Baptist Center for Ethics founder Robert Parham and I flew to Grand Rapids, Michigan, in September 2015, to gather several interviews for our documentary “The Disturbances.”
The film chronicled the role of Christian missionaries and pastors saving lives amid tribal genocide in 1966 Nigeria.
One interview was with Herman Scholten, who was a 38-year-old missionary with the Christian Reformed Church during the massacres.
Herman and his wife, Helen, had helped evacuate some of those who were being targeted for extinction in their community. Herman drove truck-fulls of Nigerians to safety in a different region of the country.
In our interview with Herman, who was then 87, Robert asked him if he had ever talked publicly about what had happened and what he did in 1966.
“No, I have never talked publicly for what I did when I transferred people to Enugu,” Herman said.
“And why haven’t you talked publicly about it?” asked Robert.
“I don’t know if anyone was interested. I don’t recall – after all these years – I don’t recall anyone ever asking me about the time.”
Herman then stared into the distance, silent for 10 seconds. I have an intense memory of that exchange and those 10 seconds. You can actually see the moment here.
Those 10 seconds felt – and still feel to me – like an uncomfortable eternity. They should; the moment represents a literal lifetime of not sharing an important truth – because no one asked.
The above exchange remains one of my favorite moments from any production because of the life lesson it still offers: We must not fail to ask questions.
Why don’t we ask more questions?
Laziness. Busy-ness. We think we already know everything. We don’t really want to listen to the answer. Which is to say: We are afraid of what we might hear.
It has taken me years to understand, truly, the role of fear in our lack of questioning.
I share this not because I am fearless, but my experience has taught me – is still teaching me – that I can’t grasp truth unless I let go of some fear. I still find this difficult.
Let’s be honest: There are some questions we just don’t want to ask because we are afraid of what the answer might be.
That answer might make my job more difficult, challenge what I thought I knew, and/or – perhaps most significantly of all – make me question my own self.
Years ago, someone said to me, “Don’t ask the question if you don’t want to hear the answer.”
We can take this as “good advice” if we just want to value efficiency, get in and get out, take the path of least resistance, let allegedly sleeping dogs lie and so on.
I think I understood, though, what was really embedded in the statement, which was less about advice and more about daring me to take some truth serum.
In other general words: Do I have the guts to ask to hear something unpleasant but true?
Let’s be honest again: Who really wants to do that? What kind of glutton for punishment do you have to be to do this?
But this is bad thinking. We must not be gluttons for punishment but gluttons for truth.
“You can’t handle the truth!” screams Col. Jessup in “A Few Good Men.” I didn’t care for Jessup in the film, but I’m not sure he was wrong about our nature. I’m also not sure he was right.
As EthicsDaily and Nurturing Faith become Good Faith Media, we will continue asking lots of questions.
I suspect these questions will make more people feel more uncomfortable, including me.
But my wife tells me at her exercise class, when people would whine about the difficulty of the workout, the teacher would scream, “What did you come out here for?!”
Here’s where I am: I’m not sure I can call myself a Christian – or a follower of Jesus, as I prefer – if I don’t deal with my fear of asking questions. The hard ones. And you know the ones I’m talking about. Race. Sex. Gender. Policing. Money. Borders.
They are the questions we don’t want to ask because we are afraid of what the answer – and the truth – might really be.
To be clear, I see no reason to belittle the person who is afraid to ask questions. That person has been me, and it still is me on days when I would say I fail.
I think we are fearful creatures. I also think the God I pray to really lives beyond my fear, in the truth I profess to want to know.
I’ve come to believe at least two things are true: People really are afraid of asking questions. And it’s just not good enough to leave it at that.
May our love help us cast out our fear of asking questions.
And may we prove Jessup wrong.