Monday, July 9, 2018

The Stories We Tell Ourselves

I just returned from a wonderful and much-needed vacation, a river cruise on the Danube through Germany, Austria, and Hungary. Our cruise began in Nuremberg at the heart of Germany and the rise of the Nazi party. We stood in the places where large Nazi propaganda events were held to consolidate Hitler's power.

Ultimately, of course, Nuremberg became known around the world as the place where those who committed crimes against humanity were tried at the end of the Second World War and held accountable for their actions. We do well to remember that what the Nazis did was "legal" at the time and that it was the "law breakers" (like the Rev. Dietrich Bonhoeffer) whom we remember as martyrs today.

So we should be clear about the meaning of that place. As my New Testament professor used to put it clearly and succinctly when I was a young seminarian at Drew: "Hitler didn't kill six million Jewish people. Good German Lutherans did. They were just following orders..."

I am a pastor. I am neither an historian nor political scientist. Pastors are bold sometimes - we speak out about all kinds of issues in the world because we insist that the Word became flesh to dwell among us. Sometimes we - and I - may overstep our bounds. So this is my disclaimer. I am very interested in history and political science and international affairs, but my formal training is quite limited in those areas and I know there is a great deal I do not know.

Even so, I am a reasonably informed citizen. I do not rely on a single news source either on the left or right. I am a reasonably well-educated person who was taught (especially by the Jesuits) to ask questions. Above all, however, I am a person who trusts that when we read, mark, learn and inwardly digest Holy Scripture it provides us with a lens for judging what is "good news" and what is "fake news." As part of my baptismal vows I learned to trust the narrative that can be distilled down to love of God and neighbor. As part of my ordination vows I have continued to trust for three decades now that what is written in the Old and New Testaments is the Word of God and that it contains all things necessary for salvation, which I take to mean not just "spiritual" salvation when we die, but wisdom (and courage) for the living of these days, for living life fully by loving God and neighbor. (See the Ordination Service in The Book of Common Prayer, page 526)

In the Documentation Center in Nuremberg, a museum on the Nazi Party Rally Grounds, I took out my phone and began taking some notes from the English audio tour I was listening to. (I imagine some people wondered why I was sending text messages from there or something like that, but I didn't have pen and paper and I found the story so compelling.) Here are some of the notes I took, unedited and only as I heard and then recorded them:
  • The events leading up to Hitler's consolidation of power were an experience of "the radicalization of political life."
  • The party rallies were "emotional and experiential and ritualized" experiences; not appeals to reason.
  • The Jews were consistently called "a parasitic people." (In other words it didn't start with the concentration camps; it started with name-calling and dehumanization that eventually led there.)
  • There was an early German resistance to Hitler on both the right and the left but they underestimated him and only a small group really saw what was happening early on. They responded too late.
I recently said on Facebook in response to a comment made by someone that while I believe that those who do not learn from history are destined to repeat it, I know that one-to-one correlations are dangerous and even unhelpful. History needs to be interpreted and it is of course interpreted through the lens(es) of who we are and where we stand. Interpretation is always a contested matter. 

So let me be clear: I understand that comparing Donald Trump to Adolf Hitler may contribute to further polarization. It forces us to choose sides; and yes, I also know that we must choose sides. But his defenders resist this comparison (strenuously) while his detractors get ready for another holocaust. And we find ourselves even further divided. While I'm clear where I stand, I also see how this can become part of  "the radicalization of political life"and can leave us all paralyzed.

Professor Dey, my New Testament professor, was right, I think. The issue isn't ultimately about our leaders (who are really a personification of our collective "personalities" as nations.) The challenge is to look into a mirror and ask who we are and who we are becoming. What are stories we tell ourselves about who we are?  I wonder if everything else might be a distraction from this important work? Who are we called to be at this moment in history, in this time and place? 

One of the problems with the comparison of the United States in 2018 with what happened in Nazi Germany in the middle of the twentieth century is that we look backwards, from the end of the story. We know how that story ended and it seems too horrible to imagine it repeating itself. I was in Bavaria 35 years ago and went to Dachau. While I didn't get back there this time, that experience feels like it was yesterday. This past year I was in Yad Veshem, the Holocaust Remembrance Center in Jerusalem. 

Taken together, my learning from Dachau, Yad Veshem (as well as the Holocaust Museum in Washington) and Nuremberg teach me is this: the lessons our nation needs to be focused on today are not necessarily the lessons from the 1940s, but the lessons from the late 1920s and early 1930s. The ending is not yet "settled" but the trajectory we are on seems all too familiar. The United States essentially ignored Europe in the so-called "Roaring Twenties." But as we were doing the Charleston, Hitler was holding those rallies in Nuremberg. Americans didn't pay close enough attention. We put our heads in the sand. We tuned out. This is part of our own national narrative, our false notion that we are somehow separate from the world, from the league of nations. We engage in this kind of thinking, however, at our peril. Every time. 

Those notes I took above in Nuremberg were not written as a response to "current events" in the United States. But I ask my readers on the right, the middle, and the left whether or not these bullet points capture where we are today. To me they seem ripped from today's headlines. I think about what former Republican candidate for President, Mitt Romney, said about President Trump, including here and after Charlotttesville. I didn't vote for Romney when he ran for President or for that matter when he was Governor of the Commonwealth I live in. But I always respected him as a human being, even when I disagreed with him politically. I think he is a good man and I hope he continues to speak truth to power when he is elected to the United States Senate this fall. 

The "resistance" to what is happening in our nation right now cannot be the work of the far left only. First we need to pray for eyes to see, and ears to hear, what is unfolding in our nation. Then we need to see together, from the right and middle and left, and commit ourselves to the truth. We need to hear one another to speech. We need to agree to turn off both the national propaganda from the right and the knee-jerk responses from the left. We need to agree that this moment in our history is too important for us to be apolitical, to be neutral, to be "Switzerland" or America in the 1920s, doing the Charleston while the world moves toward war. I know that people are tired of going on Facebook and reading about politics. We want family photos and more cats, I guess. I know and I am weary some days also. But we need courage and wisdom for the living of these days. And we need to find ways to work together. 

I'll add one more political thought. It may not be surprising that most (but certainly not all) of my Facebook friends are politically (and theologically) progressives. It breaks my heart when I see the tactics of dividing people working, including when Nancy Pelosi (that right-wing conservative?) is lambasted by progressives for daring to disagree with Maxine Waters. I refuse to defend or criticize either one. But when those two are divided, I think we are in serious trouble. Talk about the radicalization of our politics! 

I believe we are called to speak the truth in love. I might be wrong here and in many other instances. But when I'm wrong I need to learn why. In this time, we need a a broad coalition of resisters. We need Nancy Pelosi and Maxine Waters and Mitt Romney and John McCain on the same team: the team that loves this nation enough to remind us of where we've been and who we are, and most importantly who we are called to become. As Bill Coffin once put it, the world is too dangerous for anything but truth, and too small for anything but love. 

I don't think that historical scripts are pre-written. The work before us today is to write a different ending to the story that led to the Nuremberg Trials seventy years or so ago. We need to write our own parts in the story that is unfolding in this time and place. Before it is too late.