I am privileged to have members of “the greatest generation” as my grandparents. I am even luckier to have been able to learn so much from them as I grew up. My grandparents on both sides lived until I became an adult. That benefits me in two important ways. I learned a lot from them. I was also able to discern whether or not I believed anything they were saying.
I have known many people who were never able to question what they were taught by their elders. I have been able to reject the racism, sexism, superstitions, and attitudes of persecution I learned. I continue to honor their memory. And to remember that when everything is being taken into account, I still love them. I was never harmed by them. As I said, I am luckier than some others.
Tom Brokaw gave us the term “the greatest generation.” The people who survived the Great Depression and fought the Second World War made our lives today possible. The story of The United States of America, indeed the course of the whole world, could have been very, horribly different. My grandparents generation had to do the same things I have done. They needed to learn from their ancestors and learn what they must reject from the times of their ancestors. Families that root every bit of their identity in the past become emotionally unhealthy.
The first commandment “with a promise” is the fifth one on the list of the Ten Commandments. “Honor your father and mother so that your days may be long in the land…” There is a wonderful principle of love in action in this command. When one’s parents have become old and unable to earn a decent living, the children must step up and help the parents take care of themselves. If age and infirmity require, the adult children must care for them. In this way, the people would have a long secure life in the land.
The nature of family life is preserved by the fifth commandment. My work, though, has demonstrated how difficult it can be to deal with parents that are cruel, self-absorbed, mean spirited, and greedy. The adult children may not be capable of forgiving or tolerating abusive parents. It is never my place to tell such people what they should do. The baby-boomer generation faced the dilemma of having to choose on occasion if their attention should go to their parents or their grandchildren. It has become difficult in this modern society in the West to do what was once done.
I was told a story by a church member about her brothers problem in World War 2. They trained and reached certification as pilots in the Army Air Corps. However, they did not fully graduate with their flight class. They were to be commissioned as officers in the Army. Their commissions were delayed. It took a few months to clear the issue up. They were informed that their background checks revealed that they were related to Nazi Party Leader Rudolf Hess. Who would have guessed? My friend remembered it very well. Her grandmother often wrote to the Hess cousins in Germany. She was in fact the last real contact with that branch of the family. The pilots were given approval and served in the war. No contact was no problem.
Years later Rudolf Hess was the only prisoner in Spandau prison. He was an old man. The American and British governments wanted to release him and destroy the prison that held the surviving major Nazi criminals. The Soviet Union refused. Hess committed suicide in prison. My friend told me afterwards she was disturbed and resented the Russian government for its choice. I guess he was family after all.
It is important that the Church begin to review its teaching surrounding the fifth commandment. Modern society relieves the pressure on families by governments instituting social insurance in different forms. The Church needs to ensure that we are able as people within families that we can care for children and elders to preserve the positive connections and to change the legacies we have.
Can the Church advocate for better care of health and social life? Yes, it can. In fact, it is a divine imperative. The Church should help to conserve what matters most for human life. Christians should motivate these institutions to fulfil the promise of generations.