Following our Moral Compass

A PBS story about Rachel Carson, new information about my father’s participation in WWII, and a comment about evangelical Christians in Sojourner came together in a “perfect storm” in my mind.  Here is the result.

Rachel CPHOTO: Rachel Carsonarson (1907-1964) combined her love for nature and biological research with a gift of lyrical writing. Embedded within all of her writing was the view that human beings were but one part of nature distinguished primarily by their power to alter it, in some cases irreversibly. Disturbed by the profligate use of synthetic chemical pesticides after World War II, Carson felt called to warn the public about the long-term effects of misusing pesticides. She published her research and counsel  in the book Silent Spring (1962). The book challenged the practices of agricultural scientists and the government, calling for a change in the way humankind viewed the natural world. As word of her research spread, she fought two simultaneous and courageous battles:  one against the breast cancer which took her life in 1964 and one against the attacks by the chemical industry and some in government, who called her an alarmist and tried mightily to discredit her research.  This tiny woman with a brave voice was one of the first to sound an alarm and remind us that we are a vulnerable part of the natural world subject to the same damage as the rest of the ecosystem – and the ecosystem must be saved if we are to be saved. She changed the way we look at the world.

My father, the Rev. Rowland Koskamp (1916 – 1945), left the church in Raritan, N.J. that he had served for two years to volunteer as an Army chaplain during WWII. He was attached to a medical unit. Twice (that we know about) during his nearly three years of service he refused to leave the wounded he was serving. The first time was after the fight for St. Lo, when the Germans “threw everything they had at us with good effect.”  He writes that “a lot of men needed to brought out of the woods for treatment” but that the woods were considered too “hot” to go after them.  He persuaded an ambulance driver to bring him and some litter-bearers into the woods and “[we] “went about our business.” He received the Bronze Star for this action.

Three weeks later during the Battle of the Bulge, he, two of his aides, and some wounded men they were treating hid in a schoolhouse in an area that was supposed to be free of the Germans. They were caught off guard when a German tank repeatedly attacked the house, destroying it. My father came up out of the basement and negotiated a surrender with a German officer, rather than risking the deaths of all in the house. The group was put in boxcars with 3,000 other captured soldiers, 60 men in a car (half the size of American boxcars). The train eventually attracted American bombers. The German guards ran away. Some men locked in the boxcars were killed. My father escaped this friendly fire, but after several months in a POW camp, he was killed by another American bombing raid on a train as he and other liberated American prisoners were walking to freedom. Two weeks later the war ended.  

I thought about these two stories, similar only in their display of bravery and moral fortitude in the face of brutal attack, when I read the following statement by Lisa Sharon Harper in the March, 2017 issue of Sojourner:

“I hail from a theological tradition that places the highest value on epistemology, the study of how we think about God, yet invests little energy on ethics, the study of how we are called to interact in the world  . . . .  Here is the question that  haunts me: Has the Trump presidency revealed evidence of a truth we [white evangelicals] have not wanted to see?  That the one who said “I am the way?” (ethics), “the truth” (epistemology), and the
life” (shalom) is increasingly irrelevant in evangelical America.”

This week I heard the moderator of a political talk show ask, “Has America lost its moral compass?” In the era of “America First,” racial, religious, and cultural bashing, and seemingly unrepentant lying from our highest officials (a model of behavior demonstrated by the president himself) what is our anchor?  I think the debate about our moral compass should top the list of sermon topics, become the focus Bible study groups, and find its way onto the agendas of all American churches.

Jesus Christ gave a clear moral compass and a soul – stirring model for his disciples to follow. Do we know what he taught? Do we remember how he interacted with his world? Do we care? Do we have the moral courage to stand up for others the way that Rachel Carson and Rowland Koskamp (and many others) have done? What would that look like for each of us?  When the chaos and the lying and the mudslinging get us down, the only thing we can do is stand up and be counted. 


For more information about my father, Rowland Koskamp, go to this earlier post.


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