This past winter, I had a bout with cancer. I came out of it well– but during that brief time between the diagnosis and the actual surgery, I fell into deep introspection. For various reasons, I’d suspected that the cancer had spread, and therefore I considered the very real possibility that I might not survive this. During that time, the dominant question that kept resurfacing for me was whether or not I had faithfully completed the tasks God had required of me on this earth.
Thankfully, I was finding great joy in my family– an awesome relationship with my husband, our grown children and the wonderful, godly mates they had married, as well as our very entertaining grandchildren that our kids were raising in the faith– and doing a very good job of, without my help. In regard to my family, my job was done. But I increasingly worried about the world my grandkids were having to grow up in.
Quite honestly, my discouragement over the state of our current American culture made it rather easy to think of just giving up. Dying was not a fearful thought. Discouraged over the rapid moral decline in our country that I’d witnessed not only since I myself was young, but just since my own children were young, I remember suggesting to the Lord that this cancer could be a very convenient ticket out for me. After all, how long can a person stay motivated to try to make a difference for good in the world, while pedaling the bike constantly uphill, perpetually loosing speed and affectiveness? I saw the world as a very strong force against the power of good, colored as it is in 2 Timothy 3:1-5:
“In the last days there will come times of difficulty. For people will be lovers of self, lovers of money, proud, arrogant, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, unholy, heartless, unappeasable, slanderous, without self-control, brutal, not loving good, treacherous, reckless, swollen with conceit, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God, having the appearance of godliness, but denying its power…”
Yep, that pretty much described the current culture I was seeing.
By God’s grace, my cancer was contained, and it seemed apparent to me that He was not done with me here yet– not done with working in me, as well as requiring work from me. So, clearly I had to work on my attitude. I had to find a way to live in a culture that I didn’t particularly like right now, yet find God’s grace to love doing whatever it is He wants me to do in it– with all my heart.
During the long recovery from my surgery, I did considerable reading. Among many books, I began “Visions of Vocation: Common Grace for the Common Good,” by Steven Garber, expecting to find a particular theme explained more fully. Instead, I found myself immediately hit between the eyes with something completely different from what I’d expected– and remarkably relevant to what I’d been wrestling with!
“Vocation,” Garber began, “is the wholeness of life, the range of relationships and responsibilities. Work, yes, but also families, and neighbors, and citizenship, locally and globally. Vocation is that to which I am called as a human being, living my life before the face of God.” The primary message of the book was the idea that we are responsible, for love’s sake, to participate wholeheartedly in our “vocation.” In this world, in whatever situation, with whatever “neighbors” we find ourselves (locally or globally), we are called to be common grace for the common good.
Jesus commanded us to love our neighbors as ourselves (Luke 10:25-37.) The question that Garber poses repeatedly is– who is our neighbor? And most specifically, for the sake of love, what is our responsibility to our neighbor? To me, it was easy to identify my responsibility in loving my family as my first obvious “neighbors.” But who then? And what? And how?
In the book, Garber unwraps multiple stories of the sadness, the horror, the sin in the world, and continually asks, “Knowing what you know– can you still love?”
In a chapter called, “If You Have Eyes, Then See,” Garber points out that, “Our propensity to deceive ourselves about our place and purpose makes it so very difficult to see the truth of our lives, to understand the meaning of our moment in history and our responsibility to it.” And then he goes on to tell about Hannah Arendt, a German Jew, who published a compilation of essays she’d written for The New Yorker on the trial of Adolph Eichmann, the Nazi official given primary responsibility by Hitler to answer ‘the Jewish question.’ Fifteen years after the war, he was captured in Argentina and tried in 1962 in Jerusalem for his crimes against the Jewish people.
What struck Arendt so strongly was that Eichmann was so ordinary. A good family man. He never intended to inflict horror and terror. He was simply obeying orders. He was just doing his job.
Arendt wrote of Eichmann’s perspective, “This was the way things were, this was the new law of the land, based on the Fuhrer’s order; whatever [Eichmann] did he did, as far as he could see, as a law-abiding citizen. He did his duty, as he told the police and the court over and over again; he not only obeyed orders, he also obeyed the law.”
Garber wrote, “In the pharisaism of his heart, he understood his employment as a public vocation with professional responsibilities, so that it was important to not only do one’s duty but to obey the law–even if the law was one and the same with the fatally flawed Fuhrer himself.”
His conscience was seared. Though he was a good family man, and a responsible employee, Eichmann did not regard these Jewish people as his neighbors, and blinded to it, he made sure that the trains left on time for Auschwitz, going to bed at night– certain that he himself, personally, had nothing to do with killing the Jews.
The court found Eichmann guilty. Upon hearing the verdict, he was profoundly disappointed… and shocked. Arendt wrote that he had been so sure that the judges would declare him innocent, understanding that he was only doing his job and simply following the law.
Someone has said that the stories of the Nazis’ involvement in the extermination of the Jews are stories that keep rising to the surface of our conscience over and over and over… as well they should. This is a deeply troubling story, and if we don’t learn from history’s most outrageous lessons, then we may end up participating in the same ideas.
I’ve thought about this story a lot during the past week. I’ve written before of my sadness and deep concern that Christians in particular have been so quick to declare the guilt of Bowe Bergdahl as a “deserter” for leaving his post. After all, wasn’t it obvious!? So much anger has risen over the fact that he was not “obeying orders,” not cooperating with the commands of the unit he was serving under– as though obeying orders were more important than his moral convictions– that it has escalated to a point where his parents are receiving death threats, and angry mobs are calling for prison or a firing squad for Bowe. This is really happening, folks.
Yet we still don’t know what happened. According to the published email correspondence with his parents prior to his capture, Bowe– who had been described as a good soldier by his officers– expressed his disillusionment with how the war was being conducted–even its legitimacy– and his disgust over the arrogance, the carelessness, and the insulting lack of compassion toward the Afghan citizens that he saw daily. His fury seemed to culminate when he witnessed a little Afghan girl killed when she was mowed down by an MRAP military vehicle. He was shocked and devastated. Bowe’s dad responded to his emails simply by encouraging him to “follow your conscience.”
Obviously, there’s far more to the story than what we have perceived. Maybe Bowe began to rightfully see the little girl, and the citizens of Afghanistan as “his neigbors.” Maybe the other soldiers in his unit who continued to cooperate with the system– to obey their orders, to just do their job– didn’t. Which one was morally wrong?
Again, we don’t know yet. This story is going to be uncovered some day. And for us, how we perceive it and communicate to others about it, is the application and the reality of our faith right now, in this place, at this time. How we respond to this current event that’s unfolding in our nation’s history will count.
For sure, there is more to this story. And for sure, every one of us is morally obliged to ask the very important questions before we blindly attack Bowe for refusing to cooperate and “just obey his orders.” History compells us to ask the right questions– like identifying who the enemy really is, while at the same time identifying “who is our neighbor.”
Obeying your conscience is not unAmerican. It’s the decent thing to do. Dietrich Bonhoeffer resisted the commands and requirements of a government that became immoral. He died as a martyr for the sake of refusing to compromise what his conscience dictated. Meanwhile, Adolph Eichmann did cooperate, doing what he was told, until eventually he didn’t even have a conscience.
As Christians, we are called to be common grace for the common good.
We are called as human beings, to live our lives before the face of God.
If we don’t reconcile this as it applies to what’s happening right now, then history is doomed to repeat itself. And we’ll all suffer for it.
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