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Growing up in a Christian household, I was familiar with the gospel-inspired proverb “Live by the sword, die by the sword.”
The phrase is taken to mean that those who use violence will ultimately come to a violent end- and at face value, there is certainly some truth to this- often those who live violently do die violently as a byproduct, be they soldiers, gangsters, or what have you.
Even then, however, I always wondered to myself- “but what about all the people who didn’t live violent lives, but came to violent ends anyways?”
On a flight home the other day, I was listening to some of my favorite pieces by legendary composer Ennio Morricone, and as a result, rewatched one of my father’s favorite films, “The Mission,” which Morricone scored.
In one scene, Jeremy Irons, who portrays a priest ministering to a village of Guarani people in the South American rainforest, is speaking to Robert DeNiro, a reformed mercenary named Rodrigo.
In the scene, they argue about whether or not to defend the village against Portuguese slave traders with violence.
DeNiro is asking for Irons’ blessing, and as part of Irons character’s refusal, he says:
“If might is right, then love has no place in the world. It may be so, it may be so. But I don’t have the strength to live in a world like that, Rodrigo.”
Later in the film, we see both characters killed- DeNiro, as he lays dying, watches Jeremy Irons’ character shot fatally as he leads a procession of those who chose not to fight to their deaths.
The question that the film seems to ask is: “who was right?”
Was Rodrigo correct in “going down swinging” or was Father Gabriel, in displaying the non-resistance that his religion preaches, correct to die as a martyr without fighting back?
There is a quote attributed (probably incorrectly) to author Bertrand Russell that states:
“War doesn’t define who is right. Only who is left.”
However, the pages of history are not filled up with the explanations or justifications of those who have lost- it is the chronicle of the victors, and not often told from a “fair and balanced” viewpoint.
The old Roman adage “vae victis,” or “woe to the vanquished,” refers to this concept- not only are the losers of a battle at the mercy of their conquerors physically and literally- they are at the mercy of how their struggle and lives are depicted throughout the rest of history.
We don’t have a clear look at the past- we have a glass through which to peer that is completely colored by those with the power to do so- those who have written history in the blood of their conquered foes.
Few pens are held by the dead, none by the silenced.
In our times, there are battles being fought between warring ideologies on various fronts.
In the streets, in the news and media, on the internet- everywhere, there is the clamor of this narrative or that, and, as we see, real violence and conflict arising from the disagreement between who is “right.”
The current “winners” of the cultural war going on now are easy to see:
They are those who are still allowed to speak freely- to keep their jobs. To buy and sell in the marketplace.
To exist within the walls of the Empire, rather than being cast out as barbarians.
It can be difficult for us to know which battles to choose- what fronts to fight on, and which hills to “tactically withdraw” from. Sometimes, it is hard to know if a war is worth fighting at all, whether it would be better to “keep our heads down” and avoid it.
We can even tell ourselves we are doing this for our friends and family. That we don’t have the right to some kind of a heroic suicide – even a career suicide – if those left behind must deal with the aftermath.
However- if you’ll indulge me in two more quotes from classic literary sources:
From Tolkien’s “Two Towers:”
“…those without swords can still die upon them.”
And from the Old Norse Havamal:
“The foolish man thinks he will live forever, if he avoids battle; But old age gives him no peace, though spears might spare his life.”
The point is: sometimes it doesn’t matter whether or not we want to be involved in a battle or not.
If we are, we are.
The fight itself may even be unwinnable, although I don’t believe in the idea of a truly hopeless situation- history has shown us many unlikely victors who were able to tell of their great victories.
As Thomas Paine said during the darkest days of the American Revolution: “the harder the conflict, the more glorious the triumph.”
Still, sometimes we must acknowledge that some battles, according to our own reason, seem utterly hopeless. Sometimes, a loss may seem inevitable.
However, even in defeat, two truths remain.
First, our defeat may pave the way for those who carry our spirit or our bloodline to win future victories.
Secondly, even in the worst situation, what is left to us to decide is whether we will be Rodrigo or Father Gabriel- and in that choice is meaning, purpose, and freedom.