Tale of Two Consciences

Out of the savagery and horror of World War II there emerged many inspiring stories of individuals who made courageous personal choices.  Here, we wish to contemplate the examples of two Christian men whose consciences led them in very different directions regarding the taking of human life.

Desmond Doss was a young man from rural Virginia who was the real-life hero of the highly acclaimed 2016 movie Hacksaw Ridge.  Though he had a deeply-held belief that God forbade all killing, young Doss nevertheless enlisted in the army to serve as a medic.  His refusal to handle a weapon, even for purposes of drilling, quickly put him at odds with his officers and fellow soldiers and he was subjected to abuse and the threat of a court-martial.  Subsequently serving as a medic in the bloody battle of Okinawa, he is credited with almost unbelievable acts of heroism. During the hellish action to take the enemy stronghold known as Hacksaw Ridge, he was credited with saving the lives of 75 soldiers while repeatedly exposing himself to enemy fire and being wounded multiple times (some aspects of his heroism were actually omitted from the movie as being just too incredible).  He was issued the Congressional Medal of Honor for his actions, becoming the first conscientious objector to be so honored.  His wounds, however, left him severely disabled for the remainder of his life.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a young Lutheran pastor and theologian in pre-war Germany who opposed the rise of Hitler’s fascist regime.  As war became imminent, he accepted a “safe” position to teach theology at a seminary in the US.  However, this was short-lived as his conscience compelled him to return to Germany to continue to oppose the evil regime that had infected his country and compromised his church.  Becoming aware of the Nazi’s murderous treatment of Jews and others, Bonhoeffer became associated with a group that plotted to assassinate Hitler.  When the bomb that they planted in Hitler’s bunker narrowly failed to kill him, the group was quickly rounded up, and Bonhoeffer was hanged as an enemy of his country.

No one would disagree that these two men both acted with great conviction and courage, and few would argue that both deserve our admiration as Christians who “put it all on the line” to serve God according to their consciences.  Yet, it would be hard to conceive of two more different courses of action — Doss refusing to kill the enemies of his country, and Bonhoeffer complicit in a plot to murder the leader of his.  The thing they had in common is obedience to their personal perceptions of God’s will that led them to put their own lives in jeopardy.  Yet, both examples also raise troubling questions: When is killing a moral act?  When is betraying one’s government a Christian’s duty?  Though we may respect Doss’s example, we are grateful for the many principled Christians who did take up arms for our country.  We may laud Bonhoeffer’s resistance, yet we shudder at the prospect of individuals deciding that it is a God-given imperative to kill their leaders.  How do we discern what is truly God’s will for us?

There are no easy “one size fits all” answers to such troubling questions and we should not expect to find them.  The simple fact is that moral ambiguity is a reality of mankind’s fallen condition: we might seek simple rules that will make us blameless, but God’s righteous will is often obscured by our own narrow agendas and worldly concerns.  The one thing that we can say with confidence about both Bonhoeffer and Doss is that they each made extremely costly decisions of conscience: not only did they expose themselves to severe censure and personal danger, but they both fully recognized the gravity of the moral choices that they made.  Theirs were not “knee-jerk” positions for self-serving causes, but rather instances of throwing themselves completely on God’s mercy.

Though we pray that we may never find ourselves required to practice such life-altering discernment, every Christian will be confronted at times with difficult decisions where moral certainty is illusive.  At such times, we do our best to discern and follow God’s will as it is revealed to us in His Word, the whispering of His Holy Spirit in our consciences, and the counsel of trustworthy fellow-believers.  We then proceed, humbly aware of the fallibility of our own discernment, yet fully confident of God’s redeeming grace and mercy.

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