Back Room on Display

Sometimes there are no words. This is such a time. We are left aghast at humanity’s capacity to inflict new forms of evil, cruelty and hate.

The horror we are witnessing in Paris is, tragically, not a new or infrequent phenomenon. Each incident leaves us outraged, exasperated. Every recurrence holds the frightening potential to deaden our emotions, erect new walls around our self-enclosed enclaves, and pretend the violence is worlds away. This cycle must stop — both the death-dealing acts of terrorism as well as the head-in-the-sand retreat into denial and isolation.

Sometimes there should be no words! This is such a time. Rather, we must dig deeper and firmly resolve to discover a new capacity to inquire, comprehend and respond with the best in our human nature. This is a time for radical, un”reasonable” love.

Ironically, Hinduism — the most ancient of all the great world religions — is celebrating the feast of Diwali, the annual celebration of light, life and community. Perhaps this is sheer coincidence as the world convulses amid this latest act of death-dealing terror. Perhaps this year, especially this year, ours is a time to recall the teaching and nonviolence practiced by that most famous of Hindus, Mahatma Ghandi.

This is a time to be especially circumspect with our words and judgments. Coincidentally, I was reading about Christian d’Cherge and his fellow Trappist monks when I learned of the Paris massacres. You may recall that d’Cherge and fellow monks lived in solidarity with their Muslim neighbors in Algeria. Their’s was life of radical, un”reasonable” love in the image of Jesus Christ.

Christian d’Cherge grew up in Paris, served as a priest for six years at Sacre-Coeur atop Montmartre before joining the Trappist order. Early on the morning of March 27, 1996, he and six monks were kidnapped from their Algerian monastery, held for ransom and ultimately killed by terrorists in May of that year.

This is not a time for complex reprisal or threatening invectives. This is a time for honest inquiry, sincere efforts to comprehend and responses that spring from the best of our human nature.

Upon his January 1971 arrival amid Muslim neighbors whom he would befriend as an expression of his Christian faith, d’Cherge wrote in his journal these few but poignant words: “They are believers and respectful of all religious people, provided that what is in the back room corresponds with what is in the display windows.”

May all people of faith live with such correspondence, integrity and respect. Now, more than ever, may what we place on “display” through our words and actions manifest that which is best in the “back room” of whatever faith we allegedly profess.
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The quote of Christian d’Cherge is in translation from his native French: The Monks of Tibhirine: Faith, Love and Terror in Algeria by John W. Kizer. New York: St. Martin’s Griffin, 2002. p. 39.

Celebrating An End to War

Times sure have changed. Time was when someone went into “the service.” Now, they are “in the military.” From my way of seeing things we need to rekindle some of those old values. Veterans Day is a good time to start.

Dad was nine years old on the first Armistice Day. He never tired of telling the story of pride, patriotism and jubilation that accompanied the end of World War I. What the farms of Cedar County Nebraska lacked in population and national prominence yields not an inch to the celebrations caught on news reels and now iconic photos.

So, what’s changed? Much, indeed. Too much to chronicle here or to bemoan on what is a national holiday. Rather, we would do better to focus on what we can restore, what in our national character we can rekindle, how might we restore honor to our tarnished national self-esteem. That would be a realistic response to a genuine need.

Here’s a few thoughts:

  • Rekindle a sense of service to our nation. Nothing grandiose today! What if we were to start simple and keep it local? What can we do today, this week, this month to strengthen the social fabric of our neighborhoods, communities, civic organizations? Do something, do it more than once so it becomes a habit.
  • Say thanks to someone serving in the military. Set aside the politics for a moment. Deal with how and when we should use military force in foreign affairs vigorously but on a case by case basis. Don’t take it out on individual service personnel. Today I resolve to call my 83 y/o brother to say thanks for his 30-year military career and to write a letter to my grand-nephew, Isaac currently serving in South Korea.
  • Work for peace! No one hates war more than those who have known war. War is hell — the end of war is our cause for celebration. Veterans I know are the last to aggrandize their experience — many keep silent about their actual experience because they never want their loved ones to know what they have known. We honor them best by reverencing the full truth of their sacrifice.

Today we commemorate the end of a horrific war. We recognize the sacrifice and loss of family and neighbors in all war. We honor those who serve today. With those who have known the ultimate cost first hand we pray, “Never again! Never again, war!”

Put On Your Chicken Wire

A good friend knew our conversation would not be easy. The topic she wanted to discuss was difficult, potentially painful. She did not want to be confrontational — rather, she intended to play fair!

She said, “Time to put on you chicken wire.”

“What?” I said, not having a clue what she meant.

“Put on your chicken wire! You have a right to feel safe, protected and maintain your integrity. But you need to hear what I have to say. Most of us throw up our defenses, walling off any meaningful dialogue. Putting on your chicken wire allows you to feel safe — it will also help you take in what I have to say.”

Ironically, Jane’s approach actually made me eager to engage a tough conversation about difficult stuff. Right from the get-go I felt respected, empowered and willing to look at my culpability without reacting defensively. We both began porous rather than hardened.

The conversation that ensued was animated, emotional and true testimony to an enduring friendship. It concluded with an honest embrace and a commitment to touch base again in a couple of weeks.

Now, days later, I still walk around with my chicken wire in tact. It may just stay as part of my permanent attire. It’s a great way to engage others from a position of safety, integrity. Yesterday — with chicken wire securely in place — I negotiated the always challenging (for me, at least) weekend checkout lines a Costco. Chicken wire has become my new necessity for negotiating life’s inevitable conflicts.

First of all, Jane’s approach was strong, appropriate and inspired. The part of her approach which only became apparent in the conversation is that chicken wire required Jane to “give” what she had to say in pieces that would fit through my open spaces. It had to come in sizes I could take in. Same from my side. I had to say what I had to give in pieces that fit her capacity to receive as well.

Who knew!?! Chicken wire! Solution to innumerable human challenges. One of life’s enduring necessities.

Them and Then, Us Here and Now

Most of us go to movies to be entertained. If the scenes are well directed and the acting really good, so much the better. Rarely does a movie leave a lasting impact, open us to truly fresh insights, transform the way we see things.

That happened the other night when we saw Testament of Youth, based on the memoir of Vera Brittain. Set in the lush baronial estates of pre-World War I England, the Brittain family is one of stature and privilege. Young Vera bristles at the cultural constraints placed upon women and courageously surmounts them much to the chagrin of her elders.

Catalyzing Vera’s ultimate transformation is the horror of war. Postponing her tenaciously sought Oxford studies, Vera volunteers to nurse wounded soldiers in London and then on the battle front in France. Later she will return to Oxford and eventually become a renown writer, feminist and ardent pacifist. More about the movie later…

But, now… Some readers might know that we are planning a trip to Germany this Fall. Although I have visited the ancestral home of my paternal lineage whose family name I bear, this will be my first opportunity to visit the village from which my mother’s German heritage originated. Of course, we will be seeing friends and new sites such as Berlin, Dresden along with Germany’s many great museums.

Haunting my anticipation is the nagging horror of the Holocaust. Although my German ancestors emigrated to the U.S. more that 150 years ago, I remain troubled by the perversion Nazi Germany wreaked upon the world. How could a people so great and a culture so grand become so morally corrupt and the cause of unspeakable evil?

The traditional answer given by Jewish theologians has been that God chose (for whatever reason) to remain temporarily hidden. Or, more commonly, that God deferred to human freedom. This has never been a satisfying explanation for me.

Quite simply, that expression of “freedom” is the very denegration of human freedom and a defacto proof of its absence. More significantly, it begs the ultimate moral dilemma: If God is good, why would such a God allow such unmerited and unmitigated suffering?

My heritage is three-fourths German, one-fourth Irish. Nazi atrocities and that indictment of an uncaring God has nagged at me for decades. There have been two recent breakthroughs — of course, the first was a book; and then the movie, Testament of Youth.

Along with the usual German maps and travel-guides, I recently came upon The Female Face of God at Auschwitz. Rabbi Melissa Raphael challenges the traditional explanation of the Holocaust as God’s “hiddenness” or deferral to human freedom. Raphael interprets published testimonies of women imprisoned in the extermination camps in the light of Shekhinah, the feminine expression of divine presence accompanying Israel into exile and beyond:

God’s face, as that of the exiled Shekhinah was not … hidden in Auschwitz, but revealed in the female face turned as an act of resistance to that of the assaulted other as a refractive image of God. For women’s attempt to wash themselves and others, and to see, touch, and cover the bodies of the suffering were not only the kindnesses of a practical ethic of care; they were a means of washing the gross profanation of Auschwitz from the body of Israel in ways faithful to Jewish covenantal obligations of sanctification. Women’s restoration of the human, and therefore the divine, from holocaustal erasure opposes not only recent theories of divine absence, but also patriarchal theologies that accommodate absolute violence in the economies of the divine plan.

Wow! This really hit like a bolt of lightning, a blast of fresh air. It struck — as truth often does — with the sudden clarity of recognition.

The divine image of Shekhinah resurfaced in the theater when viewing the panorama of female nurses caring as best they could for brutally injured troops on the muddy battlefields of WWI France. The movie begins and ends with bucolic scenes at a swimming hole. Only at the end did I recognize the baptismal washing common to both Jewish and Christian faiths.

The stunning impact of Testament of Youth, however, came in an especially intimate scene in which Vera Brittain attends to a dying German soldier. Only later do we learn this was a death-bed confession meant for his fiancé in which he seeks forgiveness for the violence in which he now lies complicit.

This moment now imprinted on my heart also brings light, refreshment, clarity, recognition. I need not go to Germany to seek answers for how a people so great and a culture so grand could become so perverse. It is not a matter of my German ancestry from the past.

Like the long-suffering women of Auschwitz, the courageous nurse and an anguished soldier reveal God’s enduring presence in our broken, sinful world.

It’s not about them or then, but us here and now!

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The Female Face of God in Auschwitz: A Jewish Feminist Theology of the Holocaust, Melissa Raphael, Routledge Taylor & Francis Group: London and New York, 2003. The quote is from inside the front cover.

Returning to Our Roots

We are hoping to go to Germany sometime this Fall. I’ve been there once — more than thirty years ago I was able to visit Bergheim-Esch, near Cologne, from where my Burbach family emigrated in 1850. This time we hope to see  the very small village of Weiburg northwest of Kassel in central Germany from which my mother’s German ancestry came in 1860.

Other attractions fill our wish list… I’ve never been to Berlin or what was East Germany. Everyone says the city is magnificent. As a child of the Cold War I am also motivated to see for myself that place which, like no other, symbolized the Iron Curtain. On a lighter note, we dream of doing the Sound of Music tour in Salsburg.

On Monday we saw the movie, Woman in Gold. Like the Sound of Music it recalls the terrifying days of the Nazi juggernaut. Woman in Gold also chronicles a dramatic escape to America. You will cheer the ultimate, improbable outcome and feel ennobled by the tenacity of those few who demand justice even after many decades.

Woman in Gold ironically awakened in me a deep personal desire to visit a concentration camp — most likely Dachau not far from Strasburg. Born in 1950 of German heritage, I have often wrestled with the unanswerable question: How could the insidious perversion of Nazism take hold in a culture so grand, a people so great? What is it in humankind, within my own DNA, that could give rise to such collective evil?

Seventy years ago today, April 9, 1945, Dietrich Bonhoeffer was hanged at the Flossenbürg concentration camp in Germany for participating in the conspiracy to kill Adolf Hitler. There is no doubt of the Lutheran theologian and pastor’s “guilt” — he had been a member of the conspiracy since 1940. Where did he find the courage? What inspired him when so many of his fellow Christians acquiesced?

Biographers point to a visit to the United States in 1930-31 as a turning point. Among the friends he made was an African-American student from Alabama.  His new friend introduced Bonhoeffer to the Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem, where he was moved by the depth of conviction he witnessed in the preaching and worship.

Bonhoeffer also traveled to the South, where he was appalled at the racial injustices he observed. He wrote home that the segregated “conditions are really unbelievable …when I wanted to eat in a small restaurant … with a Negro, I was refused service.”

With the rise of National Socialism in 1933, Bonhoeffer had already devoted much thinking — and, ultimately, action — to the question of how the church must respond to racism and anti-Semitism. Bonhoeffer declared “the church has an unconditional obligation towards the victims of any ordering society, even if they do not belong to the Christian community” and that the church was charged “not to just bind up the victims beneath the wheel, but to halt the wheel itself.”

How is it that such a devout Christian, who so often spoke and wrote about the importance of the Sermon on the Mount, could partake in an assassination conspiracy? He saw clearly that what we profess to “believe” must be joined by responsible action in the real world in which we each live.

How could evil of Nazism happen? How could such perversion take hold among a “Christian” nation so grand and great? Could it happen again? What is in our DNA that makes human beings capable and culpable of such atrocities? I must return again to my German roots.

Like Bonhoeffer and the Jewish heroine of Woman in Gold, a very small remnant draw from some deeper source to challenge injustice against ridiculous odds and at great personal cost. What is that source, that strength, that conviction which upholds the greatness of human potential of which we are capable? I must return again to the Scriptures.

Seventy years may seem like a long time ago. Let us not forget or ignore the Gospel narrative being lived out by thousands of Christians being martyred in our own day.

Can it happen again?

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I am indebted to Kirk O. Kolbo for his marvelous commentary in today’s Star-Tribune from which I quote and heartily recommend to you [here].

Facing Facts… All of Them!

Delusions are really dangerous. Denying reality abdicates responsibility only at our own peril. It is not that pretty bad and awful “things” are happening — people, human beings, are doing those pretty nasty, horrible things to one another. We can turn a blind eye, deluding ourselves with denial — the consequences are lethal.

All the more reason to open our eyes, face reality — all of it!  There are some hopeful and positive things happening amid the mass exodus of Christians from Iraq and the carnage of war in Gaza. We imperil ourselves if we shut-down, look away, aren’t paying attention.

Case in point… what percentage of people in Minneapolis-St Paul do you think are even aware that the Muslim community is nearing the end of the Holy Month of Ramadan? Media reports would reenforce the dangerous delusion that Christian, Jewish and Muslim relations are accurately symbolized by perennial strife in the Middle East.  Not true — or at least it need not be so!

There is a wonderful story out of London that gets buried in the on-slot of bad news. Just like Ramadan (ends at sundown, July 28), I bet virtually none of us are aware of the courageous and inspiring actions of Rabbi Natan Levy. He has stunned members of the Jewish community across England by observing the Islamic month of fasting. [link]

Like millions of Muslims across the globe, for 30 days, he will not eat or drink from sunrise and sundown and refrain from sexual intercourse. The 40-year-old religious leader said he was encouraged to take part after witnessing first-hand the lack of engagement between Judaism and Islam.

“I hope this gets us thinking and talking as a community about two things; the hungry poor in our midst, both Jewish and non-Jewish. Ramadan is a time for charity and hungry people care about hungry people,” he told the Jewish News in London.

Some of us will remember that Pope John Paul gathered leaders of the world’s religions at Assisi to pray for peace shortly after 9/11. How many Americans are aware that in the very same overture he encouraged Catholics around the world to fast on the last day of Ramadan 2001 (December 17) as prayer for peace and gesture of mutual understanding? The dominant political rhetoric of the moment buried that part of the pope’s appeal and it went virtually unreported.

Yet prophetic actions like those of John Paul and Rabbi Levy are happening still and closer to home. Each year the Muslim community of Minneapolis-St Paul shares a Dialogue Iftar Dinner to which non-Muslims are invited. “Iftar” is the name for the meal at sunset that breaks the day’s fast.  This year the dinner will be held in North Star Ballroom at University of Minnesota at 7:30 PM on Saturday, July 26th. I feel honored to have been invited.

None of us can put an end to the animosity that grips the Israelis and Palestinians. We cannot protect the Christians fleeing the perversion of religion in Iraq. But’s let’s not succumb to negativity and despair, deluding our ourselves that we can do nothing. Yes, we face some pretty painful facts. But open our eyes we must! We can change the reality in which we choose to live.

Here is a simple suggestion… what if we each called our churches and asked that a prayer in solidarity with our Muslim brothers and sisters concluding the Holy Month of Ramadan be included in our services this Sunday? Our prayers for world peace can become so rote and anemic as to be meaningless. Why not make our prayer explicit in a way that might actually transform our attitudes and actions?

Who was it that said, “There is no one so blind as the one who will not see.”? Let’s celebrate and create real evidence that humans — yes, even those we hate and kill as well as those we love and embrace — are created in the image of God. No exceptions!

A Bad Day Amid the Ruble

Yesterday was a pretty crappy day! Anyone paying attention would have to conclude that we are in pretty dire straits.

Long gone is the consoling image of Pope Francis’ head pressed in prayer against the wall separating Israel and Palestine on the road to Bethlehem. Who even remembers Pentecost Sunday with Francis and Patriarch Bartholomew hosting Presidents Abbas and Peres in a prayer for peace?

Now Israel has begun a massive ground offensive in Gaza, a passenger plane was shot down in the Ukraine leaving some to say the pilots should have known better than to fly over a war zone, all the while Iraq implodes leading me to wonder what the hell is the point of tens of billions of US dollars and tens of thousands of human lives!

Our collective anxiety and national paranoia are epitomized in the White House lockdown yesterday because an unattended package was found on the lawn. It turned out to be nothing!

On our fenced borders a humanitarian crisis unfolds as children relegate us to bumbling and blundering about an appropriate response. Some would send drones to patrol the border reinforced with even higher fences. They would fast-track legislation to close porous loopholes in US immigration policy.  For God’s sake (literally), it’s not as simple as all that!

Before these zealous protectors of the “American way” adjust their flag lapel pins or a candidate requests another contribution from a faith-based PAC I would ask two things. Please, review your own family history and immigrant roots — why did your family come? … how were they received?

Instead of going to church services this Sunday I propose that more of us stay home and silently pray with Scripture instead. We would do well to begin with Mt 2:13-23, the Flight into Egypt.

Those familiar with the practice of Ignatian mediation might want to assume in prayer the role of the innkeeper — hearing ourselves say, feeling in our own managerial hearts, “There is no room here for you in our inn.”

Or, reenact with Francis the trek to Bethlehem.  Pick a wall, any wall in your home will do.  Press your head against it in silent prayer.  Absorb the tension and anxiety of Mary and Joseph as they traveled this route.  What were their aspirations, what does every child — Israeli, Palestinian, Iraqi, American, Guatemalan, Ukrainian — deserve?

Yes, there is plenty of evidence to indicate the world is a mess and hurting. Despair is one response. Feeling impotent is understandable. Shaking our heads in disbelief is not an option!