Why I Celebrate Robert E. Lee’s Birthday
I am nothing but a poor sinner, trusting in Christ alone for salvation. Robert E. Lee
It is written in the Old Testament that no man may see God and live. The only solution was for God to become man, which He did through the incarnation in the person of Jesus. Thereby He set a window in the tiny dark dungeon of the ego in which we all languish, letting in a light, providing a view, and offering release from the servitude of the flesh into what the apostle Paul called “the glorious liberty of the children of God.”
Thinking about Robert E. Lee, as I often do, and realizing that he has been both idolized and demonized, I try to sort out the various characteristics in him of a Christian gentleman. First of all, contrary to what might be supposed, otherworldliness was not one of them. Lee was very firmly settled here on earth, in time and in mortality, and his judgments relating thereto have proved to be quite remarkably shrewd and perceptive. On the one hand, he made spiritual concepts seem an integral part of day-to-day living; on the other hand, he, as it were, transcendentalized the most ordinary conclusions and expectations of life. Thus he could often be found aspiring men who felt themselves too incapacitated that somehow or other their fortitude in accepting their affliction gave them additional strength and courage for their work.
Lee enjoyed a genuine Christian life. Acts 4:33 says of the earliest church, “And great grace was upon them all.” This glowing description was not intended to be a picture only of the ideal, lovely to contemplate but impossible to realize. These believers were not running a fever; they were enjoying normal spiritual health. So it was with the Christianity of Robert E. Lee. While we often make the mistake of considering the deeper Christian life as something extra, unusual, occasional, and irregular, such was the normal possession of General Lee. Of course, he was no Pollyanna smiling the clouds away. He always saw things as they were. He realized, as did Jesus, that “in the world ye shall have tribulation.” But that is the dark side. The bright side follows: “But be of good cheer; I have overcome the world.” Lee knew that the way of the cross was the way of the crown.
Along with Southern culture in general, Lee realized that the human heart is deceitful and desperately wicked. He knew that man looks on the outward appearance but God looks on the heart. Northern religion was optimistic, based on the lie that man is essentially good. Lee was not a pessimist, but he knew the truth of the Bible, that “in me, that is, in my flesh, dwelleth no good thing.” Above all, and despite his fallenness, Lee knew the importance of duty. He realized that the moving of God’s Spirit is not a lullaby to soothe us to sleep but a bugle call to stir us to battle. He was “on the go” with God.
Perhaps the verse that best describes him is 2 Timothy 2:3: “Thou therefore endure hardness, as a good soldier of Jesus Christ.” Like General Lee, we too are called to be soldiers, and soldiers belong in battle. Some of us feel called only to march in dress parades, blow bugles, and wave flags—swivel-chair generals discussing strategy and arguing over maps far from the conflict. We come not to the help of the Lord against the mighty. Lee did not live such a sham. He did not beat the air. He refused to entangle himself with the affairs of this life so that he might please his Commander-in-Chief. Like Paul, he was sometimes perplexed, but he was never in despair, for he was never altogether without help. He did not know what was ahead but he knew Who was ahead. His was not the desperation of our age. He may have become temporarily confused as to the correct direction, and sometimes he had to wait for the fog to clear, but he always knew that he was in the hands of a Pilot who reaches the destination.
Ezekiel declared, “A sword, a sword is sharpened…. Should we then make mirth?” Like Ezekiel, Lee lived in a day of God’s judgment. Today a generation that is entertaining itself to death to avoid facing reality needs a Lee to call it back to its senses. We are being soothed with religious and political tranquilizers and excited by false optimism. We had better not follow Christ if we don’t want a fight on our hands. We are called not to enjoy softness but to endure hardness. The war for our culture is not a make-believe battle. We are not playing a game. Ours is not a Sunday morning dress parade. This is the real thing.
I could go on and on enumerating the saintly qualities in General Lee. Jean-Pierre de Caussade once wrote of how, all the time, the sequel to the New Testament is being written by godly souls—not in canonical books, but in their lives. So, just as great artists have painted the incarnation and great writers have dramatized it, great saints have lived it. By recalling Lee’s life, even just by thinking about him, the follies and confusions of our time are confuted, and once more God’s almighty Word leaps down from heaven, to live among us, full of grace and truth. Those who choose this January 19 to remember the life of General Lee choose, it seems to me, to remember a life whose ardors contrast so sharply with the self-indulgence considered today to be synonymous with happiness and the “good life.” How curious that so many fail to understand what was so clear to Lee, that the more that is received on Christ’s behalf, the more that is required!
Next week my family and I will join together in celebrating the memory of this great American at our annual Lee-Jackson dinner. We seek to give honor where honor is due, not idolizing a mere man, but celebrating the victory one “poor sinner” enjoyed through the blood of his Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.
I trust many of you will do the same.
January 13, 2004
Lee’s Farewell to the Army of Northern Virginia
After four years of arduous service, marked by unsurpassed courage and fortitude, the Army of Northern Virginia has been compelled to yield to overwhelming numbers and resources.
I need not tell the survivors of so many hard-fought battles who have remained steadfast to the last that I have consented to this result from no distrust of them; but feeling that valor and devotion could accomplish nothing that could compensate for the loss that would have attended the continuance of the contest, I determined to avoid the useless sacrifice of those whose past services have endeared them to their countrymen. By the terms of the agreement, officers and men can return to their homes and remain until exchanged.
You may take with you the satisfaction that proceeds from the consciousness of duty faithfully performed, and I earnestly pray that a merciful God will extend to you his blessing and protection.
With an unceasing admiration of your constancy and devotion to your country, and a grateful remembrance of your kind and generous consideration of myself, I bid you all an affectionate farewell.
David Alan Black is the editor of www.daveblackonline.com.