“I don’t know how I’m going to live with myself, if I don’t stay true to what I believe.”
Those words are spoken by Desmond T. Doss, at a critical moment in the hit movie, Hacksaw Ridge. The film chronicles the experiences of the real-life hero of the Battle of Okinawa in World War II. Doss was a young Seventh Day Adventist who felt a deep calling to the bloody heart of the Pacific War – not to add to the shooting, but to serve as an unarmed medic and bring what light he could to the darkness of the battlefield.
It was an ambition not well received, to say the least, by his Army peers and commanding officers, who couldn’t understand a soldier who wouldn’t touch a gun. They jeered at his faith, beat him for his presumed cowardice, tried to have him declared psychologically unfit for military service, and finally moved to court-martial him for insubordination for refusing to pick up a rifle.
It was in the face of all that laser-focused persecution that Doss made his statement. For him, faith was so inseparable from his soul and actions that imprisonment, even death, was preferable to the desertion of his deep convictions.
In the end, the charges were dropped, and Doss went on to become the only conscientious objector of World War II to be awarded the Medal of Honor, for unbelievable courage in saving more than 70 men from the harrowing fire of the Okinawa battlefield. He bore the crippling wounds of his heroism for the rest of his life.
But then nothing, as they say, succeeds like success. Seventy years after the fact, Doss is cheered by movie audiences for his unswerving allegiance to his beliefs. Those who denounced and abused him are looked on as aggressively small-and-narrow-minded and all but un-American in their rejection of his rights of conscience.
And yet, that kind of rejection is as prevalent now as then. Ask Barronelle Stutzman, the florist recently on trial at the Washington Supreme Court for not violating her Christian faith by celebrating a same-sex union with her floral artistry. Ask Blaine Adamson, the T-shirt printer in Kentucky who was on trial again this week for declining to design a message encouraging sexual behavior that violates his faith. Ask any of the Christian medical professionals being harassed for not performing elective abortions for women whose lives are not “in danger,” but who find the prospect of motherhood … inconvenient.
Somehow, these don’t seem so heroic, without an Oscar-caliber movie behind them. Standing for your beliefs is more inspiring, it seems, when people are shooting at you with real bullets, rather than lawsuits. When you face the prospect of losing your life, rather than your livelihood.
Interestingly, Doss did not look on himself as a conscientious objector, but as a “conscientious cooperator.” He wanted to help the very men who despised him, (and in fact saved many of their lives). He just wasn’t willing to compromise his faith to help them in the way they demanded.
Again, the same holds true for those under legal assault for their faith beliefs today. Barronelle was happy to sell flowers to the men now suing her, and directed them to other gifted florists who could accomplish their desired designs. But that wasn’t what they wanted. What they wanted was for her to surrender her conscience to accommodate not their needs – but their preferences.
That’s also what organizers of the Gay Pride parade demanded of Blaine, and what a progressive medical establishment demands of Christian doctors, nurses, and pharmacists. These people aren’t interested in cooperation with those who won’t bow to their cultural and political agendas. The charge – as with Doss – is insubordination. “We gave you an order, and you didn’t obey.”
Of course, there will always be those too blinded by their own preoccupations to care about the “inalienable rights” of their fellow Americans. That’s why we have courts – where clear-eyed justice is supposed to prevail over even the most high-pressure prejudices of the current culture.
But courts are not always the sanctuaries we hope they will be. Judges across the U.S. are ruling regularly against those claiming their rights of conscience … their freedom of speech … their religious liberty. That these judges have to deny even the most fundamental underpinnings and conspicuous language of our Declaration and constitution to make their rulings doesn’t seem to weigh for much in the balance.
Which puts me in mind of another movie, drawing on the drama of another theater of World War II. Judgment At Nuremberg condenses the cases against one group of war criminals at the end of that conflict: the German judges tried for their complacency, and compliance, with the brutal laws of the Nazi regime. Through these judges’ actions (and inactions), the Nazis were able to exterminate millions of Jews and others who failed to serve Hitler’s purposes.
“What about those of us who knew better?” one jurist tries to explain. “Why did we sit silent? Why did we take part? Because … what difference does it make if a few political extremists lose their rights? … It is only a passing phase … a stage we are going through. It will be discarded sooner or later. … We will go forward. Forward is the great password.
“And then one day,” he says, “we looked around and found that we were in an even more terrible danger. The ritual began in this courtroom swept over the land like a raging, roaring disease. What was going to be a passing phase had become the way of life.”
And, of course, a way of death for so many, many – persecuted for their faith, for trying to exercise the freedoms granted them by God and ensured by laws deeper than those of any passing reich or regime. Laws written on the hearts of men at their conception. Laws that prompted a world to do battle – at a fearsome cost – with those who would eradicate freedom.
"We never knew that it would come to that," the German judge insists.
“It came to that,” a U.S. judge replies, “the first time you sentenced a man to death you knew to be innocent."
What then, are we “coming to” here? What price will we, as Americans, now pay, for despising and dismissing the freedoms born in our nation’s soul?
How will we live with ourselves, if we don’t stay true to what we believe?