The Red Badge of Courage

[G]radually [the young soldier] … found that he could look back upon the brass and bombast of his earlier gospels and see them truly. He was gleeful when he discovered that he now despised them. … He felt a quiet manhood, non-assertive but of sturdy and strong blood. He knew that he would no more quail before his guides wherever they should point. He had been to touch the great death, and found that, after all, it was but the great death. He was a man. — The Red Badge of Courage, Stephen Crane, 1895.

There comes a moment in every life when we are tested by some particular crisis. Our assumptions and beliefs are put on the line; we discover what we are really made of and where the truest commitments of our hearts reside.

If we fail the test, we must thereafter doubt the sincerity of those core beliefs, or else, we must wonder if we have inside of us the courage to stand by our convictions.

Yet, if we fail, and many of us do, life may provide us a second chance, an opportunity to redeem a battered reputation. We may re-examine untested or naïve beliefs and adopt a more carefully-considered code. Or, we may discover that the fault lies not in the values we hold dear, but in a hesitation to lay our lives at the feet of those values.

In Stephen Crane’s classic novel The Red Badge of Courage, a young man full of youthful bravado joins his friends to fight in the American Civil War. He is all untested courage and prideful certainty about how he will conduct himself on the battlefield. His green regiment is eager to join the fight, bragging lustily that they will cut through the enemy like a scythe.

But when the young soldiers are tested in their first battle, he and many of his compatriots give in to their fear of death. He drops his rifle and runs, deserting his regiment and the cause he claims to believe in.

Stephen Crane was a struggling young writer and New York Tribune journalist in 1895, barely able to keep himself fed on his literary income, when The Red Badge of Courage became an object of international acclaim. Crane was just 24 years old. Veteran soldiers praised the book’s battlefield accuracy — quite an accomplishment considering Crane had never been to war. Crane’s vivid, realistic style kicked off a new era in literature that had many imitators. The British writer H.G. Wells called Crane “beyond dispute, the best writer of our generation.” Crane’s “untimely death [before reaching the age of 29] was an irreparable loss to our literature.”

After fleeing deep into the woods, Henry Fleming, the young protagonist of Crane’s novel, congratulates himself on having the good sense to save his own hide. Certain that his regiment will be decimated, he wanders away from the gunfire until he stumbles on a sorrowful parade of the wounded heading to the rear.

He joins them, hoping to sneak away. A wounded soldier tries to befriend him and cautiously inquires about the nature of the younger man’s wound. Fleming angrily evades his questions and begins to battle inside himself with guilt, scorn and wounded pride.

His self-serving justifications are challenged when he meets a wounded friend from his old unit and realizes that his friend is dying. Henry tries to help the man, but can do little more than stand by in horror as he dies alone beside the dusty road.

Grief stricken and furious — both with himself and the war — Fleming turns back and wanders to the front, drawn without realizing it by duty, a growing courage, and a need to vindicate his friend’s death. He rejoins his regiment, and soon rejoins the fight.

His fears now seem to melt away before a fiery, newfound courage. By putting himself back into harm’s way, the young man regains his sense of honor and discovers within himself the strength and courage that had earlier abandoned him.

Stephen Crane was the youngest son of a Methodist pastor, so it isn’t surprising that The Red Badge of Courage is steeped in themes like sin, redemption, courage, duty, self-sacrifice, and the fear of death. It’s a story about forgiveness, about grace, about second chances arising out of failure.

When their battle is won and his comrades are celebrating victory, Fleming feels no joy. He can only think of his earlier betrayal. He has faced his fears, done his duty, but the guilt of his earlier sin torments him, and he worries that it may eat at him forever.

“Yet gradually he mustered force to put the sin at a distance,” Crane writes. That “place of blood and wrath” heals the young soldier’s broken soul, redeeming him from the shame of his failure. He walks away feeling transformed, set free. As the battle-weary men march to the rear for some rest, a gentle rain begins to fall, cleansing young Henry Fleming on the outside as surely as the bloody fight has cleansed his heart.

Christians will recognize the significance of the blood and the water as symbols of our redemption.

It can be difficult to forgive ourselves for our failures. Despite the lavish forgiveness Christ has poured out for us on the cross, some of us find it hard to let go of those terrible failures, hurts and betrayals that we have been guilty of. Our sins accuse us, mock us and constantly remind us of our weakness.

But God does not accuse us. He forgives. Our sins are lovingly blotted out at the cross by the blood of Jesus, and we are healed. We can rightly “put the sin at a distance” and move on.

We worship a God who generously grants us second chances. Life was not intended to be defined by our failures. We can live, instead, under grace; we can walk through life with courage.

Photo credit: Mathew Brady

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  1. God will never run out of “second chances.” He loves us so much and wants (I hesitate but am tempted to say “needs”) us to become everything that he had in mind for us when he created us in the first place. He wants us all to be a part of that fellowship of the redeemed that constitutes the core of his eternal kingdom. Like John, he wants everyone of us in, so as “to make our [his and our] joy complete.” The only thing that can prevent our eternal happiness is our own decision to run away from God and from his second chances, and at the same time, of course, to run away from ourselves. Thanks for the good review of a good book.

  2. Patricia Slomanski says

    Thank you, Charlie, for the beautiful article. It brought tears to my eyes. May I have your permission to publish it in my church’s newsletter? (with appropriate credit given, of course) It is very meaningful. Hope you are doing well.

    In Christ,

    Pat Slomanski

    Ebenezer Presbyterian Church

    Benson, N. C.

  3. Dealing with an abused, and angry gang member for the last eight months has helped me understand God’s forgiveness. My love for him doesn’t change because he is acting out. As he struggles to learn to let someone love him I am reminded of my acting out as I’ve learned to let God love me.

    This was a beautiful article.

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