I love reading biographies, and Eric Metaxas has written two excellent ones. Amazing Grace describes William Wilberforce’s twenty-year fight to abolish the British slave trade. Bonhoeffer discusses the courageous life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a German theologian who stood up to the Nazi regime and was eventually hanged for his convictions.
In his speech at the National Prayer Breakfast a few years back, Metaxas himself made a point about the common theme in these biographies: both of his subjects fought for what was right in the face of incredible pressure from the overwhelming majority of their contemporaries.
I couldn’t help but wonder: if I had lived in a society that approved of slavery or one that marginalized and then murdered millions of people because of their race, what would I have done? What would you have done?
Those are good questions, I think, but there’s a better one to ask. After I finished the book on Bonhoeffer, I was bothered by the thought of living where he lived when he lived. What would it be like for your country to be overwhelmed—overnight, it seemed to those who lived through it—by unspeakable evil?
It must’ve taken deep faith and unshakeable courage to let your voice be heard, to be so convicted about your beliefs that you were unwilling to stay quiet. I kept thinking, especially in my role as a minister, would I have spoken up? Or would I have compromised my convictions just enough to avoid attention?
But again, there’s a better question to ask. The apostle Paul writes that Christians are to be “blameless and innocent, children of God without blemish in the midst of a crooked and twisted generation, among whom you shine as lights in the world” (Philippians 2:15). Paul’s Roman world was indeed a “crooked and twisted generation,” and so were the slave cultures of the 18th and 19th centuries (and some still exist today). The Nazi ideology of the 1930s and 40s was as evil as anything could be.
But blatant racism as it manifested itself in segregation a few decades ago in our own country was also crooked and twisted . . . how would we have responded if we lived in the days of extreme racial prejudice?
But again, hypotheticals aren’t the best path, because they allow us to escape in our minds to a world that doesn’t exist anymore, at least not in the particulars. The better question is this: What am I doing right now? How are we shining as “lights in the world” amidst the perversity and crookedness of our own culture?
As much as we’d like to deny it, human nature hasn’t changed since the slaveholding 19th-century or the brutal 20th-century. It just manifests itself differently.
We still live in a fallen world that’s permeated by sinfulness—from materialism and greed, to the obsession with a boundary-free sexuality, to thinking less of those who are ethnically different, to the denial of the personhood of the unborn.
People like Wilberforce and Bonhoeffer ought to make us think. As long as on we’re this side of the Lord’s return, there will always be darkness. The question to ask is how brightly do our lights shine where we are right now?