World War II fighter pilot Tommy Calnan has been recaptured by a dozen shotgun-toting farmers just as he was about to steal a German airplane from a Luftwaffe base near Merseburg. (This, from my escape book, Free As a Running Fox.) Calnan’s description of what comes next is a classic:
“What rank are you?” The question was asked with some suspicion.
“Major,” I answered loudly.
There was a buzz of comment, to which I listened with interest. Many were disbelieving; I was too young to be a major. Another argued that with these pilots promotion came early….
The general effect of my announcement, however, was to make my captors even more proud of themselves. They had made an important capture. A major, no less.
I felt that it was up to me to play my part. These yokels with their dangerous twelve-bores formed a most important audience. I ought to give them what they expected. Their idea of a major would be, I suspected, an arrogant and authoritative man, not a meek scarecrow with his hands above his head. I had to make a quick metamorphosis. Pity I had no monocle.
I addressed the leader of the group.
“Meine Uhr, bitte.”
I tried to sound assured and to reproduce that unpleasant intonation of Teutonic arrogance reserved for addressing inferiors. I was asking for my watch.
I held out my left hand to receive the watch at the same time lowering my right arm to my side.
It was a critical moment. Would the farmer yield and give the Herr Major back his watch, or would he re-assert his own, unchallengeable authority? He had only to raise his gun. As we looked at each other in the eyes, I wondered what he was thinking.
He handed back my watch. My battle was won.
What makes this episode work is its indulgence in stereotypical language: Germans, as we all know, are tough, no-nonsense, humorless automatons. The typecast is not at all true, of course. Nor do all Frenchmen look down their Gallic noses at Americans. Nor do all Americans act like war-mongering, terrorist-frightened bullies.
But how can one know this without traveling abroad?
When 43 took his first foreign trip in 2002, he bristled at what he perceived to be the condescending attitude of the French and Germans. Who can forget the president’s irritation when he called NBC’s David Gregory a pompous “intercontinental” for asking Jacques Chiraq a question in French? I think I may have an easier time understanding Europeans because I’ve lived in Europe. Citizens of every nation are justifiably proud of their national language and customs, and they also tend to be a bit snobbish toward outsiders. When Becky and I lived in Switzerland, it took us a while to realize that the Swiss weren’t being rude or impolite when they didn’t return our greetings on the street. They were just being Swiss.
To be good missionaries (and we’re all missionaries, or at least we should be), we have to step outside ourselves and our own cultures. We have every right to appreciate the freedoms we enjoy in America and the many blessings we have received as a country, but we have no business thinking that our nation is more “under God” than any other nation. As kingdom-people, we should never allow politics to frame the issues for us. We should seek to evangelize other nations by serving them, not by trying to conquer them. Our fundamental job is to love other people like God loves us – without being a respecter of persons. For the sake of the kingdom of God, we need to show the world around us what Calvary-love looks like.
In the end, there is little place for solipsism or grandiosity – or perhaps even for the kind of stereotyping that escapee Calnan engaged in, unless perhaps you’ve just been captured by the enemy and want to make life a bit easier for yourself.
February 10, 2009
David Alan Black is the editor of www.daveblackonline.com.