As I reflect back on this time of quarantine in preparation for my return to the real world, or as it is now being called, the “new normal”, I remember how it first began. Quietly and unexpected, much like the film A Hidden Life.
Based on a true story, the film is about Austrian farmer Franz Jägerstätter, who faces execution for refusing to fight for the Nazis during World War II. Before watching Malick’s masterpiece, I read a review that described it as a film about religion, not war. Instead of picturing Jewish persecution of the Nazi period, the film asks ethical questions about good and evil, right and wrong, and how much one would suffer for what they believe to be right. A line that stood out to me in the film, since they are few and far between, echoes this assessment. When asked by the prison captain if he is afraid of death, Franz responds, “A man worth anything has only one thing to consider: whether he is acting rightly or wrongly.”
Many of us these days have had to ask ourselves if we feel fear in the face of possible death by coronavirus in this global pandemic. Yet the power behind fear is often fear itself. Fear of death, but also fear of pain. No one wants to suffer, but especially if it goes against what is considered the “right” thing to do.
Power and control through fear and pain are evident in George Orwell’s 1984. Orwell’s novel is a political commentary of totalitarianism in Nazi Germany, but elements of Big Brother are still seen today. In the story, doublethink is the ability to hold two polarizing views at the same time. Love is hate, war is peace, slavery is freedom. We live in a dualistic society that in many ways cannot agree on how to address this crisis. There can be a sense of camaraderie by saying, “Stay safe!” to your neighbor from a distance, but there are also neighbors calling the police on each other if someone coughs or breaks quarantine. We have forgotten how to love one another because of fear. As a dystopia, 1984 may seem over the top and unrealistic, but it still communicates the danger of totalitarian thought and practice in society today.
Besides the silent suffering of Franz in A Hidden Life, the steadfastness of his wife, Franziska, is most inspiring. When the local priest and villagers can’t persuade Franz to swear allegiance to Hitler, they pressure his wife to try and convince him to change his conviction or ignore his conscience. Unlike Job’s wife who tells her husband to curse God, Fraziska stands by her man and does not try to dissuade him. Despite the struggle and persecution she faces, Franziska never stops loving or supporting her husband, even when she knows his choices will take him away from her loving arms and leave their children fatherless. Franz’s stance for truth is heroic, but Franziska’s loyalty demonstrates how true love casts out fear.
In 1984, Winston and Julia go against Big Brother by meeting in secret. In contrast to the previous couple, their “love” is selfish and does not pass the test of suffering. When they are captured by the Thought Police and taken to the Ministry of Love to be tortured, they betray each other and their emotions, even to the point of wishing the other would suffer instead of them. To save their own life of simple comforts, they deny that they ever loved, and in fact they never did. In the end, their love for each other is replaced by a love for Big Brother.
When faced with fear and suffering, who are we more like, Franz and Franziska or Winston and Julia? To whom do we swear and in whom do we trust? Would we choose to stay true to love or run away in fear at the first sign of danger? Do we turn away from the sick and poor, or run to them in aid?
As Christians, we should be citizens most recognizable by our love, not our fear. Let us be an extension of Christ in a scared and suffering world. If we cannot stand for truth and love, we are no better than Judas the betrayer. But like Peter discovered after his denial, there is freedom in Christ. While in prison, Franz’s captors torture and taunt him by saying his actions do not matter, that the war will still go on without him, and that his resistance will soon be forgotten. All he has to do is sign a piece of paper and he will go free. He’s asked, don’t you want to be free, to which he replies, “I am free already.”
Franz was not just a man of conviction, he was a man of faith. I pray my faith will outshine my fear in the coming days.