It is not always given to us to have the privilege of a clear choice. Good parents are anxious to help their children learn the difference between right and wrong and encourage them to choose right on all occasions. They are right to do so because without such a foundation little of value will be achieved in life and whatsoever of value does emerge will be unintended. We might wish such a foundation to be sufficient to guide us through every challenge that we might meet throughout our lives but sadly this will not always be the case. We will meet occasions in which there will be no good alternative that we can choose.
Such is the challenge that faces Frodo as he prepares to continue his journey after his encounter with Faramir and after the unhappy recapture of Gollum at the Forbidden Pool beneath Henneth Annûn. Such too is the challenge that faces Faramir as he seeks to counsel Frodo. All he is able to do is to warn Frodo of the dangers of the path that he has chosen in his efforts to enter Mordor and of the faithlessness of the guide he has chosen to take him there. “Do not go that way!” he cries in a last desperate attempt to dissuade Frodo from the way he intends to go.
That Frodo’s choice both of path and of guide is unwise is beyond doubt but so too is the alternative and this he makes clear to Faramir:
“If I turn back, refusing the road in its bitter end, where then shall I go among Elves and Men? Would you have me come to Gondor with this Thing, the Thing that drove your brother mad with desire? What spell would it work in Minas Tirith? Shall there be two cities of Minas Morgul, grinning at each other across a dead land filled with rottenness?”
Thankfully few of us will be called to make a choice as impossible as this but all who seek to live life with a moral seriousness will have to make choices in which the alternatives appear equally intolerable. Is there any guidance available to us for such a time?
In 1943 the German pastor and theologian, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, wrote a remarkable document to two fellow members of the Resistance within Nazi Germany that he entitled “After Ten Years”. In it he declared: “One may ask whether there have ever before in human history been people with so little ground under their feet- people to whom every available alternative seemed equally intolerable, repugnant and futile.” Bonhoeffer goes on to outline the insufficiency of all responses to the circumstances facing himself and his fellow resisters, responses based upon such abstract principles such as reason, moral fanaticism, conscience, duty, freedom or private virtue. The only ones who can stand fast, he declares are those who are ready to sacrifice these principles when called to “obedient and responsible action in faith… the responsible man, who tries to make his whole life an answer to the question and call of God.”
Later he makes clear what shape such an answer might take: “The ultimate question for a responsible man to ask is not how he is to extricate himself heroically from the affair, but how the coming generation is to live.” As Frodo and Faramir part in sorrow and with little hope both have made such a choice. Heroism is the last thing on either of their minds but both now offer up their lives that the next generation might be able to live.