Study Guide

Gilead Warfare

By Marilynne Robinson

Warfare

Most of them took me to mean they were spared the trenches and the mustard gas, but what I really meant was that they were spared the act of killing. It was just like a biblical plague, just exactly. (1.2.89)

Ames takes after his father, a pacifist. He wrote a sermon explaining that a terrible sickness prevented many men from serving in the war—a blessing in disguise, as the saying goes. For Ames, killing in a war is worse than dying in one.

But my courage failed, because I knew the only people at church would be a few old women who were already about as sad and apprehensive as they could stand to be and no more approving of the war than I was. (1.2.91)

Ames doesn't deliver the sermon he was planning—he doesn't see the point. It would only bring pain to mothers and wives and widows. They don't need to hear more words about the war; they're already experiencing it enough as it is.

Most of the young men seemed to feel that the war was a courageous thing, and maybe new wars have come along since I wrote this that have seemed brave to you. That there have been wars I have no doubt. I believe that plague was a great sign to us, and we refused to see it and take its meaning, and since then we have had war continuously. (1.2.94)

Ames perceives the continuous nature of war as punishment from God for ignoring the signs he has given—specifically a command not to fight. Ames usually isn't one to speak about divine providence so openly and certainly, but he shows no qualms here.

My father stood up from his chair. He said, "I remember when you walked to the pulpit in that shot-up, bloody shirt with that pistol in your belt. And I had a thought as powerful and clear as any revelation. And it was, This has nothing to do with Jesus. Nothing. Nothing." (1.7.44)

Ames's father and grandfather disagree passionately about the morality of violence and war. While his grandfather was personally involved in violence and urged his congregation to join the cause of the North in the Civil War, his father would have none of it, believing the way of Jesus precluded ruled out war for any reason.

In course of time I learned that my grandfather was involved pretty deeply in the violence in Kansas before the war. (1.7.54)

Ames's grandfather killed a man—shot him and left him to die. He was aiding John Brown, an abolitionist who resorted to armed insurrection to fight against slavery. Does that justify his actions at all? Why or why not? How does Ames think about this act?

But my father did hate war. He nearly died in 1914, from pneumonia, the doctors said, but I have no doubt it was mainly from rage and exasperation. There were big celebrations all over Europe at the start of the war, as if the most wonderful thing were about to happen. And there were big celebrations here when we got involved. Parades and marching bands. (1.7.58)

Do you think Ames's father's hatred of war played any role in his leaving ministry? Were his views unpopular with his congregation? Why or why not?

My father said that in those days after he came back from the war, he used to go off and sit with the Quakers on the Sabbath. (1.7.57)

The Quakers were pacifists and did not participate in any wars. While some people use the Bible as a justification for going to war, the Quakers believe the Bible forbids war. It's the same text, but these are two opposite interpretations of it.

He did preach those young men into the war. And his church was hit terribly hard. They joined up first thing and stayed till it was over, so the Confederates got off a good many shots at them. He went with them, too, even though he'd have been well into his forties. And he lost that eye, and came back finally with it has healed as it was going to be. (1.7.58)

Ames's grandfather persuaded the men of his church to join the Civil War, but he didn't just preach others into harm's way. He went himself, and it cost him. But at least he practiced what he preached, right?

His father had preached his people into the war, saying while there was slavery there was no peace, but only a war of the armed and powerful against the captive and defenseless. He would say, Peace will come only when that war ends, so the God of peace calls upon us to end it. He said all this with that gun in his belt. And everyone there always shouted amen, even the littlest children. (1.7.99)

Ames's grandfather's defense of war is just as religiously motivated as Ames's father's rejection of it. Gilead takes us into the conflicts religion brings up—conflicts within families and among interpretations. The members of the Ames family take their religion seriously; at times it binds them, but at other times it tears them apart.

All the children play at war now. All of them make those sounds of airplanes and bombs and crashing and exploding. We did the same things, playing at cannon fire and bayonet charges. (1.17.9)

The placement of "now" in the first sentence is noteworthy. At first, we think Ames is saying times have changed and that war is more prevalent in the imaginations of children than it used to be. But then he admits that it's always been so.

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