SOME years ago, Duke University gave an honorary degree to High Thompson.
On March 16, 1968, Thompson, a young helicopter pilot, was flying on patrol over the countryside of Vietnam. When he and his crew flew over the village of My Lai, they saw a nightmare below them. The United States Army troops, under the constant pressure of danger and the madness of war, had lost control of their discipline, reason and humanity.
They were slaughtering unarmed civilians in the village. Most of them were women, children and elderly men. Altogether, 504 people were killed. Thompson set his helicopter down between the troops and the remaining villagers. At great risk to himself, he got out of the helicopter and confronted the officer in charge, William Calley.
He then radioed a report of the scene that resulted in a stop to the action, thus saving thousands of civilian lives. Standing on the platform at the Duke University ceremony, Thompson addressed the question that was on everyone’s minds. How could he have found the moral courage and strength to do what he did that day?
He said “ … We were country people. I was born and raised in Stone Mountain, Georgia, and we had very little. But one thing we did have was the Golden Rule. My parents taught me early, ‘Do unto others what you would have them do unto you.’ That’s why I did what I did that day … ”
Jesus gave us the Golden Rule. (Luke 6:31). The Christian ethic is positive and proactive. This rule exists in many creeds in its negative form. There is a Chinese saying, “What you do not want done to yourself, do not do to others.” But the Christian conduct is not only avoiding bad, it is actually doing good things. John Wesley exhorted us to “Do all the good you can.”
We all want to be loved, respected, accepted, served, forgiven and understood. Then love, respect, accept, serve, forgive and seek to understand others. My friend “Joe” passed away recently because of Aids. He backslided from is church. Somehow he contracted HIV. He had no one to turn to and so he felt isolated and maginalised.
Fortunately the Catholics took him into their shelter and provided food for him under the Catholic Aids Response
Effort (CARE). “Joe” was touched and before he died, he came back to God. He was given his last rites and he passed away peacefully into the waiting arms of Jesus. He experienced forgiveness and acceptance by the Community of Faith which did not condemn him but redeemed him.
How do we treat others who are different from us? How do we treat people who disagree with us?
Prejudice, bigotry, vengeance, harshness towards other people – all of these are sinful. They are dividing walls.
John Wesley preached a sermon in 1750 entitled “A Caution against Bigotry”. He defined bigotry as “too strong an attachment to, or fondness for, our own party, opinion, church and religion”. (Sermon 38).
Think about it like this. If you put a plastic covering over a plant, the sun and rain cannot get to it; then the plant dies. Prejudice and bigotry and hatred and fear are like that plastic covering and we are like the plant. We cannot be healthy until that plastic covering is removed.
Why is there so much hatred and war? Thomas Merton, the Trappist monk, said: “The root of war is fear.”
Nations and individuals prepare for war by dehumanising their enemies. They tag them with derogatory names so as to hide the human faces they seek to destroy.”
Lt William Calley, on trial for the murder of Vietnamese villagers at My Lai, said in his own defence, “In all my years in the army, I was never taught that communists are human beings.”
How can we overcome our fear?
Firstly, Jesus taught us to pray for our enemies. Henri Nouwen shared that the desert fathers regarded prayer as an act of “unhooking” from the harness of the world’s securities. Prayer can deliver us from our spiritual bondage to fear, money, power and ideology, which make us willing to destroy our enemy.
Secondly, use our God-given reason. Fear feeds on ignorance for we fear the unknown. A stanza of Charles Wesley’s hymn written for the 1748 opening of Kingswood School, gives voice to Wesley’s vision for the school: “Unite the two so long disjoined, knowledge and vital piety”.
Since Wesley’s day, Methodists have established educational institutions in various parts of the world. We are committed to the cultivation of the mind as a sign of Christian Stewardship. Reason must not be either undervalued or overvalued. Reason and religion are compatible.
Wesley wrote “It is a fundamental principle with us (Methodists) that to renounce reason is to renounce religion, that religion and reason go hand in hand, and that all irrational religion is false religion.”
Thirdly, we walk by faith and live by faith, not by fear. “Fear imprisons, faith liberates; fear paralyses, faith empowers; fear disheartens, faith encourages; fear sickens, faith heals; fear makes useless, faith makes serviceable and, most of all, fear puts hopelessness at the heart of life, while faith rejoices in its God.” (Harry Emerson Fosdick).
Let us break through the barrier of fear in our relationships by doing good to others.