By Jerry Harris
This past April, my wife and I had the opportunity to preach and teach at Hope Christian Church near Augusta, West Virginia. Like most, I am now fully dependent on a GPS to direct my driving in unfamiliar places, so when I heard Siri say we could save 18 minutes by taking an alternative route around an accident, I jumped at the chance. The new path took us through switchback mountain roads—not a pleasurable experience for my wife, who struggles a bit with car sickness. The detour took us right by Harpers Ferry, West Virginia, a very important site in American history, especially just prior to and during the Civil War. Stopping the car would help satisfy my love of history—and my wife certainly had no objections—so we turned off the main road and treated ourselves to a few minutes in one of the most interesting and picturesque towns in America.
Harpers Ferry holds far too much history to discuss in this column, but the landscape of the town is a story in itself. It lies in the valley at the confluence of the Potomac and Shenandoah rivers at the border of West Virginia and Maryland. (The Virginia state line is also in the immediate area.) The word valley doesn’t accurately describe the steep slope down to the rivers; cliff is more fitting in many instances. The architecture of the mid-1700s to the late-1800s, mixed with narrow streets, give the town a European feel.
Control of Harpers Ferry changed 14 times during the Civil War. It’s location was strategic to the war effort on both sides. The site was easy to capture—in relative terms—but nearly impossible to defend. The side that controlled Harpers Ferry could make use of river transportation for supplies and troops, but the occupier was constantly vulnerable to outside attack. (The phrase “like shooting fish in a barrel” applies.) The army that succeeded in taking Harpers Ferry almost immediately became a target! Harpers Ferry was great in peacetime but the worst in wartime.
Learning more about Harpers Ferry made me think about the Restoration Movement and how we conduct ourselves. We have a rich history of debate, and debate is great in a movement that has the freedom of autonomous churches to interpret the Scriptures on their own. We have no creed but Christ, no book but the Bible, and no name but the Divine. We have no denominational hierarchy to push us out of the fold or repossess our church. We look for unity in essentials, liberty in opinions, and love in everything. But we are also a movement that has gone to war over many things, and the problem with war is—much the same as with Harpers Ferry—even when you win, you lose.
I’m preaching to myself as I write this article. It’s way easier for me to set fire to a bridge than to build one. It’s almost effortless to demean someone (behind their back) to others who agree with me, when, instead, I should look for areas of agreement and unity to stand together with them; that’s a good starting place for debating our differences in love.
If we are going to fight, let’s fight for relationship in this movement! I know that if we don’t stand for (and defend) something, we can fall for anything, but defending doesn’t mean warring. We must remember Paul’s words, “Our struggle is not against flesh and blood” (Ephesians 6:12). The only war we needed to fight has already been won by a single individual. The battlefield is marked by one cross—the original cross—and an empty tomb.