What’s the Honorable Thing To Do?

Yesterday, John Kelly, the chief of staff for President Trump, said a “lack of ability to compromise led to the Civil War.” Further, he described Robert E. Lee, the confederate general who fought to preserve the rights of states to enslave Africans, as an “honorable man.”

It occurred to me, Vera, that so much in life is about deciding what’s the honorable thing to do. General Lee reached one decision. President Lincoln reached another. Quakers, Mennonites and Brethren in Pennsylvania reached another.

Mr. Kelly is entitled to his own opinion, of course. But it’s important to note that not everyone embraces his concept of honor. Indeed, at the time of the Civil War, there were people in the South who thought slavery was morally repugnant. And who also believed it was wrong to kill others in battle in an effort to preserve this perverse economic system.

Yet I have no doubt General Lee thought he was doing the honorable thing. And that Mr. Kelly sees honor in the general’s choice.

It’s not for me to judge whether General Lee was an honorable man. It is up to me, however, to judge whether my own actions are honorable.

What is honorable? What isn’t? Is the distinction always apparent? Or does the messiness of life and the pull of forces in opposing directions make the answers more illusive than they’d otherwise appear?

Some people like Mr. Kelly caution against imposing 21st-century standards of morality on 19th-century characters and events. And I suppose that’s where he and I part company.

Personally, I believe it was always wrong to enslave other people. To put them in chains. To deny them their liberty. To treat them like chattel. Animals. Sub-human.

I find honor in people who resisted those impulses. Not in people who fought and killed others to preserve it.

But I suppose that’s one of the reasons Mr. Kelly can work for Mr. Trump.

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