Reflections on Lawlessness, Monuments and Christ
Friday, Sep. 18, 2020
As I was driving from Wisconsin to Utah during vacation, I made an effort to stop at unusual points of interest along the way. One of these was a monument located along a country road about a mile off Interstate 80 near Adair, Iowa. The monument is comprised of a train wheel and a section of track. The wheel is mounted with a plaque that proclaims it is the “Site of the first train robbery in the West. Committed by the notorious Jesse James and his gang of outlaws. July 21, 1873.” The track is purported to be that which the gang removed to derail the train.
Seeing this slice of Americana was worth the slight detour. I’ve been fascinated by the Wild West since I was a kid – I can even tell you what a dead man’s hand is, and why it is so named. I grew up reading Louis L’Amour, watching John Wayne gallop across the big screen, and writing very bad stories set in the Colorado Territory of 1870.
As I’ve grown older (and I hope wiser), I’ve come to realize that my romantic view of the Wild West has very little to do with its reality.
Take Jesse James, for example. We tend to think of him and his brother Frank as something like Western Robin Hoods, robbing from the rich and giving to the poor. However, there’s no evidence that they actually did this. In real life the James brothers robbed a bank in 1866, killing a bystander in the process; they went on to rob stage coaches, stores and trains as well. Estimates are that Jesse James killed 16 people and was involved with the deaths of more than 100 others.
Back on the road, headed for Omaha, I thought about how odd it is to commemorate such lawlessness. I think much of Jesse James’ mystique has to do with the fact that we Americans tend to root for the underdog, and the James gang evaded capture for almost 20 years, even though they were sought by lawmakers throughout the Midwest, as well as private security such as Pinkerton detectives. We ignore the facts and believe the myth; in movies, Jesse James has been played by such leading men as Roy Rogers, Audie Murphy, Robert Duvall and Brad Pitt.
The long miles of highway rolled away, and the next day I stopped at Holy Family Shrine in Gretna, Neb. Like the train robbery monument, you have to leave the interstate to reach it, but it is well worth the detour because it is a beautiful, serene place in which to pray.
As I knelt in front of the altar, the image of the train robbery monument came to mind. It occurred to me that it could serve as a simile for how I treat my most insidious sins, the ones I boast that I have buried and even memorialize their death, while in truth they reach from the grave to weave their way into my life. For example, I proclaim that I no longer gossip, not since Pope Francis called gossiping “the disease of cowards” and compared gossips to terrorists. I even recently boasted in the confessional that I had this particular sin licked. And yet just yesterday, a friend asked about a third person and I just had to mention a juicy tidbit because it gave me a moment in the spotlight – and now I must tear down that monument to my own self-righteousness and be absolved once more.
All of this happened before the current contention over monuments in our country. I’m not qualified to debate whether certain memorials should stand, but I will say that outside of the Cross of Christ, there is no commemoration of a perfect person. He went to his death calling us to love our neighbor as ourselves. The controversial memorials are from a time in this country when we failed to heed that call; I wonder if today’s strife will bring us any closer to being our brother’s keeper.
Marie Mischel is editor of the Intermountain Catholic. Reach her at email@example.com.