To Obey or Not to Obey

I was brought up with mixed messages. On one hand, I was taught obedience to authority. Parents and teachers, my elders in general, and doctors and policemen were all to be respected and their directives were to be followed. On the other hand, a Chanukah play at school annually featured the saga of Chana and her seven sons, each of whom went to their death rather than bow down to an idol at the command of the Greek emperor, Antiochus. Playing the role of one of those sons was quite easy; a few minutes after being murdered, I was on the playground jumping rope.

I have been reading Diet Eman’s book, Things We Couldn’t Say, chronicling her experiences as a member of the Dutch Resistance during World War II. While some in the Netherland cooperated with the Nazis, a great many did not. While the occupation of their country was not as harsh as in some other countries, many Dutch nonetheless resisted in all sorts of ways. Initially, resistance might have included a patriotic wearing of the nation’s colors or the hiding of a radio despite orders to turn them in, but as things progressed many became actively engaged in hiding Jews. Diet acted as a courier of forged and stolen documents and money, as well as guiding many Jews to their hiding places. A young woman in her late teens when her country was invaded, her book includes many excerpts from her diary providing an intimate look in real-time to unfolding events.

Many passages deserve deeper attention, but this one struck me as vitally relevant for today.

“I don’t believe the Germans ever really understood the Dutch people. As small as the Netherlands is, it has many different small religious denominations, for example. For centuries the Dutch have said, “If we don’t agree with what you preach, then we’ll start our own church.” …They have a tradition of not being merely followers, as the Germans seemed to me to be.”

Years ago, I read of an American waiting in the lobby of a Swiss hotel alongside a young family —father, mother, a baby, a preschooler and a child of about kindergarten age. The American was confused when the elevator door opened and, as the mother and baby entered, the father motioned to the American to go with them. The American assured the Swiss gentleman that he would gladly wait while the whole family went together. Pointing to the sign in the elevator that said, “Maximum capacity 4,” the father made clear that his family of five could not all go together. Our American visitor was bemused at the rule-following. Clearly, the problem was a weight-limit. The three children in no way equaled the average weight of two adults. But to that Swiss citizen, rules were rules.

Americans have a tradition of being independent. Many of us are descended from those who broke away from their families to go to a new country. Much of the United States was settled by families who, once again, left established locations to explore new territory. Americans have been innovators and trailblazers; not an easily-led group.

There are times that taking this trait to an extreme has caused great upheaval and damage. In the passage from Diet’s book I quoted above, it is clear to me that the new churches that were welcomed still shared basic principles with the churches they left. The society was not one of anarchy. I could argue that in the United States, rebellion has sometimes moved too far.

Yet, I am equally worried that COVID and an aggressively growing government are stifling Americans’ ability, and indeed willingness, to think for themselves. Whether raising a generation of fearful, timid rule-followers is the intended consequence or an unfortunate by-product of masking and vaccine incentives (and threats) matters little. What is important is that in seeking a balance between “question authority” and dutiful obedience, the pendulum is swaying in a direction that threatens life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

What do you think? We’d love to hear your thoughts on this Susan’s Musings post.
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