The Hand

Guest post by Brian Thomas:

Robert Leckie wrote of his experiences as a US Marine who fought in the Pacific campaign in World War II in his memoir, Helmet for My Pillow (adapted in part by the HBO miniseries, The Pacific). Leckie witnessed the horrors of combat, but over time became hardened to them—in part. After a particularly intense battle on the little island of Peleliu, Leckie stood trying to collect himself, coolly surveying the typical aftermath of combat—the burning tanks and bomb craters, the corpses of the enemy and his own fellows, and the gathering of the living and wounded as the smoke cleared. It was at this point that he had an experience that affected him deeply. As he wrote about it in his memoir:

I got up and made for the airfield. About twenty yards away was a burning tank. Some of the enemy dead were inside. The snipers hung in their nets like dolls stuffed in a Christmas stocking. I turned to go, and as I did, nearly stepped on someone’s hand. “Excuse me,” I began to say, but then I saw that it was an unattached hand, or rather a detached one. It lay there alone—open, palm upwards, clean, capable, solitary. I could not tear my eyes from it. The hand is the artisan of the soul. It is the second member of the human trinity of head and hand and heart. A man has no faculty more human than his hand, none more beautiful nor expressive nor productive. To see this hand lying alone, as though contemptuously cast aside, no longer a part of a man, no longer his help, was to see war in all its wantonness; it was to see the especially brutal savagery of our own technique of rending, and it was to see men at their eternal worst, turning upon one another, tearing one another, clawing at their own innards with the maniacal fury of the pride-possessed.

The hand saddened me and I offered it a respectful inclination of the head while recovering my balance and making a careful circle around it.

Reading Leckie’s tragic account, I was reminded of two other writers, Aristotle and the Apostle Paul. Aristotle pondered whether a human hand that has been severed from the rest of the body is still a human hand. He reasoned that it was not, because the parts of an organism have their identity, and their principle of integration and unity from the functional part they play in the organism as a whole. And when the part is severed from the organism, the part loses its identity and its principle of integration and unity. Strictly speaking, what was a human hand is no longer. It may look like a human hand, but give it a few weeks and it will become apparent that it is no longer as it decomposes. The human hand is gone, and in its place is a collection of parts (flesh, sinews, nerves, bones, etc.) that are connected to each other in a certain spatial arrangement, and which still have the potential of becoming a human hand again—say, if they are put on ice and quickly reattached by surgical means. But the “human hand” is already in the process of disintegrating into a mere heap of meat, bones, and other parts, and the relationship between those parts is disintegrating as well. Eventually it will not have even the potential for being reattached and becoming a human hand again.

Perhaps Aristotle’s discussion was in the back of Paul’s mind when he wrote the Greek Christians at Corinth on the importance of being connected to one another and living together in loving community in the body of Christ. In addition to the use of the body metaphor in 1 Corinthians 12:12-27, Paul comments on how to live in love and unity throughout this letter: in dealing with divisions or factions, in dealing with different convictions about nonessential matters, on how to partake of the Lord’s supper, on the use of spiritual gifts for the good of the church, on the necessity of love, and other matters. But the metaphor of the body of whose parts need each other is a powerful reminder that we need Christ and we need each other. We really cannot live (in the fullest sense of that word) any other way.

It is true for all of us that necessity frequently prevents us from attending church and joining together in community as often as we ought. Nonetheless, we need to be aware that there is a spiritual cost to be paid for this. When another commitment pulls us away from our community, we need to ask ourselves if that commitment is truly a necessity, and to be aware that even if it is, it can be damaging to our spiritual health.

According to the metaphor of the body, Christians do not just have their identity and principle of life and purpose in themselves as individuals, but in connection to Christ and his people as a community. And if a Christian loses those things, it’s far more tragic than the severed hand at Peleliu.


~ by iccthomas on June 15, 2012.

2 Responses to “The Hand”

  1. What of community with non-Christians?

    • Being in community is part of our being human. Hence, community with non-Christians are essential, too. However, as Christians share similar values and beliefs, a Christian would benefit and give differently within a Christian community.

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