After seeing the movie “The Great Raid,” a portrayal of the greatest rescue in World War II, I dug the book on which it was based out of a bookshelf and read it. “Ghost Soldiers” tells the story of 121 hand-selected U.S. troops slipping behind Japanese lines in the Philippines to march 30 rugged miles and bring out 513 American POWs, many of them dying in the primitive conditions of a camp that made some of Hitler’s prisons seem like resorts.
I had not read a dozen pages when something not in the movie jumped out at me. The leader of the raid, Colonel Henry Mucci assembled C Company, his Rangers who had been trained for just such a mission. Mucci told them the nature of this raid, stressing the risks and the hardships. Then he said, “I only want men who feel lucky.” Well, all of them felt lucky. No one dropped out.
“One other thing,” Mucci said. “There’ll be no atheists on this trip.” On adjourning, the colonel commanded each man to meet with the chaplains and pray on their knees. Services would begin in half an hour. “I want you to swear an oath before God,” he said, ” Swear that you will die fighting rather than let any harm come to those prisoners.” Then they all went to church.
No atheists on this trip. As I say, not in the movie.
My friend David is a Baptist pastor who hails from a large family of believers and with more than its share of preachers. However, he told his congregation recently, an uncle and one cousin work in the scientific field and wear their atheism like a badge. “The rest of the family treats them like lepers,” he said, “but I decided a long time ago I would not judge them, but just love them.”
An article in the Saturday, August 20, 2005, Times-Picayune tells of a summer camp organized strictly for the children of atheists. Writer Susan Hansen of the NY Times News Service relates the stories of these offspring of the shunned. Like the 12-year-old from Boone County, Kentucky, whose parents left a fundamentalist church for atheism. “He has learned to keep quiet about the fact,” she writes. At Camp Quest, he would not worry about being ostracized. “It’s good to know there are other people out there who don’t believe in God,” the child said.
Hansen relates a 2001 study from the Graduate Center of the City University of New York which claims nearly 2 million adults in this country identify themselves as atheist or agnostic. As a group, she says, they face more than their share of bigotry and their children are made to feel like outcasts.
How much is one’s share of bigotry, you wonder. Any is too much.
Pastor David says atheists are the last group in America still safe to discriminate against.
I will tell you honestly that when I read Colonel Mucci’s quote from “Ghost Soldiers,” I started reflecting on writing about atheism. I wondered what there is about an atheist that made him not want even one along on this dangerous raid.
I wondered if it’s because an atheist does not believe in a Higher Power, and therefore makes himself the center of his universe? If he does. I wonder if the colonel felt an atheist is missing some connection with reality, a refusal to admit the most obvious fact in the universe, and that that missing link made him less than reliable in a life or death situation.
I was all prepared to write an article about the most basic foundational principle in all the world–in the beginning, God–and to tell my atheist stories. I had planned to quote the passages from the Psalms reminding us that it’s the “fool” who says in his heart there is no God.
But David and the kids at Camp Quest stopped that little enterprise cold. Atheists need answers and they need love. What they do not need is more putdowns, especially from the likes of me who probably hasn’t seen a dozen honest-to-Baal atheists in my 65 years.
When David’s cousin died, the uncle called and asked him to do the funeral. I knew the heavy schedule David had on his calendar at that time, pastoring a large and demanding church with a number of big events requiring his presence and his input. But he dropped everything and flew across the country to stand before members of his family he had rarely seen and hardly knew and gave a testimony to the reality of the Lord Jesus Christ and the hope found only in him. David had earned that right by his refusal to disown this wing of the family, by his insistence on loving them.
I once heard Madalyn Murray O’Hair in person. The most notorious atheist of her day was debating a Church of Christ minister in the convention center in downtown Cincinnati. I had gone to a Reds baseball game that day and was staying across the river at a motel in Covington, Kentucky, when I spotted an announcement of the event in the paper. That night I sat with 200 others in a cavernous hall listening to Mrs. O’Hair ridicule the preacher, blaspheme the Lord Jesus, and twist the Scriptures. A tiny band of her supporters sat on the front row and laughed at every point she made and scoffed at any reference to Jesus or God or the Bible. The preacher, who was obviously trained in classical debating, threw out challenges to Mrs. O’Hair’s claims and beliefs and dared her to answer first one question and then another. Each time her turn came, she ignored the man and continued her campaign of meanness and ugliness. I left after a couple of hours of this weariness.
They used to call Madalyn Murray O’Hair the most hated woman in America, due to her outspokenness on atheism and her opposition to theistic Americans. She was the mother, you will remember, who sued the school system that resulted in prayer being ordered out of schools and much of public life in this country.
Seeing her for the first time, I could understand why people disliked her so much. She was as thoroughly a disagreeable personality as I’ve ever seen. Someone once said about her, that her atheism had more to do with her warped psyche than with any religious convictions. He said, “If the whole world were atheist, Mrs. O’Hair would be a believer.”
“Love your enemy,” the Lord Jesus said. “Do good to him. Pray for him. Bless him. Give to him.” (Luke 6)
Too many Christians, I fear, have latched onto the line from Psalms about fools and have forgotten our Lord’s commands to love our enemy. Not that unbelievers are our enemies. Some are; some are not. In either case, we are to love them.
Some people are so mean-spirited, we take them out of the category of “love thy neighbor” and drop them into the bin of “love your enemy.” The result is the same. They are to receive Christian love.
I have to remind myself that the command to love in Scripture is not an order to feel affectionate. It is a summons to action. Love is something we do. Do good, pray, bless, give.
Anyone can love the lovely, Jesus said. “I’m asking you to set a new standard–to return blessing for cursing, good for evil, kindness for ugliness.”
How like our Lord to order His followers to do that which can only be done in the power of the Holy Spirit. Only by the humble. Only in faith.
Not everyone who discriminates against an atheist or his children is a Christian, no matter what they call themselves or where they park their bodies on Sunday mornings. Only those who are like Jesus, and He Himself is kind and gracious to sinners.
I’m sorry she’s dead now, because I had always hoped that the famous atheist Madalyn Murray O’Hair would live long enough for Christians to get their act together so we could start calling her “the most loved person in America.”
The other thing I still hope and pray for is that my life shall be a convincing argument in favor of the existence of a powerful, loving, righteous God. “You want proof there’s a God? Look at Joe.”
God help me.