Near some books in my office, in an ornate oval frame around red velvet under glass, my father’s World War II medals are perched. From ribbons, red, green, blue, white, and orange—medallions dangle, including a five-pointed bronze star under a red, white, and blue ribbon set top and center.
Last year, a military man visiting my office, impressed, pointed to something I hadn’t noticed. Attached to the ribbon with the bronze star were two tiny (about piece-of-corn sized) letters, each a capital V. “That’s significant,” he said, explaining that they stood for “valor” and were given only for heroism in combat.
Wow, I thought, my old man practically won that war all by himself.
After being shown the “V Devices” (as they are called), I thought about Admiral Jeremy Boorda. In 1956, at 17-years-old, Boorda dropped out of high school, enlisted in the Navy and became, in 1994, the 25th Chief of Naval Operations, the Supreme Commander of the U.S. Navy. He did so without having graduated from the Naval Academy at Annapolis, a first. Boorda was also the first sailor to ascend from the lowest rank to a four-star admiral, the first Jew at that rank, too.
I know I’m part of the problem, but I don’t know to fix it.
An astonishing career.
So why, in 1996, did Admiral Boorda, supreme commander of the United States Navy, shoot himself in the chest with a .38 caliber pistol in the family garden?
It was because of two V Devices. Likely because of an honest mistake, the admiral has been wearing them on his ribbons without, it seemed, proper authorization. Though he’d removed them, upon hearing that Newsweek was going to investigate, rather than shame himself and the Navy, Admiral Jeremy Boorda committed suicide.
For two pieces of bronze, hawked online for a few bucks each, for what (in any other context) would be nothing but trinkets for the trash bin at Goodwill—for these things a four-star admiral offed himself?
Talk about how we as a species, a society, a culture can slap “value” on next to nothing, or make what’s fleeting and flimsy heavy-laden with “meaning” and permanence. (How else do we explain 27 years of The Simpsons?) We mock the ancient Egyptians for their obsession with cats but don’t mock ourselves for iZombie, Dog the Bounty Hunter, Bridezilla, and Keeping up with the Kardashians (now in its fourteenth season). We’re egged and elbowed through an objective reality that reveals itself to us only with blurred and smudged outlines that we saturate with our culture’s discordant hues and tones, which leak out and spill over the lines like in a coloring book left out in the rain. We know it’s all rot, and though we don’t yet feel the ground shift beneath our feet, it should have, it seems, a long time ago.
In his novel, Utopia, Thomas More (1478-1535) envisioned a society where iron, plentiful and hence useful, was highly coveted, while silver and gold were rare and thus deemed impractical and useless. The Utopians made chamber pots out of silver and gold, and from “the same metals they fashioned the chains and thick fetters with which they confined their slaves.” Criminals and others of ill repute were forced to wear jewelry of the same two metals in order to ensure that “in their country gold and silver are in disgrace.”
I’m writing about how culture warps our values, but am doing so from inside that very culture, so how objective can I be? I know only that there’s a vast disconnect between my culture and my religion. Maybe it’s inevitable. What culture anywhere, much less in a capitalistic liberal democracy, promotes values like this: “Anyone who wants to be first must be the very last, and servant of all” (Mark 9:35)? Or this: “Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves” (Phil. 2:3)? Or this: “But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on your right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also” (Matt. 5:39)?
Christianity, ideally, turns things upside down and inside out. “But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. God chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things—and the things that are not—to nullify the things that are” (1 Cor. 1:27, 28).
But even Christians are so saturated and shaped and colored by culture that we can barely distinguish between what’s foolish, what’s wise, what’s weak, what’s base, what’s mighty, and what’s despised, at least in God’s eyes. Christians are on every side of every issue, cultural, social, political, moral, which may well reveal more about how we’re led by the nose than how we lead, about how our faith and our values are commandeered by whatever the cause du jour is, as opposed to our faith and values creating the cause du jour.
My acknowledging the problem, of course, no more solves it than acknowledging a herpes diagnosis solves it. I have my Bible, but how do I interpret it apart from that lens that 62 years in my culture has ground out and shaped on my eyes? I know I’m part of the problem, but I don’t know to fix it.
Four-star Admiral Jeremy Boorda killing himself over two V Devices screamed at me about how we subjectively infuse value into what might, in and of themselves, be valueless, and it makes me wonder what we Christians value in contrast to what God does. We laud the cross today, but in its time and culture it was the ultimate symbol of shame and disgrace, one of “the foolish things” that God used to shame the wise.
May God grant me the wisdom to know what matters to Him, what’s important to Him, as opposed to what our culture hails and parades even as I display my dad’s World War II medals and, proudly, the two V Devices on them.