Sunday, August 25, 2013

The Futility of Retaliation

Quite a celebration has been planned for next weekend in my hometown, Grant City, Missouri, in commemoration of its founding 150 years ago, in February 1863.
The town was named after Ulysses S. Grant, a Union solider in the Civil War who was stationed in Missouri when President Lincoln appointed him to be a brigadier general in August 1861. Grant then fought a series of successful battles and was promoted to major general in 1862.
But while people in Grant City will be celebrating its sesquicentennial, people in other parts of Missouri are remembering the terrible devastation of their houses and other property 150 years ago this month—just as the people of Lawrence, Kansas, recently remembered the destruction of their town on August 21, 1863, as I wrote about in my previous posting.
As a direct result of the Lawrence Massacre, and in an effort to defuse the “border war,” General Thomas Ewing issued Order No. 11 on August 25. That order resulted in the burning of most of the rural houses and crops of the Missourians who lived in Cass and Benton counties and parts of Jackson and Vernon counties. That was the area adjacent to the Missouri-Kansas border from the southwestern part of Kansas City to north of Nevada.
At that time, George Caleb Bingham was the Missouri state treasurer, and he knew and personally disliked Gen. Ewing. Bingham said to Ewing: “If you execute this order, I shall make you infamous with pen and brush.”
Even though Bingham also served as a Union soldier, he was appalled by the consequences of Order No. 11, which Ewing did execute. That resulted in much of those four counties being destroyed by fire, and the area came to be known as the “Burnt District.” The population of Cass County, for example, was reduced from 10,000 to 600. And in 1868 Bingham did paint a picture depicting the sad consequences of Order No. 11, which became the title of the painting.
On August 17, June and I went down to the River Market area of Kansas City and saw the reenactment of the issuance of Order No. 11. That took place across the street from Pacific House, the very building that was the headquarters of Ewing after he was promoted to brigadier general in March 1863 and given command of the District of the Border, which was comprised of Kansas and western Missouri. A small print of Bingham’s famous painting hangs on the wall in Pacific House now.

Order No. 11 was issued mainly in retaliation for Quantrill’s raid on Lawrence, which was largely in retaliation for James Lane’s raid on Osceola, Mo., in 1861. And so it went, violence begetting violence. This evokes the memory of Martin Luther King’s oft-quoted statement, “The old law of an eye for an eye leaves everybody blind.”
People of power never seem to learn, though. The terrorist attack of 9/11/01 spawned retaliation on Afghanistan, and the ongoing war on terrorism now conducted increasingly with drones and causing the death of non-terrorists, women and children as “collateral damage” continues to spawn anger toward the U.S.
Thankfully, the March on Washington led by King 50 years ago next Wednesday (Aug. 28, 1963) recognized that reconciliation is better than retaliation. I wish the “bushwhackers” and “jayhawkers” had recognized that in the 1850’s and ’60s.
And I wish the President and the U.S. government had recognized that in 2001, and would even now recognize the futility of retaliation and the urgent need to work more diligently for reconciliation.


  1. Thinking Friend Clif Hostetler just posted the following comments on my other blog with the same article:

    "There are additional details of history that perhaps can reinforce your point that violence begets more violence. If we were able to interview James Lane he might try to justify his 1861 raid on Osceola as retaliation for the first sacking of Lawrence in 1856."

    "Probably the more immediate rationalization for Lane’s raid was that it was a tactical move behind Sterling Price’s Confederate advance into central Missouri to hinder his supply lines."

  2. A world so frequently bent on evil. Sure could use a little good news (and reconciliation) to this day.

  3. William Herzog argues that the "myth of redemptive violence" is the original intent of Jesus' so-called "Parable of the Wicked Tenants" (see "Parables As Subversive Speech: Jesus As Pedagogue of the Oppressed"). Rather than a christological parable in which the vineyard owner is supposed to be God, Herzog says that the original context of the parable would have been interpreted as a story in which a peasant revolt occurred following a wealthy landowner's seizure of the peasants' farmland. The point, according to Herzog, is that if the peasants rise up and kill the vineyard owner's son after the owner himself has taken their land and rounded them up as indentured slaves, the vineyard owner will then simply come and kill the peasants. The parable at its core is about the futility of retaliation and the "cycle of violence."

    1. Joshua, thanks for your meaty comments. I have not read Herzog, but what you wrote about him makes me want to. (I have read some of Frederick Herzog, but I couldn't find that they were any relation.)

      Your comments also reminded me of "Cotton Patch Parables of Liberation" (1976) by Clarence Jordan and Bill Lane Doulos.

      We need whatever help we can get to see that the idea of "redemptive violence" is mistaken and that the "cycle of violence" has to be broken in some way.

    2. I would highly recommend his work. He was the dean of Central back in the 80s, and ended up at Andover Newton Theological Seminary. I think he retired not too long ago. He has two other really good books on Jesus and the Reign of God, as well. See his Amazon author's page:

  4. Quite by accident, I ended up in New York City just after 9/11. My wife and I were there for an anniversary celebration we had planned well before the attack. So we were there to see the still smoldering ruins of the World Trade Center, and to see anti-war protests urging the Bush administration to not to attack in response.

    It is easy to forget the huge worldwide surge of sympathy to the United States after the attack. Al Qaeda had badly overplayed its hand, and a tremendous opportunity for good was open. Unfortunately, a very poorly planned and executed program of retaliation swept that sympathy away. Then, having bungled the war in Afghanistan, the Bush administration turned aside without resolving that war, and began another poorly planned and executed war in Iraq. By the end of that war, the only winners were in Iran and Halliburton. The war in Afghanistan still grinds on, the longest war in American history.

    As John Lennon put it, in words that ring as true today as ever, "All we are saying, is give peace a chance."

    1. Craig, thanks much for your helpful comments. What you wrote certainly affirmed the point I was trying to make at the end of my blog article.