Hacksaw Ridge – The Hands of a Healer

by guest author Jeff Kaetzel

So I was watching Hacksaw Ridge, and it got me thinking about the non-violence of Jesus…

Hacksaw Ridge, the 2016 Best Picture nominee, gave audiences a glimpse of the horrors of World War II’s Pacific theater. Its stunning visuals and gritty depictions of war provided the perfect backdrop to tell the story of Desmond Doss. 

Doss, who joined the US Army as a combat medic, grew up in a Seventh-day Adventist family. It was this upbringing that grounded his commitment to non-violence. Despite his enlistment, Doss refused to carry a firearm into battle because it would put the ability to take someone’s life in his hands. When faced with a court martial over this refusal, Doss explained that “while everybody else is taking life, I’m going to be saving it. With the world so set on tearing itself apart, it doesn’t seem like such a bad thing to me to wanna put a little bit of it back together.” Doss maintained that he wanted to serve and help others but would not take up arms to do so. 

His refusal to carry a firearm was seen as a betrayal of his fellow soldiers and superiors. They did not trust Doss to protect them when they went into battle. It was his staunch belief that violence was antithetical to the gospel. As a follower of Jesus, Desmond Doss believed that he could not love his neighbor as himself while pointing a gun at them. Once deliberations were complete, the judge told Doss “you are free to run into the hellfire of battle without a single weapon to protect yourself.” Doss was deployed to the South Pacific, where hellfire awaited him. 

The movie is named for a cliff on the island of Okinawa where soldiers had to scale netting to get to the top. Doss’ unit was ordered to scale the netting and reach the top of the ridge. The movie shows the absolute chaos that faced soldiers as soon as they reached the top of the ridge. From the moment they reached the top, they were surrounded by shell bursts, screams, and shrapnel as Japanese machine guns and artillery zeroed in on their location. Dead and dying soldiers filled the battlefield. 

As enemy fire rained around him and his unit was ordered to retreat, Doss stayed behind to attend to the wounded. Upon finding a wounded soldier, he would escort them back to the top of the ridge and lower them down with a rope to safety. Doss repeated this action many times, saving the lives of 75 of his fellow soldiers. He did this all without shouldering a rifle. 

Desmond Doss’ bravery in the battle of Okinawa provides us an example of how Jesus engaged the forces of darkness with non-violence. Ultimately, it was this peaceful non-violence that led Jesus to be arrested, beaten, and crucified on a Roman cross. That wasn’t the end of the story, however. Just when the enemy had claimed violent victory over God’s Messiah, Jesus rose again from the dead, and in doing so, turned the tide of the war against darkness forever. 

One of the most challenging things about following Jesus is the call to respond to evil with non-violence. In one of Jesus’ most influential teachings, he says, “You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also.” (Matthew 5:38-40) In other words, Jesus instructs his followers to respond to violence with non-violence. 

What makes this teaching so challenging is that it flies in the face of self-preservation. It calls into question our thirst for revenge against our enemies. It gets at the very heart of what causes evil to flourish. Like Doss’ comrades, our own loved ones might see it as a betrayal when we refuse to reciprocate harm or return violence for violence. Turning the other cheek will be seen as weakness. If we take the life and teachings of Jesus seriously, then we begin to see that Jesus’ call to radically love our neighbors means that we will be met with anger, skepticism, and suspicion by our neighbors. 

Why? Because non-violence makes no sense in a world built by blood. As soon as Cain raised the stone above his head to strike Abel, humanity knew it could easily take the life of another. Empires are built and bought with the blood of the innocent. We live in a violent world. But if we respond to violence with more violence, the cycle will never come to an end. 

When Jesus calls his followers to non-violence, it is not a surrender to, but a triumph over evil.

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