Lectio with General Patton

Unexpectedly on Christmas I saw the 1970 movie “Patton,” a nuanced portrayal of General Patton during WWII. Hearing lines from the psalms echo in the background of some solo shots of the General walking across a landscape, it was easy to see his instinctive identification with the ups and downs of David’s own military conquests, his times in and out of exile and being on the run. So now for a time I suspect I’ll be praying in the psalms alongside this image of Patton and all the morally ambiguous values regarding war that he embodied.

Believing that he’s the reincarnation of a number of past military leaders from across the centuries, General Patton also prays daily with his Bible. At one point before battle, the General commissions a chaplain to draft a prayer beseeching God to alter the weather so that the wintry storm would no longer prevent the troops and tanks from moving forward. The chaplain complies, with hesitation, after Patton tells him something like, “I’m on intimate terms with the Almighty; you write me a good prayer, and God will listen.” The storm does abate, and the battle is successful. Despite almost losing his role as a military commander, Patton eventually fulfills what he believes is his destiny, helping to end the war with Germany.

I’ve an abundance of thoughts about a military warrior like Patton (who both embodies and would be chastised by the values of the Bhagavad Gita, that terrible gem of meditation during a long suspended moment before a civil war begins). But here it seems right to focus on the fact that both he and the royal voice in the psalms presuppose the reality of military conflict. Both Patton and David in exile share a sense of loneliness, but I wonder if Patton felt a stronger sense of his own destiny than did David about himself? I will wonder this now as I read through the psalms, for my impression is that OTHERS testify to David (and the messiah’s) chosen status. And where David speaks out of his own commissioning, it’s not as often with bravado as with a sense of his dependence upon and gratitude to God–and his urging God to take up the fight, since he himself is small or surrounded.

Perhaps Patton noticed the places in the psalms where there was less tension between his life and David’s. At the very least, Patton understood his own life as part of a mythic or missional context as large as David’s own. (When asked by a Moroccan leader how he felt about Morocco, after admiring the discipline of a number of colorful Moroccan troops parading past, Patton replied, “I love it! It’s a combination of the Bible and Hollywood!”)

How we identify with the psalms matters a lot to the shape we see in them and to the way they shape our lives. Do we identify with the patterns of victims-awaiting-redemption from God? Or do we identify with the sense of having a unique calling from God on which the fate of the world depends?

Patton’s lectio disturbs me, but I cannot dismiss it out of hand, either. The biblical God clearly uses bold flawed human beings quite often. Rahab and Ruth and Rachel were conniving and opportunistic, it could be said. Certainly Esther and Jael were unabashedly so. The biblical world has no difficulty praising victories in battle, and remembers those who sought to secure power in or through family.

The film about Patton also made clear that the soldiers under him–especially the injured ones–had quite a different perception of the war, as did Commander Bradley, who did not love war and its “glories” as Patton did. Where Patton respected strategic brilliance and courage in the face of death among his foes–longing for an equal he could best–Bradley just wanted to keep people alive and win the war, doing what he was trained to do, not “destined” to do. But I want to let myself be unsettled a while longer by the likes and lectio of a General Patton, and by the question: how do we each live with a strong sense of calling, and balance it (as Patton struggled to do) with the mix of insights and blindness in others?

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