During World War II, several of my uncles served. One died, after injury or sickness sent him to a stateside hospital in California where he was visited by his oldest brother, my father, Harry, who turns 100 today. My father, however, did not serve. Although he offered to join as a medic or cook, he was, for some reason, not allowed. Given his strict faith, he would not use a gun; he would not even allow my brothers to play with toy guns. I respect his choice.
We needed brave men and women to crush the Axis powers, Germany, Japan, Italy. There is a hateful evil at the heart of that conflict that still has a voice today. But not all war heroes serve in the field.
Recently, I watched a different World War II film, "A Hidden Life." It was not about external battles, however, but more of an internal one. I can understand why it was not a box office hit. Director Terrence Malick is known for quiet films with great cinematography, not big action scenes. This nearly three-hour movie was no exception, yet with a deeper message. As a Christian, I found it more powerful than yet another Easter-related film, where we can see a 2000-year-old story with a cast wearing rough hewn robes. It is vital to connect the dots: What does Christianity – indeed Christ – look like in contemporary times? In extreme circumstances? I found it in this film based on the true story of Franz Jagerstatter.
Jagerstatter was a diligent farmer with a loving family in the beautiful mountains of Austria (like the Von Trapps of "The Sound of Music"). Indeed, the film shows a landscape of green mountains, in a land beyond the clouds. As conscripted, he took up military training, but there was a line he would not cross. He would not pledge fealty to Hitler, as required. He would not vow “unconditional obedience.”
He expressed disappointment that many Catholics supported the Nazis, writing, “I believe there could scarcely be a sadder hour for the true Christian faith in our country.” When he talked with his bishop, he was told, basically, just go ahead and say the words. Obey and then think what you want. Just words.
He was imprisoned, mistreated, but did not retaliate and encouraged others while in prison. When given the opportunity to sign a document and be released, he said something like, “But I am already free.” Free in conscience. Free in Christ.
Just words. But words often define us, especially when sealed by our actions.
Even as Martin Luther King, Jr. explained, there are “just laws” and “unjust laws.” Their morality can determine our conformity; submitting to a higher law of principle, of faith.
Often, heroes are heroes only in retrospect. Now, Jagerstatter is considered a saint in the same church that counseled him to comply with the Nazis.
It is important to honor those who fought and sacrificed for us. But courage and toughness are not limited to those who handle weapons in the field.
Interested in a broad range of issues, including social and faith issues, Brickner serves as a regular contributor to the Forum’s opinion page. She is a retired English instructor, having taught in Michigan and Minnesota.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of The Forum's editorial board nor Forum ownership.