Just Say No: Personal Responsibility in a Fallen World

December 2016 Feature Article

Introduction

There is a sense in the world today that individual choices are no longer significant in the larger scale of events. The efforts of the individual appear to pale in comparison with the capabilities of large bureaucracies or huge multi-national corporations. Whether individuals recycle materials or conserve energy, for example, will no longer affect climate change; only government action will make a difference.

So hopes are pinned on collective action at the Paris talks on climate change in December 2015. An individual can do little but seek the best means of survival for oneself.

If individual action cannot change the course of events, is it safer or right to simply participate in these events, no matter how dishonourable or despicable they may be? If Christians cannot hold back the tide, should they stand their ground or should they float with the tide?

I think Christians should always speak the truth, and if that counsel or objection goes unheeded, Christians should walk away and not participate further, whatever the personal consequences threatened.

An extreme example may be helpful in framing the discussion.

Making Choices

2015 is the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II. All wars are horrific, but World War II was made particularly so by the Nazi’s genocidal attempt to kill whole groups of people in Europe. The Nazi regime murdered not only Jews, but also physically and mentally handicapped Germans, about two million Russian prisoners of war, and many other unfortunate groups.

In the years following the war, scholars laid to rest the myth that the mass murders were perpetrated only by blood-thirsty indoctrinated Nazis, with ordinary Germans blissfully ignorant of these horrors.

Historians like Raul Hilberg (The Destruction of the European Jews), Christopher Browning (Ordinary Men: Reserve Police Battalion 101 and the Final Solution in Poland) and Daniel Jonah Goldhagen (Hitler’s Willing Executioners: Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust) have shown conclusively that it was “ordinary” Germans from a cross-section of society who voluntarily, almost eagerly, committed mass murder. They were not coerced into murdering.

The motivations of these “ordinary” Germans to kill unarmed civilians and prisoners, and the indifference of others in permitting these heinous murders, have been much debated. “Why would civilised, educated, ‘ordinary’ people participate in genocide” is a gripping question.

And this begs the question of why did these “ordinary” Germans not refuse, given that many of them would have been Christians? Why did not these Christians just say “No”?

We may never arrive at a definite answer. But perhaps they all should have said No.

Some Germans did say No, and Goldhagen and Herbert Jäger have shown that no German who refused to kill a Jew or another civilian was ever harshly punished. Even when a few fanatical troopers of the SS (the organisation most responsible for the extermination of the Jews) refused to shoot unarmed Jewish civilians, they were not punished.

The Nazi regime, while not actually openly permitting, actually acquiesced in and respected the decisions of some of their own men who refused to commit murder. With no threat of severe consequences for refusing, it would have cost German Christians next to nothing to just say No. Instead they decided to voluntarily commit murder.

Instruments of righteousness or unrighteousness

By not saying No, the Christians among the murderers chose to obey illegal and immoral orders to kill. They set aside their obedience to God and chose not to be His servants.

Francis A. Schaeffer of the L’Abri Fellowship in Switzerland wrote that Christians could at every moment either yield themselves “into the hands of Christ for Him to use you as a tool or weapon in this world, or you can yield yourself in that moment as an instrument of unrighteousness even though you are a Christian.”

We are either God’s servants, or we are not. And in today’s complex world, Christians at times do choose not to say no, but go along with what the world wants.

What does the Bible say?

Reinhold Niebuhr in his essay “Four Hundred to One” gives a masterly retelling of the story of the prophet Micaiah in 1 Kings 22. Micaiah was known to be a troublemaker at court who always gave a contrary view to the king. (Micaiah had no choice: he spoke the truth in the name of the Lord.)

Ordered to comment on the prospects of a war with Ramoth-gilead, Micaiah stood alone against four hundred obsequious prophets of the king of Israel. Micaiah called the four hundred fawning toadies liars for telling the kings of Israel and Judah that they would triumph. He prophesied a defeat and the scattering of Israel’s army.The kings shrugged off Micaiah’s prophesy and went to war.

For speaking the truth and being a true prophet of God, Micaiah was thrown into prison and given only “meager rations of bread and water”. Of course, Micaiah was absolutely right, both in his prophecy and in his courage to speak it whatever the consequences to his person.

Niebuhr pointed out that “A prophet who speaks only what the king wants to hear ceases ere long to be of use even to the king.” Christians must be useful prophets in society.

Christians should follow Micaiah’s example and speak the truth against unrighteousness, even if it means standing against a wave of popular opinion. We cannot give in to what we know to be wrong. (Micaiah initially merely repeated to the king of Israel the false prophecy, but the king knew Micaiah was not being serious.) We must take personal responsibility and make personal choices to be instruments of righteousness.

We may not be in a titanic struggle for survival in a war now, but our world can still make demands on Christians to do immoral or illegal acts. We must have the courage to say No.

We cannot claim we have no choice. We cannot fear the consequences of saying no. Because we do have a choice, and throughout history Christians have been willing to stand up for their faith even if it meant a death sentence.

Consequences for refusing to participate in illegal or immoral or even questionable acts are not usually fatal these days. They may cause one to lose one’s job, or have their promotion delayed, but surely these are consequences Christians must be prepared to accept for making a stand as a righteous person.

I once asked a senior civil servant what would he do if he were ever ordered to do something immoral. He proudly and happily told me that in his entire career, he had never been asked to do anything that was criminal or immoral.

He went on to add that if he were asked to do so in the future, he would simply quit. He said he would not want to work for an organisation that made such demands on him. All this is, of course, nothing less than what we would expect of our Singapore government and our civil servants; their incorruptibility is legendary.

However, not everybody has the privilege of working in such ethical organisations. Christians may be working in companies that have one or two or some questionable practices. These organisations may require employees to perform acts that, while not clearly immoral or illegal, may be found to be in grey areas.

In these situations, the Christian should speak up as a witness of a righteous God. In society, at work, in school, in everyday situations, Christians can be prophets or fore-tellers of truth and the Gospel.

We must refuse to participate in unrighteous or dishonourable activities. And we must be prepared to accept the consequences for doing so. We cannot participate in what we believe or know to be wrong.

The excuse that subordinates were “just obeying orders” has consistently been rejected by war trials and criminal courts. Judges have made it clear that illegal orders should not be obeyed, and that people must take responsibility for their own actions, especially if they choose to take part in criminal endeavours.

If Christians are asked or ordered to play a part in unrighteous schemes, they should simply not obey. The fact that many do obey shows a deep misunderstanding of the obligations of Christians to leaders of whatever ilk.

Scholars have shown that there is no one particular text in the Bible that gives a clear and full doctrine of the Christian’s relationship to civil authority. (I would include under the rubric of civil authority any superior authority in society, and not restrict the term to only state leaders.)

There appears in the New Testament to be three distinct responses to human authority and these have been described by Arnold Monera as: subordination or conformity (Romans 13, 1 Peter 2), critical distancing (Mark 12) and resistance or non-conformity (Revelation 13).

Too many Christians adopt only the first response. Certainly the Christian has responsibilities towards leaders. But unquestioning obedience and submission to human leaders is never mandated for Christians, especially in the face of unrighteousness.

It is when Christians use the other two responses (when required) that unrighteousness can be removed from or at least reduced in society. There are situations in which Christians must choose to obey God rather than any human authority, and we must remember that unconditional obedience is due only to God. As individual instruments of righteousness, we must learn sometimes to just say No.

That is what the Church being a witness in society must mean. Carl Henry (Faith at the Frontiers) has described the Church as ideally a minority that holds an ideological initiative in the battle for men’s minds and wills and consciences. It is ideally a minority that places the world on the defensive, a minority that cannot be ignored, a minority that shatters the complacency of its self-confident contemporaries, a minority that sounds an eerie warning and voices an authentic hope to an uneasy and unstable generation.

We cannot do this if we are always submissive and simply obey orders.

Conclusion

In October 2011, Thomas “Toivi” Blatt travelled from California to Munich to attend the trial of Jan Demjanjuk, a former member of the Red Army in World War II. Blatt was one of the last few people alive of the 82 who survived the Nazi death camps in Poland in World War II.

Nearly 70 years after he escaped as a 15-year old prisoner from the Sobibor concentration camp, Blatt testified in Munich that Jan Demjanjuk was also a guard in Sobibor. According to Blatt’s testimony, while Demjanjuk may not have actually killed anyone, anybody employed as a guard at Sobibor was a vital cog in the machinery and therefore complicit in a campaign of genocide.

Demjanjuk denied being at Sobibor but, given the evidence against him, was nevertheless found guilty of being an accessory to murder and sentenced to five years imprisonment. He appealed the conviction and died in 2012 before the appeal could be heard.

While Demjanjuk’s case was extremely complex, Blatt’s testimony is important because it underscores the argument that there are no innocent bystanders among participants in unrighteousness.

If you took part, then you took part! The option to just say No and consider resistance and non-conformity instead of blind obedience is always open. That is the option Christians must take in situations where we are asked to commit a crime or immorality, or do something dishonourable or unrighteous, or offend against God. We must, each one of us, just say No.


dr-chiang-ming-shun


Rev Dr Chiang Ming Shun (TTC Alumnus, 2000) has been an ordained Methodist minister for 15 years and was recently appointed as Lecturer in Church History at Trinity Theological College. He is most interested not only in the Christian Experience in society, but also in Military History. Ming Shun is happily married to Po Lin, a teacher.