend of Robert E. Lee.  I have read and heard much in recent months about this man from many sources, from media reports to Facebook memes.  Who was this man and how much of our perception of him, 150 years later, is accurate?

Korda’s book is massive – almost 700 pages of text, not counting footnotes – and his story is told well.  Except for a few instances of irritating repetition and a few factual errors, such as errors in dates that a good editor should have caught, Korda’s portrait of Lee is well painted.  Beginning with his early life in a prestigious but impoverished Virginia family, Korda follows Lee through West Point, marriage and the Mexican-American War, where Lee first made his mark on the national stage.  Many of Lee’s years in the Army, either as an engineer or cavalry commander, were years of boredom, drudgery and a lack of promotion.  That said, as a result of Mexican War heroics, he entered the Civil War with a rank of Colonel. After the Confederate attack on Fort Sumter, both sides, Union and Confederate, sought Lee’s services as a commander of their armies in the field.  Only when Virginia seceded from the Union did Lee make up his mind, following his home state into the arms of the rebellion. 

The bulk of Korda’s book focuses on Lee’s years as a Civil War commander.  He was, without a doubt, the most brilliant of all the commanders on both sides of the war.  He took risks no other commander would take, and often he pulled them off.  Korda does a good job analyzing Lee’s strategical and tactical choices, marveling at his willingness to divine his forces in the face of the enemy.  At the same time, Clouds of Glory is not hagiography.  Korda criticizes Lee for the risks he took that did not turn out well.  He especially is concerned about Lee’s unwillingness to be forceful with his sub-commanders, all too often trusting them too much and leaving too much in their hands, which at times led to movement and attacks that were made too late to garner even greater victories.

Throughout the book, Korda addresses the glorification of Lee that is the product of historians like Douglas Southall Freeman and others of the “Lost Cause” persuasion.  While Korda considers Lee to be a brilliant general, he has little time of day for Lee’s most zealous apologists.  One area where those apologists focus their interest is on Lee and his slavery views.  While Lee did hate slavery, he also considered, as many Americans on both sides of the rebellion did in those day, that black Americans were inferior.  While Lee did not participate in the slave trade, he did own 200 slaves, all inherited through his wife’s family at the death of his father-in-law.  Despite his revulsion of slavery, Lee was unable to free his slaves prior to the Civil War due to the stipulations of his father-in-law’s will.

One of the things I appreciated most about Korda’s book was its emphasis on Lee’s religious faith.  While he does not make it a major part of the book, he does not shy away from matters of faith like many modern biographers do.  He is very clear that Lee is what he calls an evangelical Christian and that his faith in God’s will guided and directed his life to the end.   His mentions of Lee’s faith in God are woven throughout the book, as I believe they should be.

The book, while excellent, produced mixed feelings in me.  While I share Robert E. Lee’s faith, I cannot relate to his views of African Americans or his tolerance of slavery.  I don’t know how he mixed those views; that concept is foreign to me.  Like a number of Civil War icons, Lee is an enigma to those of us who see the world in a different way.  At the same time, Korda’s portrait is still eminently worth reading.  We cannot forget our history, especially the parts that make us uncomfortable, even while we forge ahead, committed to not repeating the mistakes of the past.