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You Call Yourself a Firefighter?

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of

Imagine one calm afternoon while you sit on your patio reading a book that your phone rings. On the other end is your 33-year-old firefighter son sounding rather anxious. “Dad,” he says, “I don’t know what to do. We’re out at a fire in the country, and it’s about to reach this guy’s house, but we’ve been told not to stop it because he didn’t pay his service fee. Some of the guys are feeling a little unsettled about all this, and I told them I’d ask you, since you’re the deacon of a church and you always have the right answer for me. What should I do?”

Reply 1: “Well, son, this is a difficult world where people need to learn personal responsibility. I know it seems callous and harsh to let this man’s house burn, but it’s not your fault that he didn’t pay. This country is falling apart because everybody wants to be a freeloader, and sometimes you just have to make an example out of someone. If people don’t think they have to pay in advance, no one will pay at all. Don’t worry, God will understand. This is how He deals with us, after all. He only protects us if we do what we’re supposed to do.”

Reply 2: “I understand what you’re struggling with because I know part of the reason you became a firefighter was you thought it was a way to help people and serve the community. But sometimes the only way to be a hero is to obey orders. You can’t just go around doing whatever seems right to you. If everybody acted on their own conscience, there’d be no order in the world. God tells us to obey authority, even if they’re wrong. So you just have to trust in the fact that it’s not your decision to make.”

Reply 3: “How can this even be a question for you? The Bible says that if we refuse to help someone when we can, we don’t have the love of God in us. I know I raised you better than that. If you want to call yourself a firefighter or a Christian, you’d better get off the phone with me and go put out that fire, son.”

So, which answer would you give him?

On September 29th, a group of Tennessee firemen first refused to respond to a fire at the rural home of Gene Cranick and then did show up to sit and to watch the fire consume his house, his possessions, his three dogs, and the family cat. Only when it eventually threatened to spread to a neighboring property did they finally act to put it out. The reason for their neglect? Mr. Cranick hadn’t paid his annual $75 protection money for rural fire service. He says he forgot this year, despite paying in the past, and he had offered to pay the department whatever amount they named if they would only save his home.

Having read a number of commentaries about this outrageous event, I’m torn which is more scandalous: the behavior of the firemen or that our country seems to be full of people who think that anything other than answer 3 is morally or theologically plausible.

I can comprehend a city so incompetent that for 20 years it never came up with a simple proposal like, “Rural fire calls will be charged to the property owner at a rate equal to 120% the actual cost up to a maximum of $20,000, secured by a lien against the property if necessary. In lieu of this, $75 may be paid as annual fire service insurance.” But politicians are notoriously stupid. So such a total failure of legislative imagination isn’t inconceivable. The part I can’t wrap my head around is the firefighters refusing to stop the fire, even to the absurd point of sitting idly by watching it burn.

I’ve known a few firemen in my life, and I can’t imagine any of them doing nothing while a fire destroys someone’s home. The ones I’ve known would have told anyone issuing such an evil order to either step aside or be thrown aside while they put out the fire. Most firefighters are heroic and humble, viewing their jobs as nothing more than the duty of a decent citizen. That’s why the contrast between these thugs in firefighting gear sitting on the sidelines refusing to stop destruction and actual firemen rushing headlong into catastrophes like the World Trade Center is so stark.

Our culture treats firemen as heroes—and rightly so. But heroes have to behave heroically in order to deserve the label, and the sort of person who would watch a fire and claim he was only obeying orders is certainly no hero. By definition, he’s not even a firefighter.

I have three young boys, and I simply can’t imagine coming home to tell my wife or my sons that their daddy let a family’s home get destroyed over something as petty as $75 and a ridiculous city policy. Moreover, I can’t imagine what it would be like to go to church the next Sunday and try singing praises to God standing between the guy whose house I watched burn to the ground and the city manager who defended that decision.

“But if we put out this fire, then no one will ever pay their $75, and we won’t have the funding to fight any rural fires.”

Are Americans really this despicable? Or does such a claim end up saying more about the people making it than it does about the real people of rural Tennessee?

“Well, the ones who pay would have to pay more, and the others would just sponge off of them.”

It’s hard to quantify the scope of such cynicism, but here’s an indicator of how misguided it is. The Cranick’s neighbors (you know, the ones who paid their fees) were begging the firemen to fight the fire. Begging!

See, my theory is that Americans are better than the cynics give us credit for. Part of that betterness is that most of us will pay in advance anyway and then rejoice that our contributions made it possible to save someone else’s home.

But the other part of that betterness is that we want to live among people who behave as if we’re a community with values like neighborliness and cooperation. We want to be people who act more nobly than the cynics predict and who can then look each other in the eyes with civic pride. We want to be the Tennesseans who came together after the Nashville floods, not the Tennesseans who stood by indifferently as a man’s life went up in flames.

We want to pay our dues, then go to church with the guy whose house was rescued when he didn’t, the firemen who fought the fire they didn’t get paid for, and the city manager who told them to help a guy even though he didn’t really deserve it. And I want us to sit there, grateful for such wonderful neighbors, listening to a pastor tell us, “Praise be to God that I don’t need to preach a sermon on the importance of loving your neighbor as yourself in this county because we’ve got that one down pat.” That’s the sort of community I want to live in. Truth be told, don’t we all?

As Edmund Burke almost said, “All that is required for evil to flourish in the world is for good firefighters to do nothing.”

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