RESISTANCE IS FERTILE
How is individual moral courage expressed when a person feels uneasy
with the culture or intimidated by the State?
As the surrounding culture evolves with ever dizzying speed, Christians are faced with questions they do not have ready answers to. The information revolution is altering the way we relate one to another and to the expansive world outside. We know some of the culture is good and some of it is to be avoided, yet there is large ground where we tread warily, unsure whether we are merely being ‘conformed to this world’ rather than being ‘transformed by the renewing of our minds’.
In idle moments we may think it is easier to know how to live as a Christian in places where there is active opposition to what we are trying to embody: communist Eastern Europe; fascist Latin America; authoritarian modern China. The truth is more ambiguous. People are co-opted with striking effectiveness into iniquitous systems by a subtle combination of peer pressure, social stigma, economic disadvantage and the ‘chilling effect’ of the demonstrable threat of violence. The clever way that communities are turned against themselves using networks of informers works effectively anywhere under the right circumstances, as neighbours use poisonous ideology for cover in the pursuit of personal grievance.
In societies where certain groups are targeted by the State, the community divides broadly into three groups: victims, perpetrators and bystanders. Academic Victoria Barnett has shown that bystanders use the same justification as perpetrators, which is illuminating. They internalise propaganda, allow obedience to authority to exculpate their inaction and believe that following the crowd absolves them from moral responsibility. Most crucially for us, they make hard and impermeable distinctions between public and private life. Parallel worlds are created that enable people to live with injustice as something that neither penetrates the home nor commands a personal and moral response. On this basis, today’s casual truism that the public and private worlds are two distinct and unrelated spheres should be searchingly questioned to prevent us turning a blind eye to wrongs that harm others.
Hans Fallada’s novel, Alone in Berlin, addresses such moral questions in a story based on the resistance of one German couple to Nazism. They are unexceptional and uneducated people – distinguishing them from the usual profile of the intellectual dissident. They do not know how to resist meaningfully and decide upon leaving postcards criticising Hitler on the balconies of Berlin. They leave hundreds of cards, hoping that they will somehow prompt an uprising against the Fuhrer. All but a few of these cards are handed into the authorities by citizens who have internalised the demands of the State to such an extent that they must disclose what could have been ignored. The couple are caught and they are executed after learning to resist afresh in the miserable confines of jail. What seems an unpromising story is saved by the sense that in living faithfully in the small details of life they act as a witness to the truth and as bearers of a new kind of Germany that shall emerge from the ruins.
It is this sense that no act, however insignificant, lacks moral purpose if it witnesses to a greater truth which echoes with our faith. We need wisdom to choose how to express our resistance to what is wrong in our culture; compassion to express it kindly and for the building up of others; and humility to see we are usually part of the problem even as we offer a solution. It was the totalitarian Borg from TV’s Star Trek who told the cultures they would conquer that ‘resistance is futile’. Resistance to wrong can be expressed fruitfully in the most subtle of ways, as the title of this piece playfully suggests.
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