This is godlike power: to save people, whole flocks at a time, as your public service.
—Seneca, On Clemency, 1.25.5.
My wife and I had the opportunity to see Hacksaw Ridge last night—the story of Desmond Doss, the American soldier who personifies that oddly beautiful contradiction of terms: “pacifist war hero.”
Watching Hacksaw was am amazing experience, but it was especially personal to me for two reasons:
- First, I was raised Seventh-Day Adventist (which was Doss’s religion), and I have conscientious objectors in my family as a direct result.
- Second, watching it now as a non-theistic Stoic, the story of Doss takes on special power as a modern mythology of “spiritual heroism.”
The film was unlike anything I’ve ever seen. The New Yorker calls it “the strangest release of the year: an implacably violent film about a man who wants no part of violence at all.” Hacksaw Ridge is widely regarded as Mel Gibson’s most gory work ever—I was a little worried about this going in, since I can get a vasovagal response to certain kinds of gore (read: I faint)—but it all served a purpose: “you want to wreak havoc with a lot of blood to emphasize the courage of the character,” says Gibson in an interview with Vulture.com. “The level of the carnage involved is necessary to tell a story about the hell a man can go into.”
Adventist Easter Eggs
Doss is a major figure in Adventism. In 2004, I saw Doss when he and his story were presented as an example of a genuine “spiritual hero” to an audience of 33,000 kids at the international Pathfinder camporee. His story is very well-known in the SDA community.
Seventh-Day Adventists are a culturally tight-knit protestant denomination with about 20 million members world wide. They have a history of emphasizing personal health and medical careers—the largest employer in the state of Florida, for instance (after Disney World), is the the Adventist-owned Florida Hospital system.
With only 1.2 million members in North America, however, Adventists are a pretty small, marginal group of people when it comes to American media and politics. They know not to expect other people to know much about their beliefs, and still less to understand them.
It is no less than than thrilling, then, for Adventists to see their culture represented on the big screen—and not just represented, but displayed in an incredibly sincere and respectful way. I’m as critical of the evangelical persecution complex as anyone, but I can’t deny that it is extremely rare for popular culture to portray faith in the positive, relatable, and moving way that Gibson approaches Doss’s Adventism. “Hacksaw Ridge,” writes Adventist evangelist John Bradshaw, “gives believers the opportunity to say to the world, ‘This is the God we serve. This is faith in action.’”
On a less serious note, it was fun to see the many little nods to Adventist culture that Gibson worked into the film:
- During basic training, the Sergeant uses a popular mnemonic story about a “rabbit” going “around the tree” and “down the hole” to teach his soldiers to tie a bowline knot. All Adventist youth who go through the Pathfinder program (which is similar to Scouting) know this mnemonic!
- While sharing a meal in a foxhole, a fellow soldier asks Doss “are you going to eat that?” Doss gives him part of his rations, admitting that “I don’t eat meat.” Vegetarianism is very popular within Adventism—and I’m vegetarian myself as a direct result—but, interestingly, it actually comes from the SDA emphasis on health, rather than pacifism.
- The seventh-day Sabbath comes up a few times in the film, as Doss insists that he cannot work on Saturday. Interestingly, he does go with his men into battle on the Sabbath. This is another place where Gibson chose to suggest that strong religious beliefs are not incompatible with reasonable, pro-social concessions. Doss’s willingness to go into battle on the Sabbath hints at the complicated tradition Adventists have of navigating the tension between their social duties and their beliefs about the Fourth Commandment. In my home church, for instance, most people refused to take any kind of employment on Sabbath, but doctors and nurses would often work on Saturday if they felt it was a necessary service for the community.
I am an atheist today, and I disagree with the Adventist church on, well, pretty much everything! But I do have to admit that I have never been more proud of my home tradition than after watching Hacksaw Ridge.
A Stoic “Spiritual Hero”
And that’s because heroism and moral resolve are just goshdarn beautiful. So beautiful, in fact, that the ancient Stoics (and sometimes Aristoteleans too) declared honorable and praiseworthy action in the service of others to be the single most important and valuable thing that anyone can pursue with their life. Moral Worth, they liked to say, is just quite simply the best thing there is in the human universe:
But how do we know what the “good and the honorable” life is? Seneca has an answer—one which, for him, lies at the very foundation of Stoic thought: “the honorable and the good are inferred through observation and comparison of repeated actions,” he says. “In the judgment of our school, they are understood ‘by analogy'” (Letters, 120.4).
Stories about heroic bravery and selflessness were fundamental to ancient Greek philosophy. In what I find to be one of the most compelling and complete explanations of the Stoic world view, Seneca gives us a fictional account in Letter 120 of how Stoicism originated in the respect that we feel when we hear stories of great heroes:
No hero is perfect. But moral heroes give us a glimpse, an inkling of what true greatness and Moral Worth—true human flourishing—can look like. This humanistic intuition, claims Seneca, is where the entire Greco-Roman theory of virtue ethics ultimately comes from:
Whether you sympathize with his religious reasoning or not, and even if his Adventist world view is far away from the humanistic foundation of Greek and secular ethics, Doss’s character in Hacksaw Ridge is absolutely one of these heroic exemplars who show us all a glimpse of what bona fide human excellence can and should look like. Someone who believed himself “to be a citizen and soldier of the world,” as Seneca puts it (120.12), never treating events as an “annoying nuisance and misfortune,” but instead as a duty to be faced with bravery and a strong moral will.
His choices may not have been perfect. Pacifism is a very complex topic, and his stance can certainly be challenged on intellectual grounds. Not all Adventists are or were pacifists, just like they aren’t all vegetarians either. And the horrors of PTSD and the dangers of glorifying the warrior’s courage are to be taken seriously. But, with Seneca, any Stoic—and any human being—who watches the film ought to be able to come away saying that
we admired a great man, one who… stuck by his own good example, who did what is hardest of all in that he maintained his integrity even in war, believing that even an enemy can be wronged.
—Letters to Lucilius, 120.6.
In this sense, then, the story of Desmond Doss is a tale of “spiritual heroism” that expresses, not just Adventist values, but the essence of Stoic and indeed universal human moral commitments.
PS: I’ve used the word “pacifism” here as a blanket term for all non-violent ideologies. True pacifists or members of the Peace Churches (such as Mennonites), however, can legitimately take umbrage with me for using this word to describe Doss. Technically, there is a complicated distinction between ‘pacifists’ and ‘non-combatants’ or ‘conscientious cooperators’ (which is the term Doss’s character uses in the film).
Here’s a great video on these difficult questions and internecine debates as they relate to Adventist tradition.