Deserves it! I daresay he does. Many that live deserve death. And some that die deserve life. Can you give it to them? Then do not be too eager to deal out death in judgment. For even the very wise cannot see all ends. I have not much hope that Gollum can be cured before he dies, but there is a chance of it. And he is bound up with the fate of the Ring. My heart tells me that he has some part to play yet, for good or ill, before the end; and when that comes, the pity of Bilbo may rule the fate of many – yours not least. – Gandalf speaking to Frodo about Gollum
True courage is knowing not when to take a life, but when to spare one. – The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey. [This quote is not found in the books; it is the product of the screenwriters rather than Tolkien.]
“Arise, arise, Riders of Théoden! Fell deeds awake, fire and slaughter! spear shall be shaken, shield be splintered, a sword-day, a red day, ere the sun rises! Ride now, ride now! Ride to Gondor!” – Lord of the Rings
Tolkien had many fine turns of phrase in his Lord of the Rings trilogy and in the Hobbit. Some of his finest turns of phrase are when it comes to the subject of war and killing. The Lord of the Rings is a trilogy in which killing abounds. Tragedy, murder, war, deception, treason are all found in the trilogy. Yes, as well are found victory, honesty, oath-keeping, love, and true witness. But, there is little doubt that the Lord of the Rings speaks of the gathering cloud of war that begins to hover over all of Middle Earth. The amazing part is that at the heart of the Trilogy, and in Tolkien’s heart, is a deep pacifism. War is not extolled and neither is killing. Revenge is not to be countenanced. Rather, there is little better to want out of life than a warm hobbit hole with plenty of food and a good pipe filled with Longbottom Leaf to smoke afterward. In the case of Sam, add to that Rosie, his children, and a good marriage.
Tolkien never glorifies war. It may be necessary, but it is never ever glorified. Over and over, the picture that Frodo, Sam, Merry, and Pippin give is that of doing what is needful, doing what nobody should really want to do, so that others may live, so that there may be a future. War is destructive, not only of territory, and of innocent collateral damage, but also of those who participate in the war, even if they are justified. Even killing is something that must be done in wisdom.
It may seem strange to say that even killing must be done in wisdom, but Tolkien’s pacifism reflects a strong theme that is found in both Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy. “Then do not be too eager to deal out death in judgment. For even the very wise cannot see all ends … the pity of Bilbo may rule the fate of many—yours not the least.” We do not know, and cannot know what God has in store for even our enemies. Tolkien, through his characters, warns that we ought to be chary of dealing out death to anyone. Had Gollum died early, Frodo might not have made it to Mount Doom. Had there been no mercy, then no mercy might have been received and Sauron might still be ruling. The deep pacifism of the Church is based not only on the idea that all are made in the image of God, but also on the idea that we know not what God has in store for each and every one of us.
Wait, so the Church has a deep pacifistic streak, and yet Christians participate in war? Yes, this is a fallen and damaged universe. We allow participation in war only as the lesser of two evils, not something to be desired or in which to glory. “They kept going because they were holding on to something. There is some good in this world Mr. Frodo, and it is worth fighting for,” (Sam Gangee to Frodo). When Sam speaks those words, Frodo still has miles to go and is already nearly to the bottom of his endurance. But, Sam actually echoes the Book of Hebrews, where by faith, and not seeing the end, the great men and women of faith marched on. Sometimes we are forced to say that some things are worth fighting for.
And, yet, even in the midst of war, notice how Gandalf still speaks of mercy and of not killing. “Then do not be too eager to deal out death in judgment.” In the midst of war, Gandalf still speaks words of pacifism. We are to seek a non-violent outcome with all our hearts and with all our actions. It is to be our first and primary choice.
That is why I am so troubled about some of the gun advocates. It is one thing to advocate for being allowed to have a gun for self-defense purposes. It is another to read some of the yahoos who almost seem to be looking forward to the first opportunity to draw a gun and maybe even fire it. Worse are those who appear to be saying that they are looking for an excuse to engage in a civil war and secede from this country. Claiming to be committed Christians, they engage in the language of violence as though they are just waiting for God to give the go-ahead to engage in violence. They never seem to imagine what war is really like. Somehow, it is only the enemy that will die, not their closest friends. Somehow, their soul will suffer no ill effects from the killing of those made in the image of God. Somehow, they will never fall into PTSD, nor have to attend the memorial service for one of their friends.
Now, please remember. I am a veteran. I work at a VA Medical Center. I engage in target shooting, and enjoy it. I have also seen too many of my fellow veterans who are receiving treatment for PTSD. We are not to desire the death of sinners, but their forgiveness and entry into the Kingdom. Tolkien gives a good example of how even the evil may benefit from God’s mercy. Gandalf speaks and says that, “true courage is knowing not when to take a life, but when to spare one.”
So, I would urge all of us to re-read the Lord of the Rings trilogy. Look at the strong streak of pacifism in the trilogy. And, let’s make up our minds to cultivate love toward our enemies, toward those who hate us, toward those who would undo us. And, if we must go to war, let us be willing to show mercy, to even pray for our enemy, that God may show us his mercy. Let us always advocate for peace and never advocate for war. Let us have the attitude that “… even the wise cannot see all ends. I have not much hope that Gollum can be cured before he dies, but there is a chance of it.” Let us therefore remember that, “True courage is knowing not when to take a life, but when to spare one.”