Bleak Stones on Cold Hillsides

This article first appeared in The SPIRE, monthly newsletter of Peapack Reformed Church in Gladstone, NJ. It was republished shortly after as an op-ed feature in Denver, Colorado area newspapers.

There is ice today on the little Raritan River and Peapack Brook flows cold and viscous in its banks. We’re in the second week of a harsh northerly chill and for the first time in several seasons, ice skaters whoop and glide on the municipal pond. Seeking respite from the cold, a stubborn walker circuits our graveyard, bound for that oasis of warmth and quietude that is our church.

Heedless of distraction, I find no comfort in a graveyard on days like this and flags that flutter at the veterans’ stones add mute color to the bleary prospect. War is in the air again, and although nothing in this quiet place suggests martial sentiments, walking among the dead reminds me that we are, ultimately, peaceful folk. One gravestone has drawn me back often on recent walks, as it speaks of the terrible cost when peaceful people study war. It is a single stone commemorating two brothers, George J. and William H. Van Arsdale, carried away at 23 and 21 years in another great clash of arms, the lamentable “War Between the States.”

At Chancellorsville on a cloudy morning in May, 1863, George Van Arsdale fell in a fierce Confederate flanking attack that left him mortally wounded, mere days before his twenty-third birthday. An observer of the carnage wrote:

“Time was everything. The fugitives of the Eleventh Corps swarmed from the woods and swept frantically over the cleared fields in which my artillery was parked. The exulting enemy at their heels mingled yells with their volleys, and in the confusion which followed it seemed as if cannon and caissons, dragoons, cannoneers, and infantry could never be disentangled from the mass in which they were suddenly thrown.”

Like so many others, George’s younger brother also perished—not on the field—but of pneumonia, ironically just days after the surrender at Appomattox. Somehow, I doubt that their bodies lie beneath the present marker, as imposing in its dignity as it is tragic in the stories it tells.

Church records don’t tell us if George and William worshiped with our congregation, but their stone stands among kin who certainly did, and its presence here reminds us that the residue of war will not be found in the speeches of our leaders, or the geopolitical reality of new maps, but in bleak stones on cold hillsides, far from the places where our sons and brothers fall.

This reverie seems apt on a chilly morning. Our small streams may be frozen, but along those larger watercourses, the Tigris and the Potomac, drumming for war echoes ominously. Newspapers note that, already, 150,000 of our citizens are gathered at the precipice of attack.  What are we as Christians to make of such a spectacle? Are there circumstances that exempt us from God’s directive that we “shalt not kill”? Theologians and ethicists are frequently divided but they agree that killing in self-defense or to save the life of another person can meet that test. But what a mighty test it is.

As I write these words, I know that it is a choice I hope never to face. Your Consistory has no answers here but would say to all of you that, if this frame of reference is not part of your plans for the next “TV war,” it should be. Turn off the sound and examine your anger. Each day that our people are at risk, ask of each other Are we righteous? And for those of you whose oaths to defend us have bound you to march, right or wrong for your countrymen, we say peace!  May God go with you and bring you home safely.

For now, whatever the weather may bring, in faithfulness to His commandments and to that pair of lost brothers on our cold hillside and to those other young people who even now are racing into Harm’s Way, may we struggle mightily to understand God’s Will!