If your social media looks anything like mine, it is full of arguments of angry people. Since the 2016 election, there have been more significant rifts in political thought, friendships, and relationships. Hatred seems to boil over, over and over again. Points of contention are over vital topics, and it is evident that we need to keep the conversation going. The question I have is whether we can fight against what we think is wrong without becoming wrong ourselves.
It is only too easy to slip into becoming what you hate. How many of us have impatiently corrected a child for being impatient? This common parenting slip-up shows our vulnerability. That vulnerability can manifest itself in dangerous ways when we betray those who betrayed us, justify the means because of the end, or fight hatred with hate.
Today I’m going to be looking at three books that focused on people from history who had to grapple with fighting against evil. They had to answer these questions for themselves in poignant situations. Situations such as a Jewish soldier put in a position of power over captured Nazis, a slave who escaped the south during the Civil War, who found out that his former mistress was in need after the war, and Ben Franklin and his son William who fought on different sides of the Revolutionary War.
Nietzsche said, “Whoever fights monsters should see to it that in the process he does not become a monster.” But I like how Romans 12:2 tells us, “Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.” It reminds me that we are in danger of becoming overcome by evil, but that good can win over evil. The reason is obvious. God is good, and he who is in us is greater than he who is the world.
Let’s be honest, in our complicated, broken world, it doesn’t always look like that. Ben and William Franklin’s story is a reminder of how complicated relationships can be in the middle of political upheaval and war.
Ben and William Franklin: Love and Agony
Ben and William Franklin were as close as father and son could be before the war. They traveled and worked together, and largely agreed with each other. The war changed all of that. In the book, The Loyal Son: The War in Ben Franklin’s House, Daniel Mark Epstein describes their close relationship, and then the schism the war produced in their life. Betrayal ran deep. Ben Franklin would write shortly before his death, “Nothing has ever hurt me so much and affected me with such keen Sensations as to find myself deserted in my old Age by my only Son, and not only deserted, but to find him taking up Arms against me, in a Cause wherein my good Fame, Fortune, and Life were all at stake.”
William, who followed his conscience during the war years, hoped for years for reconciliation to his father after the war, to little avail. William faced horrific conditions when he was jailed by the revolutionaries for two years during the war and wasn’t able to be by the side of his wife as she died. However, when he was released, he became a dangerous enemy to the Patriots. He helped head up guerrilla warfare against them. If captured Loyalists were executed, his group would do the same in response. He aimed to fight fire with fire, or evil with evil. One man hanged in revenge by Loyalists under William’s direction nearly derailed peace talks. It was Ben Franklin who was influential in helping calm the anger and bring about peace, despite his own son’s actions.
Here were two men who loved each other deeply, but whose lives went in such different directions in such a crucial moment that despite their deep love there were deep wounds. Their story is an example of how complicated life can be, even within families, and how hard it is to overcome evil with good. William made choices during the war that arguably lowered him to the worst of the other side. Ben chose not to forgive his actions.
Robert Smalls: Civil War Hero
But others choose differently. One such man grew to fame during the Civil War. His name was Robert Smalls, and his job as a slave was to pilot a steamer barge for the Confederate side in South Carolina. The Union had set up a blockade by ship nearby. Despite the immense peril an escape would put him and his family in, he stole the Confederate steamer along with fellow slaves, picked up family members on the way, and then piloted the steamer to the Union side. Not only did he deliver a steamer to them, but it was also full of cannons. He became an instant hero. His heroic actions went some way to fight the deeply embedded racism on the Northside, who viewed African-Americans so poorly they didn’t even think they were capable of such acts. He made valuable contributions to the war effort on the Union side for the rest of the Civil War and ended up buying the property that his owner used to own. After the war, Robert helped make serious headway for African-Americans by being an advocate, a businessman, and a politician, against a brutal backdrop of racism.
Here’s where his story takes an interesting turn. When he found out that some of his former owner’s family were in trouble, he took them into his own house (their former residence) and fed and took care of them. If the past wasn’t enough of a deterrent for such radical actions, he did this despite their ongoing racism and ill-treatment of him. For example, they insisted on not eating at the same table as him, so were served food at their own “white table.”
Here was a man who fought hard, and worked his whole life to make it better for his people. Yet, he didn’t show hatred toward those whom he had every reason to. He chose not to fight evil with evil, and his actions are deeply humbling to read about. On a personal note, his example of standing up for what’s right and true, while also showing compassion toward his natural enemy has been inspiring to me in my own life.
You can read more about this life in this book: Be Free or Die: The Amazing Story of Robert Smalls’ Escape from Slavery to Union Hero
Jewish Soldiers with Honor
The final book has stuck with me ever since I read it: Sons and Soldiers: The Untold Story of the Jews Who Escaped Nazis and Returned with the U.S. Army to Fight Hitler. It follows the story of multiple young men who were forced to flee Nazi Germany before or during World War II. One had almost lost his life in a concentration camp and had seen horrors. Many knew that their family members who had not escaped were likely dead. Rather than staying in safety, they signed up to go into battle to interrogate Nazi soldiers. This put them at risk because as Jewish men if they were captured, they would likely meet a worse fate than the average soldier. Indeed, some Jews soldiers were executed upon being captured by Germans.
They did so because fighting the Germans was intensely personal. When I started reading the book, I joked to my husband that those Nazi soldiers had something coming to them when these Jewish men got to them. But I was wrong. These men understood what evil was. They understood they needed to fight it in every way they could, and they understood they must not become evil in doing so. So when they had a Nazi soldier in front of them, they prided themselves on not being like them. One of the men the book followed slapped a man during an interview and felt ashamed. Take note that these men had seen their lives upended, had to flee for their very lives, their family members were killed by Nazis, and yet he knew that he had to hold himself to a much higher standard.
These men taught me what it looks like to use all of your energy to fight against great evil, without becoming evil yourself. It also taught me that in a world turned crazy over conflict that we as humans do have the ability and power to war against what’s wrong in the world without becoming wrong ourselves.
These men were able to show their grace and goodness after they fought for their freedom and their lives. It’s important to note that when they remained enslaved, or under Nazi Germany’s thumb, that they were powerless in many ways. But once they were put in a position of influence and power, they purposely chose to use that position and power differently.
To bring it back to today, we have a lot to argue about. We have important issues to discuss. There are vulnerable people who need to be protected, and powerful people who need to be fought against. Many feel that they are fighting against monsters. But let’s remember to do so in a way that holds ourselves to a higher standard so that we don’t become monsters ourselves.