Not so long ago, on a friend’s recommendation, I watched the HBO series A Band of Brothers. The series, which I discovered in my collection—a holiday present filed away for later and forgotten—, is based on Stephen Ambrose’s book with the same title. There is much to admire in this depiction of a unit of soldiers distinguished for its combat performance from the D-Day invasion of Normandy to the mid-winter defense of Bastogne to the springtime capture of Berchtesgaden. For those of us who have seen or not seen, as the case may be, pictures or movies of the liberation of concentration camps, the episode “Why We Fight” is almost as good—or as bad—as it gets.
I was particularly struck by a snippet of dialogue between an anonymous lieutenant and Captain Winters of Easy Company, 506th Regiment, 101st Airborne Division, at the beginning of the Battle of the Bulge, in December, 1945. When the lieutenant warns the captain that it looks as if Bastogne is going to be surrounded, the captain replies, “We’re paratroopers, lieutenant; we’re supposed to be surrounded.”
The remark not only moved me, but also prompted meditation. Here were men who had volunteered for dangerous duty in a do-or-die fight against enormous forces for evil. They were not perfect men, paragons of virtue. In rear areas or on front lines, their commitment to comrades was immediate and compelling. So they repeatedly left the relative safety of rear areas or front-line foxholes to join them in combat, to seek out, attack, and disable or destroy the enemy. Yet the mission was ever-present and always paramount; it brought them together, enabled them to forge unbreakable bonds, and gave purpose to their risk and their sacrifice.
Few of us have the experience of participating in armed hostilities. Few of us have clearly defined missions and readily identifiable enemies. Few of us bond with others in common efforts. Indeed, most of us are often alone in the issues which confront us in our daily lives, with its moral dilemmas, ethical doubts, material distractions, and social insecurities. What to do when your boss falsifies an expense account? What to do when a co-worker gropes a female intern? What to do when a friend tells a racist joke in the golf club grill room? What to do when a neighbor posts an anti-Muslim sign on her front lawn? What to do when an adult child buys beer for minors? What to do when a minor child posts pictures of naked classmates on the Internet?
We are not paratroopers at Bastogne, but we are surrounded. Are we supposed to be? If we are people of faith, people of moral and religious conscience, people with the courage of our convictions, we differ from many, even most, others, even those who call themselves Christians, like infiltrating enemy soldiers in our uniforms. A look around tells us that we are not only surrounded, but also outnumbered.
We are bound together by our faith and by our observances of our faith. But our mission is not to go to church, to pray, to sing hymns, to listen to sermons, to put money in the collect, to recite the creed, to receive communion. Our mission is to love and serve all people as God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit love and serve all people, without distinction and without distraction.
Our mission is to go out of church into the world, to make our faith a force reforming it, to defeat—as it would have been expressed centuries ago—the world, the flesh, and the devil who tempts us to both. Within the limits of our needs, we may enjoy the benefits of our labors. But we may not amass power or wealth beyond measure, that is, without regard for others and their needs for food, clothing, and shelter; of health and education; of respect and justice in a civil society; and of fulfillment in family and community. To the inextricably linked ends of love and service, we must sacrifice ourselves and what is ours for others; such is the Christian imitation of Our Lord Jesus.
Like the soldiers entering into battle at Bastogne, we cannot be sure of defeating the enemy. But we have each other, we have the mission of our faith, and, with the courage of our convictions, we can face the forces which oppose and surround us in the hope that we shall be saved by serving others.