Dachau - early 21st century
I’m standing in the field between the barracks and the fence in the German prison camp that is Dachau, located in a suburb of Munich. The camp is surrounded by streets that could look like any in America, with tree-lined streets and Christmas lights cheering windows and roof lines. You can buy an ice cream or espresso within walking distance of the camp at a little stand. It is, literally, unimaginable what happened here.
Yet we try. My son and I stand between barracks and perimeter fence after visiting the displays. We now know the prisoners wore flimsy cotton uniforms, one thread thick, or less. We know they were forced to stand at attention for morning roll call for about four hours, starting at five AM. We know that any movement during roll call could result in beatings or death. We know that the prisoners were severely malnourished, as evidenced from pictures taken by the liberating allied forces.
On this particular day, it’s about 20 degrees (F), with a stiff wind, as we stand in the field, trying to imagine. We can’t of course, not really. Can’t imagine the suffering, let alone endure. Can’t imagine the depths of evil that created it. Can’t imagine passively being complicit to it all.
We can’t really imagine - but we must, must, must remember. Or to put it another way, we must
that hate unites powerfully - but can’t be sustained. The haters eventually turn on each other, and their evil becomes so obvious as to be undeniable. Don’t base your life on hate! It seems obvious enough, but the hatred for Democratics, Biden, Republicans, Trump, BLM, Socialists, the 1%, and dozens of other tribes is thick in the air these days, providing oxygen not only to the destructive fires of politicians, but pastors too. It’s like hate is some sort of aphrodisiac for the darkest parts of our soul. Recall, though, God’s words to Cain: “Sin is crouching at your door but you must master it.”
that fear and resentment gave rise to the Reich - Germans (perhaps rightly) resented the Versailles treaty. Germans were afraid of losing their national and Aryan identity. They found a leader who spoke to those fears and resentments, so pointedly and powerfully that all of them were soon singing songs of triumph and raising their hands in a pledge of fierce loyalty to their leader. Don’t let fear and resentment drive you - no matter your politic, no matter your story. The gospel is an invitation to rise higher, and live a life that overcomes fear and resentment. There are many ways to do this, but I’ll just offer this one way here: When you practice gratitude, you begin to notice what God has provided. Notice often enough, and you’ll begin to sing that line from the “Great is Thy Faithfulness” hymn: “all I have needed Your hand has provided.” Sunshine, water, food, a place to lay our heads - if we’re fortunate, there’s much more too: good coffee, seasons, hugs, health. With all the anger, fear, resentment, and violence flooding our world these days, you’d think that the prosperous west was suffering abject poverty. Our bellies our full though, it’s wisdom we’re hungry for, wisdom we need - and that wisdom begins with gratitude.
that the church had three camps - Germany in the 30’s had the confessing church, the state church, and the “can’t we just get back to normal” church. The state church was fully invested in the idol of nationalism. The confessing church was built on resisting Hitler’s nationalism and naming it. The “couldn’t we just get back to normal” church didn’t have a formal name (obviously), but consisted of people who missed the clarity of life 30 years earlier, much the same way people today wish it could be 1950 again. It’s no surprise that churches split over this stuff then, as they’re splitting now - that people left churches because they’d landed with the wrong group, that family relationships broke over this stuff, and that, only with the clarity gained by restrospective history was it seen who was right and who was believing lies. “There’s nothing new under the sun,” words uttered by the preacher in Ecclesiastes, have never been truer as we look around the landscape of the church/state fights today.
that people overcame - Victor Frankl was shaped by the experience and would go on to teach the world how to rise above the limitations of circumstances and live with integrity (which, by the way, he taught us, is antithetical to fear and hate). Dietrich Bonhoeffer would serve communion to his cell mates the day before he was executed, and would later be eulogized as ‘the embodiment of hope in our hopeless time’ by those who survived. When I was in seminary, I lived in an apartment complex populated by some who’d survived the Holocaust. One man helped me learn Hebrew as we walked around the apartment pool. He wouldn’t talk about the camps, other than to say that he lives every day as a gift and a responsibility. Would that I could say that with the same honesty he did.
that people resisted - A real life superhero of mine is Sophie Scholl, (I made a tiny movie about her ten years ago - you can find it here) of the White Rose Fellowship, because she had the courage to do the right thing, because the stakes were too high to simply ‘be nice.’ She stood with those who stood against idolatry. She stood with those who stood against complacency and passivity. She stood with the prisoners, and the mentally ill, and the persecuted Jews and homosexuals and Gypsies, believing that everyone was created in the image of God, that everyone has the right to life, and that those with the means to do so must stand for those who can’t stand on their own. NO PARTY embodies Sophie’s values in America today. To think otherwise is to idolize your side. What’s needed is the courage to stand against the forces that would diminish any of humanity, whether such forces come from the left or the right. I’ve been to her grave. She was cursed at by peers. Hated by some in the church as radical. But now, not a day goes by when someone doesn’t leave a white rose on Sophie’s grave. Every German knows her name and honors it. Time will tell who‘s on the right side of history. May we be found with Sophie.
that ALL these lessons are needed today. It’s all here, now. The fear and hate, the idols of nationalism, in left and right forms, the threefold division in the church, the persecuted people who overcome, and the people with the courage to resist oppression, not in the name of partisan politics, but in the name of Jesus.
NEVER FORGET... because this story happens over and over throughout history. Someday, maybe today, maybe next week, you’ll wake up and find yourself in it, and what you'll need isn't crowd frenzy, rumors, panic, group think, or isolation in your tribe. You'll need the discernment that leads to, as the apostle says, "not words but power" not anger, but "love from a pure heart". Never forget - you're made for that.