War, collaboration, and the choice not to see, not to act
Liz Stuart, 22 September 2019
2 Corinthians 4: 1–6; Matthew 9: 9–13
Bang! I threw the book across the room. A hardback, it landed with an almighty crash. The book made me livid. It was a birthday gift from my PA and it was a thoughtful gift for someone who, as I do, likes to read other people’s diaries and has an interest in the Second World War. It was the diaries of the German political philosopher, Ernst Jünger, who for a large part of the war was an officer in the German army stationed in occupied Paris. Jünger’s diaries suggest that he spent most of his time in Paris socialising, womanising, visiting antique shops, searching for interesting beetles for his insect collection and ruminating on the nature of humanity.
Part of my anger was personal. While Jünger was having cocktails with Pablo Picasso and Jean Cocteau in Paris my father, a young naval officer, was dodging torpedoes in the Battle of the Atlantic and my mother, also in her early twenties, was driving an ambulance in the Liverpool Blitz. But I was mostly angry because here was a man who was opposed to Nazism, who nevertheless went to war and could observe French Jews being rounded up, report what he had heard of concentration camps and lament the suffering … but in the next breath describes walking through the Elysée gardens enjoying the blossoms and chestnuts buds. Furthermore, he was reading the Bible each evening. How could this educated, intelligent, compassionate, spiritual man stand by while atrocities were committed in the name of his nation by his comrades in the same army? How could he go antiquing while millions of people were being slaughtered? That is why the book flew.
How could this educated, intelligent, compassionate, spiritual man stand by while atrocities were committed?
Anger and frustration is what Jews in Roman-occupied Palestine felt towards tax collectors. They were despised as collaborators with the occupying forces. The Romans taxed water, salt, meat, property and trade. Every frontier had a toll both. Poll and land taxes were collected by officers of the empire; the right to collect other taxes was sold at auction to people known as publicans who in turn often subcontracted the collecting of taxes. Not only did these tax collectors collaborate with the oppressor but, as they were not usually paid for the privilege, they often earned their own living by extortion or money-lending. Unwelcome in the synagogue as non-observant of the Torah, tax collectors were shunned and loathed. How could they hurt their own people?
When I eventually picked up my book and started to read again, I discovered that as time went on and Jünger proceeded through the Bible, he got physically ill and depressed. Eventually he became involved in some way in 20th of July plot to kill Hitler and was dismissed from the army. Nevertheless, I remained livid.
And then … I have a spiritual practice which involves just being still and allowing God to look at me. Sometimes God lets me see what he sees.
I saw someone getting excited about the return of Strictly Come Dancing as the Amazon burned. I saw someone who turns over charity TV adverts so I don’t have to look at the suffering. I saw someone who is a collaborator with what St Paul would call ‘the god of this age’ – all those things which are not sinful in themselves but which we use to distract and distance ourselves from the consequences of our actions and veil our eyes and blind our minds to the repercussions of our choices, including our choices not to see, not to act.
I wonder if Matthew, like Jünger, was sick and depressed by his life when Jesus appeared and invited him to follow him, so that without thinking he left his booth and never went back. Or perhaps it was just another day at the office, at the booth, when Jesus appeared and somehow shone a light into his darkness, both exposing it and offering a way out of it.
Matthew left his booth to become an apostle and evangelist. Zacchaeus, a chief tax collector, responded to the presence of Jesus by making restitution where he had defrauded and giving of his wealth to the poor. There is no indication that he left his job.
Christianity is neither utopian nor simplistically revolutionary. There is no blueprint of how to follow Jesus. Christ sheds a light on our lives, and the structures of sin we support and in which we are enmeshed. How we respond to that is something we have to work out with him. The good news is that Jesus does not throw the book at us from outside our messy lives but sits down with us in the middle of our chaos and shines his light into our hearts, not as judge but as saviour, healer and friend.
The good news is that Jesus does not throw the book at us from outside our messy lives but sits down with us in the middle of our chaos and shines his light into our hearts, not as judge but as saviour, healer and friend.
I still do not like Jünger at all, but I am trying to recognise him as a brother who sits at the same table with me – the table for tax collectors and sinners in need of mercy and healing – and if you find yourself at that table too, lean into Jesus and he will gently show you what following him means.