Travel Notes from Pastor Stephen: Why Berlin?

Disclaimer: In this space and in the days that follow, I share my reflections — often stream of consciousness — after a day of experiences. These are not polished essays, but my in-the-moment thoughts.

Tonight, I hop on a plane and fly to Berlin. I’ll arrive Monday morning. So why Berlin?

Pádraig O Tuama, the former leader of the Corrymeela Community in Northern Ireland, tells the story of when he was a chaplain at a Catholic school in West Belfast.

There was an 11-year-old girl who was amazing at soccer, and she just said everything that she thought. Pádraig was going on about something, and she was clearly bored, and she goes: Pádraig, answer me a question. He went, OK. And she goes: God loves us, right? She was setting out her premise. And then Pádraig said: OK, I’m with you. And then she goes: And God made us, right? OK — Padraig knew that these weren’t the really important questions. And then she goes: Answer me this — why did God make Protestants?

Pádraig said: You have to tell me a bit more about your question. And she goes: Well, they hate us, and they hate God.

And because Pádraig knew she was brilliant at soccer, he said, I know a lot of Protestants that would want you on their soccer team.

And she went: Really? — because she, in that little half-comedic, half-frightening incident, is telling a story of an entire society, because she has been educated, and she is reflecting something.

And this was 2011, so this was 13 years after the Good Friday Agreement had been signed. She hadn’t been born when that agreement was signed, nonetheless there are ways these stories permeate society and touch generation after generation.

I’m confident that within the last few generations in this country, similar questions have been asked at schools, around dinner tables, and even churches: If God loves us, why did God create white people? Why did God create black people? Why did God create Democrats or Republicans? Why did God create Jews? Why did God create Christians or Muslims?

We learn to ask these kinds of questions because we are not just taught to hate, we are taught to have apathy toward this or that group. We are taught to simply not care, not consider some others in our circle of neighbors. In her book, Shalom Sistas: Living Wholeheartedly in a Broken World, Osheta Moore defines enemy as any one or any group that exists beyond the reach of my empathy. 

In Northern Ireland, Protestants were beyond the reach of Catholics’ empathy and vice versa. In South Africa, black Africans were beyond the reach of most of the white minority’s empathy. The same has been true for blacks toward whites.

If we are honest with history, we can identify group after group that has been beyond the boundaries of another group’s, race’s, religion’s, or political party’s empathy, including our own.

From there we begin to see the rise of sectarianism. One of the best definitions of sectarianism comes from a book by Cecelia Clegg and Joe Liechty, Moving Beyond Sectarianism: Religion, Conflict and Reconciliation in Northern Ireland. They say sectarianism is “belonging gone bad.”

We all want to belong. We were made to belong to God and one another, but in our drive to belong, we often end up excluding so we can feel more special in our belonging.

Clegg and Liechty have a scale of sectarianism similar to the Beaufort Scale that measures the force of the wind by observing its impact on water and land.  The first part of the scale goes, You’re different; I’m different; fine. And the last three parts of the scale are You are less than human, You are evil, and You are demonic.

When we can convince our sect that others are less than human, evil, and demonic, it doesn’t matter how you treat them. Why would you have empathy for the demonic? We don’t even have to acknowledge the image of God in someone less than human, right? That was done to black people in this country. Politicians and theologians alike argued blacks were less than human and therefore could be treated as such.

So why Berlin? It seemed like the next logical destination after Northern Ireland and South Africa as I think about reconciliation and how we live well together. I don’t think we can live well together until we can have empathy for one another, and sometimes we need to have a better and more honest understanding of our history, their history, and our shared history to do that.

Therefore, I wanted to go to Berlin, a place which holds so much troubled and hopeful history, and not only learn from it, but understand how Germans handle their own complicated history. In Berlin, I will visit the site of a concentration camp and museums that tell about that dark time in German and world history. I’ll visit the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe. The holocaust is an example of what happens as a nation slowly allows that sectarian scale to grow from one to 12. It’s easy to stay silent when it’s simply “you’re different,” because it doesn’t seem to be a problem. In fact, it’s true. But as it progresses to “We are right and you are wrong” to “what you are doing is evil” to “you are evil,” we begin to justify what our better angels know is unjustifiable, and by the time we realize we’ve gone too far, it’s often too late.

What happened in Germany in 1942 had to have been stopped in 1932. It makes me wonder what needs to stop now that I am quiet about, or I’m not paying enough attention to. Who is beyond the boundaries, right on the other side, of my empathy?

I’m not in Berlin to just learn from the atrocities. I will also see remnants of the Berlin wall and hear the stories of perseverance and hope that brought a fractured city and nation together. Germany is a lot like America. It has a dark shadow side of its history that can show the true depths of human depravity, but its history is also full of creative artists, insightful philosophers and psychologists, and stories of perseverance, hope, and peace. History should be encountered and remembered in its fullness: stories good and bad, triumphs of spirit, haunting memories, shameful scenes, and sad songs. Our own stories inevitably have them all, and to tell our story honestly, our nation’s story honestly and fully, we must face the shadow side of our history. We must confront and even proclaim the moral failings through our national story, because it is in our stories that we find our identity.

Brian Ladd, in his book The Ghosts of Berlin writes:

Since WWII, German history has been an intellectual war zone. Educated Germans, most of them insecure in their national identity, have sought to salve some meaning or lessons from their recent past. We non-Germans who study Germany tend to take a certain comfort in these battles: our identity is not at stake. At some point, however, we recognize that the national traditions we carry more lightly have their dark sides, too. Even many Germans might agree that German history carries with it a heavier moral burden than, say, American history. But perhaps it is also true that the Germans, more than the rest of us, are facing up to the moral dilemmas inherent in a national identity.

As I have learned from Irish and South Africans, I want to learn from Germans this week. In fact, I’ll be talking more about that tomorrow through a book by Susan Nieman titled Learning From Germans: Race and the Memory of Evil. The book is another part of the inspiration for the trip. Neiman writes in her prologue that, “These pages will show how excruciatingly hard it was for Germany to accept the burdens of its shameful history — and that acceptance was nonetheless possible.”

The rest of the world is very quick to labels Nazis as evil. In contemporary culture a Nazi is the worst of the worst, it’s the top of the “evil scale.” In that sectarian scale, the highest level is you are demonic, but calling someone a Nazi or comparing them as such is about the same thing.

Neiman argues,

“with little knowledge of what led to Fascism in Germany, and next to none of what happened after it, it’s unsurprising that Nazi is simply a term of abuse that has been applied to everything from Obamacare (by Ben Carson) to Saddam Hussein (by George Bush). Bill O’Reilly even used it to describe Black Lives Matter.” We are so quick to compare anything we don’t like to Nazism and yet it whenever it has been compared to the violence inflicted on African Americans by Caucasians it’s met with anger and indignation and something like “Slavery was wrong, but it was an economic issue. How can you compare it to the deliberate murder of millions?”

Who has the right to make these comparisons? Is it ever okay? What I find interesting, as well as disheartening, is that the first people to compare Nazi racial policies with American ones were the Nazis themselves.

In a convicting and sad paragraph, Neiman writes:

It’s noxious enough to learn how frequently those comparisons were made after the war in wretched attempts at exoneration. Even in playground brawls, ‘He did it first!’ Is a miserable excuse. It’s considerably worse when the genocide of Native Americans is invoked to justify the murder of millions of Slavic peoples. Alas, historians have shown that Nazi interest in American racial practices was present not only after the fact but considerably before it.

In the 1920s, Nazis looked to the American eugenics movement to support their own bumbling race science. Hitler took American westward expansion, with its destruction of Native peoples, as the template for the eastward expansion he said was needed to provide Germans with Lebensraum — room to live. Nazi jurists studied American race laws extensively, particularly concerning citizenship rights, immigration, and miscegenation, before drafting the notorious Nuremberg Laws. Chillingly, those jurists found American racial policies too harsh to apply in Germany and replaced the infamous “one drop of blood” model by which American law determined race with more lenient criteria…

On the other hand they appreciated the ways in which the American legal realism “demonstrated that it was perfectly possible to have racist legislation even if it was technically infeasible to come up with a scientific definition of race.”… None of this suggests that American racism was the cause of German racism….The fact that the United States had the world’s best developed racist legislation, which the Nazis eagerly studied in the 1930s while formulating their own, is disturbing enough without causal connections.”

How many of us have heard this before? I learned how evil the Germans were in school but never about how they used America as a blueprint for many of their actions. I learned about atrocities in other nations, but rarely about what happened in the US despite multiple US history courses. I learned about the Trail of Tears but only insofar as that it happened, but not the ideology behind it or the more specific details of it and other acts of the Indian Removal process. The reality is that the history of racism in America is longer than the history of racism in Germany. One thing I just learned: in 1951 a group of clergy visited President Truman with a letter of support from Albert Einstein imploring Truman to make lynching a federal crime. It would have made perpetrators subject to federal rather than the often more lenient local prosecutors. But Truman was dependent on the support of white southerners, so he refused the request. It leads to Neiman’s question, “With murderous racism so deep and longstanding, how can Americans hope to work off a past that the Germans have already begun to master?”

Well, that question is part of why I’m going to Berlin. I want to see how they as a nation have confronted their difficult past and continue to confront it head on and name it as evil. I don’t think we want our citizens to go too deep into why we had Jim Crow laws or Indian Schools, or thousands of lynchings. In fact, for most Americans, there’s a big gap in our understanding of US history between the Civil War and the Civil Rights Movement. We often jump from one to the other and it was an important time that has shaped our nation into what it is today. But we don’t like to look too deeply at history because maybe we are afraid it’s too boring, or unimportant, or maybe we’re afraid of what we’ll find there. Nieman suggests it’s because we prefer narratives of progress and that our stories are “more aspirational than actual.” But I think it may also be because we don’t want to have to consider our actions, or our grandparents’ actions, to have been “evil.”

Neiman says, “Evil is what others do. Our people are always very fine people….. We have a natural impulse to believe that we, and our tribe, may make mistakes, but nothing merits a word like evil.”

The statement got me thinking. I don’t hear often from Americans that much in our past was evil: not Japanese interment, or slavery, or Jim Crow, but I hear a lot about how other countries’ pasts are full of evil — from Hitler to Stalin to Mao. And yet, when I travel overseas they are often quick to condemn the evil in America’s past and present. If we cannot identify evil, can we ever rid ourselves of it? Even if it’s in our distant past, if we can’t name it as such, is it ever really gone?

These are the questions I’m thinking about this week in Berlin as I consider how we as a church, community, and nation can heal, repair, and reconcile, and especially as so much focus is on the past at our church as we near our 300th anniversary. We are who we are because of our past, whether we participated in it or not. It’s all part of who we are in our particular times and places for those were created by the past and in large part our memory and narrative of it.

I hope you’ll follow along on this journey with me as I think about how history, empathy, and learning from Germans can help us live well together in Hershey, the US, and the world in our present day and the future.