Saturday, May 27, 2017

A postscript, and some flowers

I've been reflecting since last week that I left something out of my post on Christian involvement in the Holocaust. It's this:

This is the reason I write about rescuers. This is the reason I write about Le Chambon.

It's not the original reason, as I've said here before. The original reason was that my Mom was writing about it and I wanted to help with her project. But it is the reason I write about it now.

Because there were Christians who did the right thing. There were Christians who actually loved their neighbors during that time. And what I really want is not to whitewash the behavior of Christians in general during that time, but to ask myself and everybody: what was it about the ones who actually acted the way Christians are supposed to act? What kind of Christians were they? How were they different? How can we be more like them, so that we will act like them?

That's what I want to know. That's what I want to find out.

So. That's my coda to last week's post.


And now for something completely different!

(I mean it's about time I write something positive, right?)

Spring is in full swing here, the growing part of spring: everything green and wet and warm. Peonies opening, their white ruffled petals weighed down with clear raindrops. Such an ephemeral beauty--the wetter a peony gets, the faster it fades into brown, I've seen it before. In the first stage of spring, the tree-blossom stage, the wildflowers-on-the-forest-floor stage, I used to take the quilt outside on warm evenings and lay it out under the flowering crabapple tree and sit on it with the Boy. Sometimes we'd just lie down and look up at the white blossoms and the blue sky. He learned about bees and pollination from that tree, I remember standing near it with him in the carrier on my back, and showing him all the bees... Anyway, there was one windy day near the end of the blooms' life--they were still pure-white and lovely, but every gust of wind sent them flying till they filled the air. There's no ephemeral beauty like the beauty of petals swept away by the wind. Just looking at it hurts in that lovely way, like you're reminded of death and the sweetness of life at one and the same time.

Well. Um. I was just going to share some photos, actually. Of that earlier stage of spring, since I don't yet have photos of this one.

These are dogtooth violets, also known as trout lilies. The flowers only last two or three days. Right where our walking path enters the woods, there's a thick patch of the shiny mottled leaves. It makes maybe five or six flowers each year. They're not even that pretty, I suppose. But they're so shy, and rare, and they have a kind of grace.

Here's one in fuller bloom, though blurrier focus.

Bluebells. They grow in our backyard. Such a short life. They're annuals: they live and die and make seed, all in the short time before the trees above their forest floor leaf out and shade them. Just that short sweet time in the sun.

This is jack-in-the-pulpit. As a kid I knew it as a houseplant. I figured it was tropical. Nope! Turns out it's a North American wildflower. (For all I know it lives in the tropics too.) It makes bright orange berries in a little cluster in the fall.

A patch of ramps (wild onions, like the ones Rapunzel's mother craved!) see through a fallen log.

Bloodroot leaf with the sun shining in it. Below is what the flowers look like. They last three days at the most. We value things we can't keep.

 And, last, those white blossoms and that blue sky. They come out every spring, unfolding out of brown-grey branches we could have sworn were dead. They are ready, they know their time. There is such strength in roots and seeds, biding their time through the winter, waiting to pass out of death and into life.

Saturday, May 20, 2017

Yes, Christians did commit the Holocaust

Just a note in case anyone shows up who hasn't read here before: I'm a Christian. I say all this as a Christian. Additional note for anyone who just had the phrase "but is she a real Christian" pop into their head: I believe Jesus died for my sins.

Good, we've got that out of the way.

So this is a debate you run into on the internet over and over. Atheist: religion is terrible, Christians committed the Crusades and the Inquisition and the Holocaust, Hitler was a Christian. Christian: Those people were not real Christians especially Hitler.

The problem with this debate is that both sides are wrong.

First off, Hitler wasn't a Christian. He pretended to be one sometimes at politically convenient moments, but in private he explicitly despised Christianity, calling it meek and flabby, a deliberate lie, and the heaviest blow that ever struck humanity. The Nazis in general, though--that's a more complicated question. There was a lot of strange spiritual stuff going on with the Nazis, from Neo-Paganism to new Christian-themed movements which I absolutely consider (and so would any traditional Christian) to be heretical. I mean, as a sample, there was the movement they called Positive Christianity, encouraged by Hitler and embraced by some Nazis as a sort of reboot of the faith, which up till now had been way too "negative." (For context to that notion--humility was negative. Triumphant arrogance was positive. And Jesus was a Nordic hero who fought against Judaism. Yeah. It was a heresy all right. But its people thought of themselves as Christians. I made my Gestapo villain one of them, in my upcoming novel.) If you had to pin down Nazi religion as a whole, the best description might be a cult with both Christian and pagan elements, and the paganism was probably stronger at the higher levels--especially in the SS. And yet--some leading Nazis self-identified as Christians, and are we positive that they were all provably astray from the most basic orthodoxy? Well, I hope they were (and even if they weren't I consider their Christianity perverted in spirit) but I certainly can't prove it.

But even if I could, the atheist is right about this: Christians did it.

The Nazis didn't commit the Holocaust alone. They led and organized it. It was a huge endeavor requiring the participation of many, many people--ordinary soldiers, ordinary police, ordinary citizens. There is simply no question, historically, that masses of these participating people were Protestants and Catholics; they made up the vast majority of the population. And further masses turned a blind eye, out of terror or plain fear or self-interest or indifference, or outright anti-Semitism. Europe was full of Christians at the time, much fuller than it is now--and let's not kid ourselves, Europe had an old tradition of anti-Semitism that defined itself as Christians versus Jews. It's not something that feels at all familiar to American Protestants, and it's easy for us to dismiss it as the Catholics' fault, but it's part of our roots too--and most ordinary Protestants don't come off looking too good in this story either. Bonhoeffer and his friends were amazing people, but they were in the minority.

Europe was full of Protestants and Catholics, and many of them participated, some willingly, some not. And really--by what measure can we define those people as "not Christians"?

Well, I know of two measures. I've seen them used, and they're both wrong.

One is theology: these were people from "dead" churches who had this and this and this wrong with their theology, and if I wouldn't consider them real Christians if I met them today, why do I have to claim them as Christians after they've committed this heinous crime? If you find yourself agreeing with this--and believe me I get it--please stop and consider just how hollow this claim sounds to an outsider. We're talking about people who claimed the name of Jesus, called themselves Christian, whose religious roots and history were all in Christianity--excuse me, what on earth is a Jew supposed to identify them as? Atheists? Imagine if a Muslim friend said to you, No, Muslims didn't carry out those terrorist attacks. No, the Islamic State, see, they're not real Muslims, they're absolutely not, because there's this and this and this wrong with their theology, I can detail to you how they've departed from the true and original faith of Islam...

What would we say to that guy? What would we expect from him? We would want him to say: Yes, Muslims did that. They are bad Muslims. They are doing it wrong. I oppose them and all their works.

I'll come back to this.

And then there's the second argument, the basic, instinctive reaction--and I have it too--that people who turned in their neighbors, or participated in arrests, or stood by and sang patriotic songs as these things happened, were acting so completely against the spirit of Jesus that they can't have possibly known him.

Is this true? Is it? Have you ever ignored the voice of Jesus? I have.

Deep inside this instinctive reaction is the belief that what you do defines you. Does it? It's a profound question. There are two answers.

The atheist's response to this reaction is simple: No True Scotsman. For those who don't know, it's a logical fallacy by which you can "prove" no Scotsman would ever do X, because if he did he's not a true Scotsman. No true Christian would turn his neighbor in to the Gestapo; thus we "prove" Christians never did so. That's not right, of course.

And yet, so close, just on the other side of the fine line, is the saying of Jesus: By their fruits you shall know them. Here's the thing, though: wasn't talking about who was out and who was in--who was a true Christian or Jew or disciple or Scotsman--he wasn't talking about group membership or who claims who. He was talking about something much more urgent: who is a true prophet? In other words--a question as urgent today, in our internet world of rumors, as it was then among the competing messiahs--who do I listen to? A tree is known by its fruit, he says. Look at their actions; look at their effects.

Does the good or evil a person does define him? It doesn't define his membership in a group. Whether he's a Christian, a Muslim, an Arab or a Jew. It doesn't define whether he's linked to us, whether he claims the same name and holds the same traditions. But it defines, urgently, the response we must make to him. Follow. Or flee. Or fight.

Hitler understood this. He didn't persecute Christians for being Christians. That would have been a suicidal move. He persecuted only those Christians who acted like Jesus.

We get it backwards. Exactly backwards. We read the story of the past, the account of evil done by someone claiming to be one of us, and we disown him. No. Not my people. But in the midst of the now, when we are choosing who to listen to--when actions are present, unfolding, confusing, not yet pinned on pages by historians--when we are searching for the "good guys" amidst the flood of competing prophets--now, we give weight, too much weight, to "is he one of us?" Is he? Does it matter? Is that what Jesus would have us ask?

By their fruits you shall know them.

There's a reason for our wish to deny that real Christians had anything to do with the Holocaust. Fundamentally, it is very simple: my community cannot commit atrocities. My community is righteous. We are the good guys.

This is not true.

We are not the good guys; Jesus is the good guy. We do not acquire goodness simply by saying his name; only Christianity. They are not the same thing. Assuming they are is a trap, an open grave: many Germans fell into it when they heard Hitler claim Jesus' name. He promised an era of spiritual renewal for Germany, and many believed him. He sounded like one of us. People just like us followed him, and every one that did made it possible for the next one to assume he was not so bad.

Friends, let us not judge people's goodness by whether they are one of us. Jesus has told us not to. Let us judge by whether they love their neighbors, whether they do them good or harm. When we fail to do that, when we assume that this prophet or that leader must be good because he is one of us, and all of us are good--then we raise the specter of evil. Then we should not be surprised if we see fear in our neighbor's eyes.

What do we say as Christians to our neighbor, our atheist neighbor or our Jewish neighbor, about the specter of the past? The same thing we want our Muslim neighbor to say to us. Yes, my people did those things. My people participated. They were bad Christians. They were doing it wrong. I oppose them and all their works. It must never happen again. I never forget.


That's what I have to say on the matter. If you have something to say, I will gladly listen and discuss.

Sunday, May 14, 2017

All is held in trust

In the spring of 2010, a house burned down in the Christian intentional community I live in. Nobody was hurt, but the house was wholly lost. It was the most beautiful house on the place, beautifully crafted with old-fashioned beams, and a living space for quite a few people. There were people still in the community whose sweat and skill and hope had gone into that house, and I knew they felt it. I wrote a poem from those thoughts.

Yesterday a meeting was held here about the final closing of the intentional community, with decisions made about the disposal of the land. It's the end of an era, and an outcome many people did not imagine as they put their sweat and skill and hope into the place.

So I thought I'd share that poem today.

Dawn opens silent as a bloom
Above the gutted house, its dark
Bones crisscrossed in the lucent air;
The phoebe sings. Which of our hearts
Could drink this young wind sweet as wine
And not taste bitter ashes? See:
All that our hands have built is tinder
For the flame. So it must be.

The phoebe sings, and flicks her tail.
Her eggs will hatch this year. Seeds wake
Beneath the blackened ground; the grass
Will rise, the fireweed and the creeper take
The ruin, wrap it close with life.
Know this: though all may burn, each day
Beneath the faithful sun ten thousand
Trees are born. The earth returns.

No. What is lost, is lost. The black
Beams wrapped in their green vines will fall,
And will not rise, though spring should wake
The dead. Some only sleep; not all.
The green heart will not beat again
In brittle branches winter-cracked;
Dead limbs that hang like bones from broken
Trees. Don't tell us it comes back.

You do not know what lies behind
My door. Where sings the fallen bird,
Where stand the shattered, crafted beams,
No eye has seen, no ear has heard.
The world's tale runs through the years:
Ashes to ashes, dust to dust.
But all your tears are kept within
My bottle; all is held in trust.

Saturday, May 6, 2017


I remember the cooing of the doves, in the town in France where I grew up. They were collared doves, and they roosted up among the rooftops of the town, like pigeons do in other towns. I had forgotten about them, the way they used to coo when the sky started to grow soft with evening. I remembered it the other night and almost cried.

I don't know if I can explain how it is. How you can see one thing like that, those doves, and for a moment that is everything. It fills your vision like God's final word. Doves among the rooftops.

I almost cried because I wanted the cooing of the collared doves to be the gentle meaning of everything.

Sometimes I can't be rational about all of this. The world is so terrible. There has always, always--almost always--been so much death. There is so much scorn, so much loneliness, so much hatred. We are told God gave us a garden, made us fresh out of earth in the light of a young world no evil had touched. The world is old now, and we have invented tortures not fit to be written of. We have invented elaborate reasons why everyone unlike us is lesser than us. We have invented machine upon machine designed brilliantly to destroy.

We are told God gave us a garden. In it was the tree of Life. I believe it. Its seeds are still everywhere, tiny leaves unfurling slowly into the light. I don't know where the seedlings go after that, what happens to them, what blight strikes them down. I only know that I only see them young. But so real.

They are real. The cooing of doves in a window. The sun's light through a perfect young oak leaf, the color green come alive. The light that can rest on a face, come from no lamp or sun--you've seen it, I've seen it, the light in the eyes is real light. In the eyes of a laughing child or an old woman touched with joy. The light lies on the water. The swallows come in spring. Again and again they come, in spite of all our sins. The apple trees forgive us, and bloom.

And I can't take it sometimes, with the wanting, the wanting for these to be the meaning of things, the light that fills your vision, God's final word.

I don't want the world to end in a burst of light. God's final word is God's first word too. I want Eden. I want it painfully, the end of the road, the promise, the day the seed becomes the tree. I want the terrors we have made wiped away. I want the earth we have trodden down and paved over made fresh and new as in the first spring sunrise, and us all there looking at each other wide-eyed in the new light. I want it. I want it sometimes till it hurts.

I have seen the seeds. I have heard the promise. Now is the waiting. I can cry if I choose. But I must go to bed, and get up, and try my best to love my neighbor. Ask God for the strength to treat my neighbor, in the meantime, as if we stood in that new light. As if, if I look again, I'll see the uncreated light resting on his face and shining like a glory in his eyes.

Stay with us, O Lord Jesus Christ
Night will soon fall
Then stay with us, O Lord Jesus Christ,
Light in our darkness.


The grass is still singing
The words I will say
When I walk with You barefoot
In the cool of the day