The buzz among Christians over Mel Gibson’s newest film went high decibel when Greg Laurie interviewed the actor/director a couple months ago during a Harvest Crusade in Orange County, CA.
Laurie described Hacksaw Ridge as “fantastic”, then gave Gibson a chance to explain how the true story of a conscientious objector’s heroism during the Second World War captured his attention. That’s when I knew I had to see it.
Having just done so, I don’t see how anyone could help being captured by it. But even before my admiration for Desmond Doss (the devout Seventh Day Adventist who the film’s centered on) took off, I kept thinking, almost as soon as it began, “Hey, he’s back!”
He being Gibson, of course, the actor who’s played some amazing parts, Hamlet and Signs being my favorites. But more memorably, Gibson the director, who brought us Braveheart, The Patriot, The Man Without a Face, and The Passion of the Christ. With Hacksaw he’s in top form, proving he can still combine action scenes that are excruciating (but just try looking away) with ideals we still, in cynical 2016, can’t help hanging onto.
Gibson loves the man against the tide, the guy who’s fed up with the wrong but still chooses death over dishonor, never becoming like his enemy; never caving to him, either. He makes us love that guy, too, showing us how much we have in common with him, which proves our responsibility to emulate him.
That’s what I so appreciate about Gibson at his best: he tells the story of the common person showing uncommon greatness, then asks, “So are ya gonna go and do likewise, or what?”
In this case, that common person is Private Desmond Doss whose commitment to pacifism is joined, but never contradicted, by his commitment to do his part in the war effort. So he enlists to become a medic, hoping to save lives and resist the enemy without violating his conviction that violence of any kind, even in self-defense, can’t be justified.
I walked out of the theater aware of at least three lessons I could learn, both as a Christian and a social conservative, from the man and his story. My own beliefs about picking up a gun (I’m fine with it) don’t change the fact that this guy showed heroism I’ll never approach, and has a lot to teach me about faith and culture in modern America.
First, He refused to hide behind his convictions.
Doss believed it was wrong to fight, for reasons (at least according to the film) both experiential and theological. Those beliefs put him at odds with his culture in general, and certainly with the men he was enlisted to work alongside. As a medic his job was to treat injuries, but his unwillingness to take up a gun still made him hugely unpopular among soldiers who understandably wanted the guy next to them to have their backs, armed and ready. This Doss refused to do.
But admirably, he also refused to let his convictions keep him unengaged. A pacifist might be expected to sit the war out altogether, but this man refused to live his life constrained by what he was against. Rather than take the ‘holier than thou’ separatist road, he said, essentially: “I have to contribute. If my conscience won’t let me do it the way others do, then I’ll have to find another way.
I find conservatives too susceptible to withdrawing from society, just because we’re at odds with it on key issues. But that hardly squares with our position as being in, yet not of, this world. (John 17:16) It may be a world celebrating all kinds of things we’re against, and behaving in ways we can’t join. But we’re still here, responsible to contribute what we can, refusing to hide behind our convictions while just as adamantly refusing to compromise them.
Second, He refused to adopt his critics tactics.
Hacksaw includes scenes of Doss being bullied horribly in his barracks for his non-violent beliefs. Echoing much of what we hear hurled at us today (“You’re just a bunch of anti-choice, anti-gay, anti-everything bigots hiding behind religious beliefs”) he’s told “You’re just a coward hiding behind religious beliefs.” Where he puts us to shame is in his refusal to act like them, or become obsessed with how wrong they are.
It’s easy, though weak, to spend time obsessing over the other side’s perceived hypocrisy, vile tactics, terrible attitude, whatever. In the process it’s even easier to wrongly generalize about all of them, second guess their motives, and become so bitterly hardened against them that you become incapable of finding any
Doss endured their abuse, avoiding the temptation to adopt their tactics and thereby lose his honor, but also avoiding the temptation to write them off as unenlightened idiots and, instead, chose to work with them as opportunity allowed. In the end, that approach saved many of their lives, and forever distinguished his.
Third, He won the respect of his critics without trying to.
We’re prone, I think, to try figuring out strategies for winning others to our viewpoint or, at least, for convincing them we’re not so bad after all.
Which makes sense. Paul became all things to all people for the sake of winning some (I Corinthians 9:22) and if we hold certain things to be true, we logically also believe that if people don’t likewise hold to those truths, they’ll suffer for it in this life or the next. So of course, we want conversions. Why not?
Likewise, no one want to be thought ill of. It hurts to be called a “hater”, a “reactionary”, a “deplorable.” So we naturally hope to convince people that, even if they reject our positions, they might reconsider their assessment of us.
But trying to get people to like and respect you is often a way of sabotaging the very thing you want. So rather than arguing his case to his fellow soldiers, Doss lived his case. He prayed earnestly and openly, read his Bible in their presence, worked hard alongside them, and sought God for the wisdom to find the most effective way to justify his being there.
In the end, not only did he find it, but he captured the admiration of the same people who’d scorned him earlier. Not because he tried to, but because he lived what he believed, loved as he was commanded by Christ, and served with everything in him.
Hacksaw Ridge is that rarity of faith-based films: a sermon that’s not trying to be one. It succeeds by being top-notch entertainment for even the most jaded. But I’ll bet we find that this movie, like its subject, winds up achieving a lot more than that in the end.
Consider what Doss himself had to say about his efforts during the war:
“I wasn’t trying to be a hero. I was thinking about it from this standpoint – a house on fire and a mother has a child in that house, what prompts her to go in and get that child? Love. I loved my men and they loved me. I just couldn’t give them up —”