I have been listening to an audio version of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. The other day I heard the chapter in which Huck stumbles into the middle of a feud between the Grangerford and the Shepherdson families. Buck Grangerford tells Huck about an episode in which old Baldy Shepherdson shot down a young Grangerford in the middle of the road. Huck says “I reckon that old man was a coward, Buck.” But Buck won’t let anybody disparage his blood enemy:
“I reckon he warn’t a coward. Not by a blame’ sight. There ain’t a coward amongst them Shepherdsons–not a one. There ain’t no cowards amongst the Grangerfords either. Why, that old man kep’ up his end in a fight one day, for a half an hour, against three Grangerfords, and come out winner. They was all a-horseback; he lit off of his horse and got behind a little wood-pile, and kep’ his horse before him to stop the bullets; the Grangerfords staid on their horses and capered around the old man, and peppered away at him, and he peppered away at them. Him and his horse both went home pretty leaky and crippled, but the Grangerfords had to be fetched home–and one of them was dead and one of them died the next day. No, sir, if a body’s out hunting for cowards, he don’t want to fool away any time amongst them Shepherdsons, becuz they don’t breed any of that kind.”
Buck Grangerford’s praise for the Shepherdsons caused me to reflect on the idea of the worthy opponent. Let us lay aside for a moment the fact that the Grangerfords and Shepherdsons were engaged in a meaningless feud, as well as the fact that anybody with good sense would agree with Huck Finn that Baldy Shepherdson acted in a cowardly manner when he shot down an unarmed fourteen-year-old. Buck Grangerford is confused on many counts. Mark Twain is being utterly ironic here. Still, I can’t help admiring the respect and even affection that Buck affords his mortal enemies. The Grangerfords’ honor in the feud depends on the Sheperdsons’ honor.
Again, I understand the fact that the fight in Huckleberry Finn is a meaningless fight, and the participants’ honor is a false honor. But not all fights are meaningless, and in the real ones–the meaningful ones–it is exceedingly important that we honor and even value our opponents. This principle is true in household arguments, and it’s true in public arguments. In the current climate of political, cultural, and theological discourse, the worthy opponent appears to be a threatened species. It seems to be standard practice to dismiss one’s opponents as halfwits or degenerates or worse. But we cheapen our own side of the argument when we cheapen the other side.
I thought of the Grangerfords and Shepherdsons the other day when I read a piece that Christopher Hitchens wrote about his own impending death. The most articulate and prolific of the “New Atheists,” Hitchens is a man of outlandish verbal and reasoning powers. He has brought those powers to bear in opposition to the beliefs that I hold most deeply. Still, I can’t help but be sad at the thought that his voice will soon be silent. His kind of brilliance doesn’t come along very often. I wish he had begun from different premises. I wish he had ended up as a GK Chesterton for our generation; he seems to have the wit and energy for it.
Hitchens has said not to expect any deathbed conversion. That would indeed be a most unlikely and unexpected event. Then again, every conversion is a miracle. Here’s hoping God works that particular miracle. But even if he doesn’t, let me say that Christopher Hitchens has helped move me down the path of humility toward the place where every believer ought to live: that is to say, toward the truth that God is my defender and not vice-versa. As Spurgeon* said, “Who ever heard of defending a lion? Just turn it loose; it will defend itself.” Hitchens, that great hurricane of a thinker, has made me glad that it is not really my job to defend the faith.
*Corrected from the original, which attributed this quotation to Chesterton.