Sunday, August 27, 2017

Charlottesville Part II: By their fruits you shall know them, aka Do they hide Jews?

So. The churches.

Like I said. I think this is why I wrote that post on Christians and the Holocaust, though I didn't know it at the time.

I'll be honest, I felt bad about writing that post. I felt like I was writing something that brought pain and not joy, and I don't like to do that. But I also felt like I was supposed to, because it was true.

I think we have a tendency--even now--to assume our fellow Christians will do the right thing. Or are doing the right thing. Yet Christians participated in the Holocaust. Christians owned slaves, Christians justified the very worst kind of slavery, Christians opposed the civil rights movement and bought into the "separate but equal" line.

Frederick Douglass said, "Between the Christianity of this land and the Christianity of Christ, I recognize the greatest possible difference."

Jesus said "By their fruits you shall know them."

A bad time has begun in my country. I believe it will get worse. Yet there are prominent evangelical leaders who believe it's a good time, who are gloating over what they think God is doing in this country.

They are showing us the trajectory they have been on for a long time, and its logical end.

They thought they needed power, to take back this country for God. They thought such things were done by power. They fell in love with power. (Not by might, not by power, but by my Spirit, said God. My kingdom is not of this world, said Jesus. They didn't hear the still small voice. They were looking the other way.)

They ate the fruit, and it was sweet. Huge churches. Millions of followers. Political influence. They were already drunk with it when they met someone who promised them the kingdoms of this world. All you need to do is vow loyalty to me, to praise me and never criticize, he said. It's not really bowing.

They shook.

(He demanded a loyalty oath of his CIA chief. You think he didn't demand one, in some way or other, of his evangelical council?)

Now they have a President who lets them into the halls of power, who caters to them. And also to Nazis.

Where is Jesus in this?

By their fruits you shall know them.

I see a separation coming. I pray it is clear. But it probably won't be. I pray God gives us eyes to see it. (By their fruits you shall know them.) I see a separation coming, between Christians who seek power and Christians who follow Christ. Who love their neighbor as Christ commanded.

Why a separation? Isn't it bad to have the Body of Christ divided? Well here's the thing. Here's the thing.

It's about who we trust. We trust other Christians. Instinctively. So did Christians under Hitler. That respected Christian leader seems all right with it. It's probably all right.

And not just any Christians. We trust people we consider to be the Right Kind of Christians. Who have correct doctrine, who move in the right circles, whom our families and friends trust, etc. People who show the cultural markers we
know from childhood, who feel familiar.

(Here's another secret belief I had as a kid. This one's even more embarrassing, and more revelatory. I tried once to figure out an easier test than some long doctrinal quiz for figuring out who was a Real Christian. Here's what I finally came up with: Well, at least if they shop at Christian bookstores you can be sure. You want to talk about cultural markers? I had intuited how it worked.)

This is dangerous now. Especially for us who were raised evangelical. Many, many evangelical leaders have eaten the fruit.

This is not a time for asking who has correct theology. Yes, theology truly based in Christ might have saved us from coming to this pass, but if a leader ticks the right boxes on atonement and resurrection? That's not what I needed to know. If a leader says the name of Jesus and all the right people approve of them? That's not what I needed to know. There's only one thing I need to know.

Do they hide Jews?

That's a metaphor, of course. (Unless it becomes literal. I know there are Jews who believe it may. They can't afford to dismiss the possibility. They will never dismiss it again.) What I mean is, do they respect, aid and protect those forced to live in fear, those threatened with harm by the violent and the powerful? Or do they look the other way and minimize and justify?

By their fruits you shall know them.

This is not some kind of "works salvation" here. I'm not even remotely talking about who is going to heaven. Who is going to heaven is frankly none of my business; it's God's. I am called upon to make exactly zero decisions about this.

I'm also not talking about who to respect or treat as our neighbor. Jesus is real clear on this: everyone is our neighbor. We are to love both our neighbor and our enemy. We are to love the child we meet in the street and the neo-Nazi wielding a club. (In different ways.) It's a hard religion, but at least it's clear. There is no one we are not commanded to treat well.

That's not what I'm talking about.

I'm talking about who to trust. That is a decision we're called on to make daily. I'm talking about who is currently following Jesus; who will not lead us away.

The name of Christian will not help us, anymore than it helped the Christians in Germany.

We American Christians have talked a lot about persecution. Some have claimed they were experiencing it. Some have sensed that if it did come it would renew the Church spiritually. In fact I've wondered if the two aren't connected. I think we have a certain sense that Christians are supposed to be persecuted, and a certain uneasiness when we're not, which some have tried to do away with by pretense. I think there's something to it. (The uneasiness that is.) I hope to write about that sometime.

But listen, here's what strikes me about Christians under Nazism. Under the Third Reich and under Nazi occupation, Christians were persecuted--if they obeyed Jesus.

If they didn't, they were fine.

If there's one thing I am utterly certain about in all this, it's that the next time Christians are persecuted in the United States, it will be exactly like that again. No-one will be threatened or harmed for claiming the name of Christ.

Only for obeying Him.

Only for loving their neighbors. Only for hiding Jews.

We must walk into this time with our eyes open. We must love our neighbors, and look into their eyes. We must respect, aid and protect those to whom evil is done or threatened by the violent and the powerful, always and no matter what. Yes, we must do it on the internet, but we must remember the real world is the place where real people live and die. Hiding Jews in the real world means this: we must be open at all times to what we see around us and to the leading of the Spirit, and ready to obey. What will it be, and who? We must look around our neighborhoods with open eyes. Know our neighbors, be ready to hear their troubles, tear down the "not my problem" walls in our minds. Like the family on welfare who hid six-year-old Isaac Levendel, we must live in such a way that if people we know have to ask themselves, suddenly and with no time to spare, Who would this child be safe with?--they think of us.

And what we do, we must do nonviolently. In word and deed. When our fellow Christians do wrong we must beg them to repent.

That's a post for another time. But I'll leave you with a quote from someone I write about, whose record for hiding Jews was pretty good.

"The duty of Christians is to resist, through the weapons of the Spirit, the violence they will try to impose on our consciences. Loving, forgiving, and doing good to our adversaries is our duty. Yet we must do this without giving up, and without being cowardly. We shall resist whenever our adversaries demand of us obedience contrary to the orders of the gospel. We shall do so without fear, but also without pride and without hate."

-  André Trocmé

Sounds to me like what Jesus would do.

That's all for now, friends. God be with us all, and God be with those in Houston and the Gulf Coast today.

Saturday, August 19, 2017

Charlottesville Part I: Time does not heal a poisoned wound

So I guess this is why I wrote that post the other month about Christians and the Holocaust, though I didn't quite know it at the time.

I still don't know exactly where to start. I just keep wanting to say, "So. Nazis."

OK, let's start here. You've probably watched this already, but if you haven't, please watch it.

But please don't watch it with children in the room.

The car attack is in there, starting at 11:22. You don't really see people getting hit.

I had a secret belief as a kid. I never told my parents, because I understood that officially, I was dead wrong, but I was still sure I was right. I had a secret belief that politics didn't really matter. Hadn't my parents noticed that no matter who was in office, our lives didn't change?

I suppose I would have seen the matter differently if politics determined whether it was legal to buy and sell me--or kill me. Or even if politics had determined that for my ancestors.

I also would have seen the matter differently if I was growing up right now.

When I was a kid, people didn't kill other people in the street over politics.

(Or so I thought. Should I say white people didn't kill white people in the street over politics? Was the death of Tamir Rice political?)

The reason that I took down the original version of this post was that I started feeling very uneasy about how it could be read. There were two parts to the post; they were related but I didn't make the relation clear. First I talked about how the deepening polarization of politics in this country had finally crossed the line over into open armed violence and murder, and I shared vague but dramatic fears of some type of civil war. Then I transitioned into saying that the moral wound of antebellum slavery and of racism in the U.S. has never truly healed, because it has never been truly and fully acknowledged. Time does not heal a poisoned wound shut away from the light.

Since posting, I grew more and more uncomfortable about that combination. Or rather, I lay awake at night and my brain asked me, Heather, are you stupid or are you trying to stoke fears of a race war?

I mean, I trust you, Dear Reader. But there are people out there, I know they are out there, who believe one is coming because different races simply cannot live together. I mean I respect them, they say (a bald-faced lie) but we're too different, we're better off separate. (But equal?)

And that's not what I meant. We all know who showed up to a supposed protest armed for war, and it wasn't Black Lives Matter.

So here is my simplified version.

There was a time when white Americans didn't kill each other in the street over politics.

That time is done.

I keep thinking about all the talk, the endless talk, about politics in the U.S. becoming more and more polarized. I thought about how I haven't heard any of that talk lately. As if it's crossed some kind of threshold. Some point of no return.
I keep thinking about how city after city taking Confederate monuments down is a kind of change I had never expected to see in this country. About how armed, openly Nazi rioters are another kind of change I never expected to see.

I think about the web of taboos and safeguards every civilization weaves to keep words spoken in anger from crossing over the line into violence. I think about that moment, that moment when the line is crossed and there is death and people screaming in the street, not in another country but in your country, between fellow citizens of the same country. Which is mine, no matter how much I may have tried to deny it in my youth. This country, this country of the desperately hidden wound.
There has been something in me, even in adulthood, that still believes in its heart that my life is serene, above the deadly tides of history. That thing inside me shakes when I watch that video. That's the truth. I see people who look like me beating each other with sticks. I know, if I was there, which side I would be on, and it's the side that was hit by a car. That's the truth. I see that and it scares me.

So instead of talking about war this time I'm just telling you what I feel. That I'm scared. That history is a terrifying thing. That I, as one of the privileged, can no longer assume that my life will not change. And maybe you as well.

This country has never been whole. It has never been whole since the day it started importing people as commodities to be bought and sold and raped and murdered with impunity. That is a moral wound a nation doesn't recover from. Could it have become whole, when that stopped? With a true repentance, recognition of the true magnitude of the evil, a wrenching remorse? With confession, atonement and perhaps forgiveness? I don't know. It can't be known. Our forebears offered scorn, mockery and underhanded oppression instead to the people their parents had sinned against so terribly. Even now, it's all taught in the schools, but it took me a long, long time to understand. It took me a long time to understand that what my ancestors did in my country can absolutely be compared to the Holocaust.

The textbooks didn't tell me--for example--that white male slave owners frequently raped their female slaves, had children by them, and then in full legal respectability could sell off their own children as slaves. To be treated the same way they had treated those children's mothers.

And breaking up families by force, don't get me started.

How does a country that allowed things like that to happen, that made it legal, go on with life and pretend everything is OK? Claim that it's all good now because the children of the victims of such evil have finally been granted the privilege of drinking at the same water fountain as the children of the perpetrators? Listen. Forget "white guilt," I don't remotely imagine I'm responsible for what my ancestors did, I am talking about truth. About willing, open, public acknowledgement of the truth of how bad it was. The survivors of the Holocaust were granted that. The survivors of American slavery were not. Their descendants have been given crumbs of it, and been told over and over to ask for their crumbs more politely. And been told to walk politely past the huge statues of men who fought in hopes that they would be born slaves too.

Yes, it was a long time ago. No, time does not heal a poisoned wound.

Now they are saying again that they want some truth, about what happened then and what is happening now. White allies are standing with them and saying it too. And white supremacists and neo-Nazis, choosing to openly embrace the brutal side of human nature that whispers and screams kill the outsiders, the side that we've hidden and repressed for decades and never succeeded in doing away with, come armed against them and commit murder in the street.

And the President does not condemn them.

And prominent Christian leaders do not rebuke him.

The Christian church. I have so much to say. The Christian churches in this country that justified and defended the holocaust of slavery. That supported the KKK. The failure of the Church under Nazism was mostly failure to resist. Its betrayal in this country was worse.

And now? What of the Christian churches now?

I have so much to say. Too much. I think I'd better post again tomorrow.

I don't know what's going to happen. I honestly don't. But I think we have to be ready for things we didn't formerly see as possible. I think we have to start thinking now about how we will meet them. I think we Christians have to think long and hard about who to trust to guide us into this time.

Off the top of my head, I can think of one Person.

More on this later. God be with all of us.

Monday, August 14, 2017

Hi, friends. I feel like I should write about the terrorist attack in Charlottesville but I am not up to it. I don't have anything to say just yet except how dare they, how dare they, and it appears the brutality of human nature is reasserting itself even faster than I thought.

Maybe I'll see my way clear to writing about it next week.

Sunday, August 6, 2017

Good powers: Bonhoeffer's song

The other day I was doing yardwork and a song came into my head, and I sang it to myself all morning because somehow it spoke to me. It's happened before. When I found out my friend Rich was dying, I sang the Irish folksong "The Foggy Dew" (about the Easter Rising, a revolt put down by the English--for a pacifist I'm a real sucker for Irish war songs) for a week. I think it was the lines:

As down the glen I rode again, my heart with grief was sore
For I parted then with valiant men, whom I never shall see more
But to and fro in my dreams I go, and I kneel and pray for you...

I still think of him when I think of that song. I suppose I always will.

But this time it wasn't an Irish war song. It was in German. Probably the only song in German that I know all the words to--I don't speak German, not really. (I had four years of it in French middle school and junior high--they start you in sixth grade, on either that or English--which means among other things that if I attempt to speak it, besides getting half of it wrong, I have a thick French accent. I imagine it's quite amusing to listen to.) In college I dated a young man who was half German, and I believe it was him who introduced me to this song, though it's outlasted him in my life: "Von Guten Mächten," by Dietrich Bonhoeffer.

Bonhoeffer wrote this in prison, just months before he was executed by the Gestapo. He wrote it as a New Year's poem for his friends and family, expressing his bond with them and his sense of God's presence surrounding them all, in the profound crisis that was the end of 1944--almost too profound for words. He wrote it out in two of the letters he wrote from prison--to his fiancée and to his parents--to share it with them. Otherwise, I suppose, we wouldn't have it.

And here it is, sung by Siegfried Fietz, who wrote the tune. It's now a beloved hymn in many German hymnals:

I'll put the German lyrics at the end of the post for those who can read them, but here's a translation. First a closer, more literal one, then the English song version I like best (though it leaves off the last two stanzas):

By good powers faithfully and quietly surrounded,
Wonderfully sheltered and comforted
With you I want to live this day
And with you go into a new year

Yet the old one still torments our hearts,
And the heavy burden of evil days presses us
Oh Lord, give our frightened souls
The salvation for which you have created us

[Refrain] By good powers, wonderfully sheltered,
We await confidently whatever may come.
God is with us at the morning and the evening
And surely at every new day.

And if you pass the heavy cup to us
Brimming with bitter suffering
We take it thankfully and without trembling
From your good and beloved hand


Yet if you want to give us joy once again
To this world and its sunshine
Then we want to remember the past
And our whole lives belong to you

Let the candles burn warm and bright today,
Those that you brought into our darkness
Lead, if it may be, us together again
We know that your light shines in the night


If the silence spreads deep around us
Let us hear those strong sounds
Of the world that spread invisible around us
All your children's high praise

And here's a very young but very talented girl singing an English version, and then the words to the (different) English song version I like best:

With every power for good to stay and guide me,
comforted and inspired beyond all fear,
I’ll live these days with you in thought beside me,
and pass, with you, into the coming year.

The old year still torments our hearts, unhastening;
the long days of our sorrow still endure;
Father, grant to the souls thou hast been chastening
that thou hast promised, the healing and the cure.

Should it be ours to drain the cup of grieving
even to the dregs of pain, at thy command,
we will not falter, thankfully receiving
all that is given by thy loving hand.

But should it be thy will once more to release us
to life’s enjoyment and its good sunshine,
that which we’ve learned from sorrow shall increase us,
and all our life be dedicate as thine.

Today, let candles shed their radiant greeting;
lo, on our darkness are they not thy light
leading us, haply, to our longed-for meeting? –
Thou canst illumine even our darkest night.

When now the silence deepens for our hearkening,
grant we may hear thy children’s voices raise
from all the unseen world around us darkening
their universal paean, in thy praise.

While all the powers of good aid and attend us,
boldly we’ll face the future, come what may.
At even and at morn God will befriend us,
and oh, most surely on each newborn day!

I'm sure you don't need me to tell you how amazing it is that a person could feel this way in a Nazi prison. I'll admit it: I'm a real skeptic, to the point that you might not want to throw your pearls before me, about pious affirmations that our faith sustains us in crisis. I've seen too much, I've seen how socially forbidden it is in many circles ever to admit that your faith is not sustaining you. I've seen how nervous some people get when you even hint at it. And it's fully baked into our religious culture (not that we're a big exception in that regard.) I remember when a house burned down, in the community here, and in church the next morning, still shellshocked, we sang song after song with the message "Things are bad, but we trust You Lord." Why did we do that? Because there weren't any other songs. There are in the book of Psalms--songs of lament, songs of How long, O Lord--but not in our hymnals.

But I really do believe Bonhoeffer meant it. He'd seen a lot more than I have. His "if I must take this cup" wasn't a pious I'm-supposed-to-say-this but a realistic awareness that chances for his execution were pretty high. (And he was right.) He's saying, I know this may come. I will not consider it a betrayal. I accept. Some people's faith stops short of realism; some people's faith goes on beyond it. He accepts. He also hopes to see the brightness of the sun again.

And then the phrase "guten Mächten"--good powers, or the powers of good. To an American it bears the ring of "spiritual, but not religious"--the vague "Higher Power" of AA, open to interpretation--but that clearly wasn't what he meant. Can you imagine, in the darkness of a Nazi prison in Nazi Germany, powerless in the coldly brutal power of evil men--can you imagine how the phrase power of good must have rung then? Surrounded by good powers. What else but finding yourself able to truly believe that could ever sustain you in such a place?

It sustains me to think of it. It sustains me to sing this song.

I sang it under my breath while weed-whipping a backyard full of tall Queen Anne's lace and short poison ivy, and loading a pile of brush into the truck. I was helping prepare a house to be put on the market, the one house owned in town by the intentional community I've lived in, which is now dissolving. There is hope for a new work of God to begin here; there is hope for us to stay and take part in it. But now is the dissolution, the emptiness, the death. We are helping people pack, helping people load their lives into trucks and drive away. We will live through the winter here with two other families--if we're lucky. It's not a great suffering; it's part of life; but for me it sings a sad little harmony, sometimes, around the great dissolutions of our time. Sometimes it feels like democracy will crumble, the brutality of human nature will reassert itself, the wheel will come round again. In a different way, but--I'm not optimistic about human nature. Christianity isn't. That's kind of the idea.

I think maybe we will need this song. I pray we can stay true, can remain the people who need this song.

Von guten Mächten

Von guten Mächten treu und still umgeben,
behütet und getröstet wunderbar,
so will ich diese Tage mit euch leben,
und mit euch gehen in ein neues Jahr.

Noch will das alte unsre Herzen quälen,
noch drückt uns böser Tage schwere Last.
Ach Herr, gib unsern aufgeschreckten Seelen
das Heil, für das Du uns geschaffen hast.

Und reichst Du uns den schweren Kelch, den bittern,
des Leids, gefüllt bis an den höchsten Rand,
so nehmen wir ihn dankbar ohne Zittern
aus Deiner guten und geliebten Hand.

Doch willst Du uns noch einmal Freude schenken
an dieser Welt und ihrer Sonne Glanz,
dann woll'n wir des Vergangenen gedenken,
und dann gehört Dir unser Leben ganz.

Laß warm und hell die Kerzen heute flammen
die Du in unsre Dunkelheit gebracht,
führ, wenn es sein kann, wieder uns zusammen!
Wir wissen es, Dein Licht scheint in der Nacht.

Wenn sich die Stille nun tief um uns breitet,
so laß uns hören jenen vollen Klang
der Welt, die unsichtbar sich um uns weitet,
all Deiner Kinder hohen Lobgesang.

Von guten Mächten wunderbar geborgen
erwarten wir getrost, was kommen mag.
Gott ist bei uns am Abend und am Morgen
und ganz gewiß an jedem neuen Tag.