I’ve taken lately to trying to carve time away from the computer as a means of retreat – a time where I can just recollect myself before I get back to everyday grunt work. A few weeks ago, that came in the form of a trip to camp. Sometimes, it’s a trip to my grandfather’s farm. Yesterday, it was Shiloh National Military Park.
Shiloh is not unfamiliar territory to me. Just a little over an hour away on the Tennessee River, it’s the site of one of the deadliest battles of the Civil War, so I went there a lot as a kid on school trips, Boy Scout camp-outs, and family outings. The names and even the monuments are familiar – a copse of trees called the Hornet’s Nest where bullets buzzed by the Federal troops; an old wagon trail called the Sunken Road where weary troops marched like zombies to their eventual deaths; a Peach Orchard, a small blood-red pond, a wooden Methodist church house for which the battle was named. Weirdly enough, they’re sacred ground etched into my memory as a child. As a Boy Scout, I hiked the thirteen miles of park trails, sunk into the Sunken Road, and even played in a small creek there called Rhea Spring adjacent a mass grave of Confederate troops. One trip there was for my friend’s Eagle Scout project to pressure wash and clean the monuments, so it really is a special place in my childhood.
And yet, there’s something at least a little weird to me that we would take a place that was so bloody with it’s 24,000 casualties and turn it into a “park.” Places of great turmoil always end up being peaceful and pristine, don’t they? It made me think about visiting Armageddon (Tel Megiddo) in Israel and how you could stand on top the 26 layers of ruins and look out at lower Galilee at this endless stretch of green so perfect for battle but equally a place of peace. I remember thinking that it would be a nice place for the world to end. So, too, a couple of my friends have been to Auschwitz recently, a place I know I need to visit one day, and the pictures of their trip are humbling, if not silencing.
It’s just this fascinating dichotomy, war and peace or conflict and resolution. I’ve been thinking a lot lately about schism and how torn apart we are constantly – in our churches, our families, our friendships. There’s something normal and natural about that. After all, our human history is one of a kind of schism; we start out joined as zygotes, but it isn’t long before mitosis rips the cells apart. But in that division, there’s both newness and multiplication. And it’s crazy to me that story plays out again and again from the most basic of human biology to a war that divides a country and replaces it with something slowly better. How many countless thousands have payed respects to their history at Shiloh since those two bloody days in April?
When I was a kid, there could be nothing worse in my mind than division. I valued unity more than anything else. Even those first years of college, I remember lamenting churches that might split over homosexuality or a couple of fraternity brothers who had a personal conflict with one another that seemed to divide the whole fraternity house. As painful as conflict can be, I live a more sobering reality now – that maybe there’s something healthy, if not replenishing and peaceful, in the necessity for schism. That’s easier said when you’re in the park 152 years later and not in the midst of the battle, but it serves us well to remember or ask why we fight, to know which fights are worth the cause. I say that as someone who knows quite well what it’s like to suffer through a rather tumultuous time (albeit not one quite as life-threatening as the Civil War, thankfully), but in the midst of chaos and calamity, I keep looking for the park and trust a sacred quiet joy does grow out of the present.