Robert E. Lee may have been the greatest combat commander America ever produced. His formation of the Army of Northern Virginia, his defense of Richmond, and his stunning victories at Second Manassas, Fredericksburg, and Chancellorsville against superior forces, are all unequalled.
Truth In Love
As a man of character, Lee is an unequivocally stellar figure, and not just for his triumphs in battle. During his four years at the United States Military Academy, he remained free of any possible demerit charges. Because of his flawless performance, integrity, and selflessness, Robert E. Lee proudly earned a reputation as “the marble model”.
But Robert E. Lee is also one of the most tragic and ironic figures in American history. For all his virtue and skill, in the final analysis, Lee destroyed the very things for which he sacrificed. When offered a senior command in the Army by General Winfield Scott, his former commander, Lee turned it down. His choice of loyalty to his state over loyalty to the nation, emboldened a rebellion. Similarly, Lee’s military successes prolonged America’s bloodiest war, which destroyed the South. Thus, his service to the Confederacy drove his invalid wife and his daughters from their home, leading to the horrific slaughter of American soldiers which devastated the State of Virginia.
It’s puzzling how noble people with good intentions can make choices that result in unfortunately evil consequences. Most of the time, when good people unintentionally do great evil, it is for one of several reasons. First, they see only one principle at work in their moral decision-making. In the name of honesty they take actions that violate other principles – like the principle of love – and destroy others with their truth-telling. But the Scripture tells us to “Speak the truth in love” (Ephesians 4:15). It also says that “Love does no harm to its neighbor. Therefore, love is the fulfillment of the Law” (Romans 13:10). Life is not so simple. There is always more than principle at stake when we make moral decisions.
Second, good people engage in evil because they fail to consider, or weigh, the secondary consequences of their actions. They assume that “doing the right thing,” or what they view is right in their limited vision, will necessarily achieve the “right” ends. Yet Robert E. Lee’s decision, made out of devotion to Virginia, destroyed the state to which he professed unswerving loyalty.
God vs Man
Third, good people can do great evil because they fail to distinguish between, and prioritize, their loyalties, which sometimes conflict. For Christians, obeying God is the foremost priority. But many, on the basis of Scriptures like Romans 13:1-7, equate submission to government as submission to God. During the Second World War, a prevalent population of German Christians became accomplices to Hitler’s many murders. Unfortunately, these individuals failed to see that, when government and God clash, “we must obey God rather than man” (Acts 5:29).
We must not make decisions on the basis of a single moral consideration, but upon all considerations. Perhaps this is why Saint Peter wrote these words to the Church in 2 Peter 1:5-9. “For this reason, make every effort to add to your faith, goodness; and to goodness, knowledge; and to knowledge, self-control; and to self-control, perseverance; and to perseverance, godliness; and to godliness, brotherly kindness, love. For if you possess these qualities in increasing measure, they will keep you from being ineffective and unproductive in your knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ. But if anyone does not have them, he is nearsighted and blind, and has forgotten that he has been cleansed from his past sins.”
Dear Lord, give me wisdom and understanding to make the right choices. Cultivate in me all godly and Christ-like virtues and help me to use them all in the decision I make. May I be motivated by love and guided by your wisdom. Amen.