Before Mary and I went to Vietnam, I was profoundly moved by reading Dietrich Bonhoeffer's The Cost of Discipleship. Bonhoeffer, a German theologian and pastor, hanged in a Nazi concentration camp in 1945, had written: "When Christ calls a man, He bids him come and die."
Recently, while I was reading Bonhoeffer the Assassin?: Challenging the Myth, Recovering His Call to Peacemaking, the book's co-author Daniel Umbel gave me new insight about a powerful and well-known story in Genesis 22. Umbel stresses that Bonhoeffer's primary concern was simple obedience to God. Among the biblical examples given was Abraham's obedient response to God's command — his willingness to sacrifice Isaac.
This act of simple obedience entailed a harsh break in Abraham's given relationships as the father of his son and as the head of the household in relation to those within his care. Abraham's willingness to sacrifice Isaac is taken as evidence of simple obedience, as is Abram's prior willingness to leave his father's household and country to journey toward Canaan. On the other hand, the fact that Abraham receives Isaac back after having been prevented from killing him signals the presence of paradoxical obedience in Abraham's life. He remains a father to his son just as before. But from that point onward his relationship with Isaac is no longer only that of a father to a son. Rather, the fact of Abraham's past willingness to let go of Isaac continues to form Abraham's relationship with Isaac for the rest of their lives together. As Bonhoeffer says, "Abraham received Isaac back, but he had him in a different way than before. He has him through the mediator and for the sake of the mediator. As the one who was prepared to hear and obey God's command literally, he is permitted to have Isaac as though he did not have him; he is permitted to have him through Jesus Christ." (Pages 148-49)
This discussion of simple obedience and paradoxical obedience brought to mind the events of March and April 1975 as Mary and I struggled with the impending collapse of the Republic of Vietnam. As the revolutionary forces neared Saigon, we reckoned with the possibility of a concentrated military attack on the city. We wanted to stay to support the church in appropriate ways, yet wondered whether it would be best for our family to leave. God's leading was not clear to us in this situation. Mary left with the children; I left a few weeks later, planning to return.
What if we had determined that we would not leave Saigon no matter what happened? We can never know. Perhaps the pastor's wife and children would not have left. (The pastor was already attending the EMM annual meeting in the U.S.). Perhaps the Mennonite community center and church property would not have been confiscated. Perhaps more local people would have identified with the Christian faith community. We believe that our family's presence there would have given encouragement to many in the larger Christian community. But our presence in the new revolutionary era may have created difficulties for the church as well. We cannot know, for it was the way not taken.
We know that God blessed the way that was taken. Other church leaders in Vietnam rose to the challenges. God blessed the service of Pastor and Mrs. Tran Xuan Quang in the United States, particularly in the ministry of the church on Woodland Avenue, Philadelphia. This church continues to be a witness to the transforming power of the gospel of Jesus Christ today, both throughout the United States and all over Vietnam. Mary and I have also had ministry opportunities to encourage the formation and growth of Vietnamese churches.
We cannot know how the Spirit of God might have blessed the way not taken. We believe God has blessed the way taken.
Luke Martin served as an EMM non-resident volunteer missionary to Vietnam from the mid-1970s until 2017. Prior to that, he and his wife, Mary, served in Vietnam for 13 years, also with EMM. Luke recently authored a book about Mennonite missionaries, including himself, who served in Vietnam during the war. His book is called A Vietnam Presence: Mennonites in Vietnam during the American War. It can be ordered online at masthof.com. The specific experience mentioned in this story is discussed on Page 501 of A Vietnam Presence.