Scott Black Johnston: Heroes, Villains, and Violence



My daily route to the church takes me past the Grand Army Plaza on Fifth Avenue and 59th Street. From my seat on the bus, I have an unobstructed view of the plaza's central attraction - the freshly gilded statue of General William Tecumseh Sherman.

A West Point graduate, Sherman settled in New York City after the Civil War. Sherman's friends and other luminaries in the city were determined to honor the retired general. So they arranged for him to sit for the famous French sculptor, Augustus Saint-Gaudens. Thirteen years later (a decade after Sherman's death), Saint-Gaudens completed his masterwork. The statue was installed on Memorial Day, 1903.

Today the sculpture remains indisputably majestic. Covered in gold leaf, Sherman faces South astride a warhorse. Under the horse's hooves are pine boughs. The southern orientation and crushed foliage are symbols of Sherman's military campaign in Georgia.

Noticing them, I always remember how Sherman is viewed in the South. There, Sherman isn't a hero. He's a villain - reviled and hated.

After the fall of Atlanta in 1864, Sherman's forces burned a good deal of the city to the ground. Sherman next led his army on an infamous march across the state, stealing food, torching barns and, as the general himself put it, "smashing everything on the way to the sea."

Military historians debate Sherman's tactics. Was he a heartless madman determined to punish the South by destroying everything in his path? Or was he a savvy strategist whose actions, while certainly brutal, hastened the end of a bloody war?

Every day, I pass by Sherman. Every day, I remember how one person's hometown hero can be another's villain. And every day, I think about violence.

Actually, far too often I am already thinking about violence by the time I pass Sherman. Chances are the clock radio has woken me up with the latest gut-churning account of humans hurting humans. If not, the morning paper has inevitably headlined with a photo chronicling the violence of our time.

I try to take account of each story. Sort it. Sift it. Is this an instance of appropriate violence? Did this person engage in "a necessary evil"? Or was it simply a case of wanton hurtfulness?

As I process, I tug at other related threads. I wonder if all the violence we are consuming - in the news, in movies, in video games - is warping us. Are we being seduced by its horrors? Are we becoming numb? Cynical?

It is not an easy topic. Yet for people who would tag along after Jesus, there may be no more important conversation.

From Scott's blog, Sharp About Your Prayers