I am a coach. I do not, however, coach a sport. I was the kid over whom, when they chose players for volleyball, the captains would argue. But they argued as to who got stuck with me.
“I had her last time. It’s your turn.”
“No, I had her last time. Besides, her friend is on your team. They should be together.”
“No way I’m taking both of them.”
No, I coach a competitive academic team–two of them, in fact. In Texas, we have the University Interscholastic League, UIL for short, that governs every extracurricular activity in the public schools. When I was young I was told that Texas was unique in the nation in having it. I don’t know what’s out there at this time, but UIL in Texas is inextricably entrenched in public education. In the spring, there is a series of competitions (district, regional, and state) in quite a few academic fields. I am the coach of our school’s Social Studies and also Current Issues and Events teams. When we meet to study, we frequently follow rabbit trails, topics that are tangentially related to what we’re supposed to be talking about. Those rabbit trail discussions are some of my favorite moments with the kids. Last year our Social Studies topic was World War I, so it was altogether predictable that we had the discussion of how the draconian war reparations forced upon Germany by France led to the rise of Hitler and fascism in Germany.
I reminded them that Hitler was legally elected to the position of chancellor more than once by the German people. He didn’t stage a coup in Germany. The German people put him in power, and the majority of them supported him. I couldn’t resist giving my team the same pearl of wisdom I’ve bestowed upon my own children on more than one occasion when talking about Hitler and the Nazis: as a Christian, it’s important to know what the Bible says, because from time to time there will be seducing voices out there that will try to mesmerize anyone who isn’t actively resisting them. How do reasonably moral people let themselves become convinced that the root of all their troubles is one ethnic minority? We hear that the average German didn’t know what went on in the camps, but they did know that Jews were being arrested and sent to the camps. They did know that their property was confiscated. They did know that they were singled out for harsh treatment. Were there no Christians in Germany who thought it was bad? Of course there were. But there weren’t enough. Most people let themselves be so angered over their hardship that they listened to a voice that told them they were in reality the super race. They wanted to believe it, so they did.
What about us in the United States? Do we have anything similar in our history? Of course we do, because we are humans. This year our Social Studies topic is the Constitution. One of the Supreme Court cases we are required to study is Plessy v. Ferguson (1896), which established the “separate but equal” doctrine that didn’t fall until the Brown v. the Board of Education decision (1954). So in the year 1896, the highly educated Supreme Court justices, whose job it was to interpret the Constitution so that Americans didn’t have their rights unfairly abridged, thought that it was fair to make a man sit in a separate rail car because he had one great-grandparent who was black. But in 1954, a different set of highly educated Supreme Court justices concluded that black children’s rights were unfairly abridged if they were required to attend a different school than white children. Which set of justices was correct? In 1896, the majority of white people thought their justices had it right. There was a lot of opposition to the 1954 decision at the time, but now most of us think the Brown v. Board of Education decision was right. But who was really right? The decisions contradict each other, so if one accepts the idea that there is such a thing as absolute truth, then one was right, and the other was wrong.
Who decides such weighty matters? Is it the Supreme Court? Are the justices capable of being completely uninfluenced by the temperature of the time in which they live? I would say no. In fact, I would say, “Heck no!” Is it the majority of the people, then? (After they have been influenced by a relatively small group of powerful entertainers and journalists with an agenda?) The majority of Germans thought Hitler was right at the time, but not many people think that now. So if morality is decided by people, what happens when people change their minds? What if, in another fifty years or so, the majority of people in the United States decide that “separate but equal” is really the way things need to be after all, and all ethnic minorities are kicked out of public schools? That sounds outrageous. But recently, the Supreme Court decided in favor of same sex marriages. A few generations ago, that would have been unthinkable. What if, in the future, the Supreme Court decides that if a man’s sexual proclivities make it absolutely necessary for him to have sex with little boys, then that is his right, and it can’t be abridged? What if, in the future, the Supreme Court decides that punishing children in any way is inherently damaging to their psyche, and it can no longer be done? What if, in the future, the Supreme Court decides that women who need to express themselves by walking around naked have the Constitutional right to do so? These possibilities are no more far-fetched than the idea of desegregated schools would have seemed to Americans of 1896.
As Christians, what is our response to sweeping societal changes or political juggernauts? We have to know what the Bible teaches. It’s our only anchor in a stormy sea. People don’t know what they’re doing, despite their high opinions of themselves. Without the Bible, life is nothing more than trial-and-error at best, or might-makes-right more often than not. There is no ancient “wisdom” that’s on the same plane as the Word of God, nor is there any modern “enlightenment” that can supplant it. Sometimes following God means hiding Jews in the attic or being willing to be branded a hatemonger when standing in opposition to popular opinion.
I hope my Social Studies kids remember my words someday when they have to make a life decision about what they believe and why. The world is in a state of volatility right now that seems reminiscent to me of the world just before World War I, and in my opinion neither candidate for president is up to the job of dealing with it. The future may hold some nasty surprises for everyone, but especially for those of us who want to follow God. The four who were with me in the room at the time were a varied lot. Although I’ve never specifically asked them about their beliefs, I’m pretty sure that one of them believes a lot like me, two are more traditional Protestants, and one is Catholic. None of those labels will amount to a hill of beans in heaven. I just hope that none of those boys (or my own children) will, when old, look back and wonder “How could I ever have gone along with that?”