Travel Notes from Pastor Stephen: It’s a Sad Song

Almost three weeks ago, Courtney and I went to see Hadestown at the Hershey Theatre. It’s a musical based on the Greek tragedy of Orpheus and Eurydice. It being a Greek Tragedy, there is no happy ending. The cast of Hadestown, especially the narrator Hermes, warns the audience repeatedly that “it’s a sad song.” And yet, if you are not familiar with the tragic story, the ending can catch you off guard. Courtney even admitted kind of hoping they would change the ending. We long for happy endings, don’t we? We prefer it. Authors are lambasted when their characters don’t find lasting joy, when everything doesn’t end in the predictable perfect way of a Hallmark Christmas movie.

Hermes sings a final song that speaks a powerful truth that has been with me since first hearing it: “It’s a sad song. It’s a sad tale, it’s a tragedy. It’s a sad song. But we sing it anyway.”

History is often a sad song. The album of history is replete with tragedies and atrocities and heartbreaking ballads, but we sing them anyway. We have to. We know how it ends and yet we must sing it again and again. We owe it to those whose song it is, whose cries created the melodies, whose pain penned the verses.

We cannot just skip past the songs and play the top hits on repeat over and over again as if those were the only songs ever sung.

That is how we often want to treat history. We were talking with Susan Neiman last night about how much we didn’t learn of history in school. I never heard the name Emmitt Till until I was in Seminary. I never learned much of the time between the civil war and reconstruction. The only way I’ve come to know the worst of our history is through my own initiative and research. We wonder: do we really need to know these things?

We argue with it and ourselves, rationalizing why we shouldn’t have to lift up the darker moments. Why do we have to confront this, and hear this story? Why should we be forced to feel sadness or shame? We weren’t there! We didn’t do this! But we are here and someone in the not-so-distant future may feel the same about what we are currently doing and allowing to be done. Our time and our song will not be a purely happy and triumphant one. Let’s not kid ourselves. Future generations will not want to sing of the deadly school shootings, but they will need to. They will not want to hear the song of racial injustice that has continued to play in this country even as we have tried to ignore it.

History is a sad song, but we sing it anyway.

Prominent German philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel said, “We learn from history that we do not learn from history.” How are we to learn from a history we cannot change, and not, as Hegel warned, to miss its lessons? We confront it, we learn it, we sing it again and again. We can’t just bury the song and pretend it was never sung at all.

After WWII, East and West Germany took opposite approaches to reckoning with the past. The problem was complex, as every institution in the country — from the local governments, to schools, to art museums, police forces, hospitals, and of course the national government — was stained from Nazism. As much as some wanted justice done, it was also logistically impossible to prosecute every citizen. While some notorious Nazis faced trials and justice, many escaped and many flew under the radar. West Germany ended up choosing a policy of democratizing the institutions and reintegrating former Nazis, with the hope of rehabilitation and reconciliation over time. This had mixed success and also posed many problems. It’s hard to have reconciliation without justice, and many felt too many perpetrators of the horrors of WWII escaped justice. The US brought many former Nazi scientists and engineers to the US to work on American military projects to help defeat the Soviets.

East Germany, on the other hand, adopted a policy of denial of the mere existence of former Nazis in its population. Their line was that all the Nazis were in the West and they had to protect ourselves from their stain, so they built a wall. East Germany imposed (or had imposed on them) a new, Communist dictatorship that shamed the people for their past sins and claimed the moral high ground in opposition to the West. The first concentration camp memorial was created by East Germany, but it was more to remember the communist victims and not the Jews. In fact, the words “Jew” and “Jewish” were never uttered at the opening ceremony.

Both approaches had their successes and their problems, but ultimately, it was Western leader Willy Brandt, and not Eastern leader Walter Ulbricht, who knelt at the Warsaw Ghetto memorial and openly acknowledged Germany’s complicity in the murder of millions. It was the West the first confessed and confronted its past, and began to sing the sad song.

Bryan Stevenson, founder and director the Equal Justice Initiative, said the country cannot heal until it confronts the truth of what happened, especially in the South.

“This landscape is littered with a kind of glorious story about our ‘romantic past,’” said Stevenson, a lawyer who has helped overturn the convictions of more than 125 wrongly condemned prisoners on death row. “You can’t say that if you fully understand the depravity of human slavery, of bondage, of humiliation and rape and torture and lynchings of people.”

I wrote a few days ago about my need to visit the new National Memorial for Peace and Justice. It’s not because it will be such an enjoyable trip. Honestly, I have no desire to go to Alabama, but I need to go. I need to hear the song. I need to read the names, those whose song it is. The reality that happened is shameful but and I feel shame it happened, but I don’t feel (or need to feel) personal guilt. I can’t help but wonder why the song has been silenced for so long. Is it because of shame or guilt or the fear of that? I don’t know. I do know I never learned about the history of lynching in school. Why do you think that is? What story are we trying to tell about our nation and why?

We were talking with Susan Neiman over dinner last night and shared how some of the youth of our church have never heard about the history of lynching in the US. That’s not by accident. We want to control the narrative of history and present a sanitized version, the best of hits of our nation. There’s a right and wrong way to present the material, of course, and trying to make students feel personal guilt and shame for what happened 75-100 years ago is not the way to do it. But there are correct and helpful ways to let students investigate the hard history that our lives are built upon whether we acknowledge it or not.

In an adjacent garden at the Memorial for Peace and Justice lie 801 steel monuments identical to those hanging in the memorial. These replica monuments await representatives from counties where the lynchings occurred to claim them, take them back home and display them as a testimony to what happened, and efforts at truth and reconciliation. But most remain unclaimed because we don’t want to remember. We don’t want the song playing in our town. It’s a sad song we don’t want to sing because of shame or fear or guilt or simply because we want to pretend our history is only a triumphant and glorious song deserved to be sung by all the world.

Have we confronted our past of slavery, and Jim Crow, and the treatment of Indigenous people among other sad songs? Have we learned their lessons? Looking at our country today, I can’t say we have. Not really.

With that said, we also cannot make a study of history only a study in shame and guilt. That is also not helpful. If we treat one group of people as monsters and tell them they were and are monsters, guess what they will become? Monsters. We also can’t solely identify ourselves by how some narrow subset we could be identified with acted in history. We cannot define ourselves as forever the perpetrators of forever the victims. That has been the case to some degree in Germany. Germany has done some good reckoning with history work, but at times it can go too far. We talked about this with Susan Neiman last night. She made the point that Germans now are afraid to ever give critique to the nation of Israel. Germany has done a good job naming the evil done in the past and owning up to the fact that the German people were perpetrators of great violence and evil, but that’s not all they are. Unfortunately, the scale is tipping so that some Germans are forever the perpetrators and Jews are forever the victims. The same is happening to a degree in the US with white people identified as perpetrators and black people as victims. That is not a helpful way to engage with the history or the present for either group. There’s a whole lot more to say about that and consider that I hope to reflect on soon. Susan Neiman suggested a few books to read which I will do including Woke Racism by John McWhorter.

We need to be able to sing the sad songs, but in the same way we shouldn’t ignore those we shouldn’t fail to sing the hopeful ones and the songs of heroes and triumph. We are not only our worst moments and we are not solely defined by our best.

I’ve appreciated this time in Germany. I’m by no means an expert on the rise and fall of the Third Reich in Germany or the oppression faced by Jewish and other victims of the Holocaust, but I know I need to learn the lessons from this sad and abhorrent time in our collective history.

The lessons of the Holocaust are many, and though there is always more to learn, we somehow understand the most important one: we must never get to that place again. It remains me of what I heard in Northern Ireland again and again: “We cannot ever go back to how it was. We aren’t sure how to best live together but we know we need to do it better.”

We talk about how the whole human race is a family: we are brothers and sisters. Yes, I believe that’s true, but in acknowledging that we also need to remember that one of the earliest stories we have about siblings, Cain and Abel, is also the story of the first murder. Biblical families have a lot of sad songs: rape, incest, murder, robbery, division. The oldest family stories repeat throughout history: Cambodia, Rwanda, Burma, China, Armenia, the Soviet Union, Ukraine, and yes the US. We are no exception, our hands and our histories are not clean. No passive solution will suffice to overcome the kind of inhumanity we can enact on each other. So, where do we begin?

First: we must refuse to live by lies, especially with our use of words.

I value the First Amendment of the US Constitution: the freedom of speech (and also the freedom to read). It always concerns me when books or people are banned from public education, discussion, and debate. While not every book or person is developmentally and curricula appropriate for different levels of education, access to easily engage them should not be hindered.

The freedoms to speak and read are so important because, messy as it often is, it is by speaking and reading that we learn how to think. Often, we either change or confirm what we believe because we hear something coming out of our own mouths. I process my own thoughts best by discussion with others. I need good, trustworthy friends I can work stuff out with who won’t judge me when I say something that’s not perfectly articulated. Sadly, we are at that point. People are afraid to speak for fear of being shamed and cancelled. We have to be careful with words, yes, but we also need spaces to freely explore our own thoughts with our own voices. It’s by speaking and thinking, reading and writing that we understand the nature of reality itself. And we need to speak and think, read and write, more than ever, precisely because we are in a crisis of reality. What is true? Who are we? What is our purpose? These are questions humans have always wrestled with and we will continue to wrestle with them now especially after so many world altering events in such a short span of time.

As a follower of the philosopher Georg Hegel, Karl Marx believed in history as a moral force, moving purposefully and inevitably toward a utopian end. It reminds me a bit of Martin Luther King Jr’s famous quote, “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” Hegel and Marx are big in Berlin and we visited statues of both of them.

Hegel’s predecessor, Immanuel Kant, had rejected the Greek-Jewish-Christian notion of a knowable reality (logos) for a belief that nothing is knowable, and that reality can only be criticized, and deconstructed, to achieve a moral end. This is not just a philosophy about history, but a theory about the nature of reality itself and what we can know (epistemology). Marx knew that to actualize the goal of Communism would require a total reinvention of society, or as he put it: “[the] ends can be attained only by the forcible overthrow of all existing social conditions.” (Basically the burn it all down and start again model.)

In 1917, the Bolsheviks in Russia took him up on the challenge, and many nations have followed suit, including the German Democratic Republic (East Germany) in 1949. It wasn’t possible for Marx to know the real-world outcomes of the theory he and Friedrich Engels had helped to codify. Nothing like the Communism they proposed had ever existed before, nor had the kind of total dictatorship it necessitated: the repression of individual rights, the confiscation of private property, and the silencing of all dissent by eliminating the right to free speech. (The communal living in the Book of Acts for example is nothing like a Communist political and economic system though sometimes it is wrongly lifted up as such.

In the end, the Communist experiment cost the lives of at least 100 million people across several countries, including the starvation of four million Ukrainians in the state-instituted famine called the Holodomor. That famine reminds me a lot of the great hunger (or potato famine) in Ireland that was caused in large part by the British Empire. While there was a potato blight, there was still plenty of food; the Irish just didn’t get it.

There is a current trend and desire from people on the left and right to place limits on the freedom to speak openly, at risk of giving offense. It’s extremely cynical and audacious to assume that the main reason our fellow citizens might want to speak freely is to cause harm to others. Yes, offense can be made in that process, sometimes by accident, by ignorance, or even on purpose. But we also need to grow a bit thicker skin, too.

The vast majority of those who wish to assert their right to speak are doing it for a variety of justifiable reasons (even if we completely disagree), ranging from the basic right to live their daily lives, find better lives, deal with pain and suffering, and explore what it means to be human, to the real need and responsibility to hold our governments and institutions to account for past and present actions.

Millions across the world have considered this a right worth dying for. Over the last several years, our world has been hit by wave after wave of crisis from disease, natural disasters, war, racial unrest, and rancorous political division. Opportunists have seized upon these moments of turmoil, unrest, and fear with ready-made solutions to vastly complicated and nuanced problems. It was this sort of landscape that made someone like Hitler both possible and popular.

We have seen what lives inside of our neighbors when fear is introduced into the mix. Fear is a powerful motivator. I’ve always said when politicians appeal to fear and greed, they are manipulating us for a purpose that usually has nothing to do with the fear and greed they are peddling. Fear was behind the Nazi regime and the Communist regime that Germany lived under in the last century. Fear is what leads to concentration camps and gulags, as well as the internment camps, vast prison systems, lynchings, and eradication of native populations that have existed and sometimes persisted in our own country.

We need to pay close attention to the opportunists and to the ones peddling fear and greed, shame and guilt, especially if that’s the only currency they trade in. Notice who is telling you what the biggest threats are to your way of life and freedom and why. Notice who is telling you how outraged you should feel and who should be cancelled. Notice who is eager to control others’ behavior or words or public image. Influencers, and sadly elected leaders of both parties, provoke us into crafting Frankenstein monsters of half the nation. We simply stitch the latest evil trait onto the effigy and drag it into the public square to be burned, except instead of pitchforks and torches we do it all digitally so we don’t have to look them in the eye. We then act shocked when those we portray and attack of monsters begin to start acting like them.

We must resist the subtle seduction to reduce our neighbors to low-resolution caricatures, rather than relearn the art of living well together freely under a shared framework. We need to relearn the art of disagree well, which is the transformation of damaging conflict into healthy disagreement. We are a made to live together. We are designed to be dependent on each other rather than independent people, communities, races, and nations. The myth of the greatness of independence may be one of the most damaging things to the fabric of our world in the last three hundred years.

I believe most people want to do what is right. We want to be on the “right side” of history. When we went into the Czech Republic we were talking to our guide about this. He said his grandmother use to say, “The path to hell is full of good acts.” We said the version we grew up with, “The road to hell is paved with good intentions.” We need to realize and confess when we’ve done wrong, but I do believe move people want to do what is good and right. But even with that intention, we acquiesce to wrongdoings, small and large, out of self-preservation, the threat of lost opportunity or prestige, moral superiority, or simply a desire to be left alone.

This causes us to be split down the middle of ourselves. The Biblical writers Mark and James call it the disease of double-mindedness. What happens next, reminiscent of the logic of Adolf Eichmann who was one of the major architects of the Holocaust, is that average people, whether a police officer, a schoolteacher, an artist, a CEO—will excuse themselves by stating that they were “just following orders,” in hopes that the Machine will not grind them in its gears. They may even come to like the Machine. They may even come to operate it.

We mustn’t deceive ourselves into a perverse form of American, or Western, exceptionalism, thinking ourselves incapable of this irresistible aspect of human nature—the desire to suppress the “other.” It’s in all of us and in all of history from the conflicts of Northern Ireland, British Imperialism, South African Apartheid, American slavery and Jim Crow laws, German Nuremberg laws, and so much more.

We mustn’t excuse our own pet atrocities just because we believe the outcome is morally justified. A free society is messy, always poised on the edge of decay. Perhaps you’ve felt it was closer to the edge these last few years. But like a house, it must be maintained (as Courtney reminds me often that just because I vacuumed last week doesn’t mean I don’t need to do it again this week) by constantly revisiting and renewing our commitment to each other’s freedoms, especially the freedom to speak and think, to create—yes, even to fail.

Why did Cain kill his brother Abel? Because Cain bitterly resented his brother for possessing what he lacked. Cain feared Abel would be better and more loved and that he would be forgotten and left behind. Once that fear worked its way into Cain’s heart and mind, he could only see his brother as standing in the way of what he thought he deserved. That kind of deep resentment is woefully natural for human beings, as many mass movements can attest. We always are trying to identify who is coming to take what we have or what we believe we deserve. Perhaps that’s the saddest, but most played, song in history. That is why, in addition to refusing to live by lies, resentment and offense must be actively resisted by each one of us every day or we will begin to create enemies: those who live just on the other side of our empathy.

Well, that was a lot. Kudos to you if you read all that. Welcome to what goes on in my head on a nightly basis. So how do I conclude this reflection, and this trip?

I think I leave Germany with a renewed conviction to hear and sing the sad songs, but to sing the happy ones, too. I want to amplify them, because we can learn from the sad songs as well as the happy ones. We can, and must, learn from our mistakes as well as our triumphs. It’s okay not to have a perfect narrative. I know we try to cultivate one on social media with filters and selective posts and pictures, but I do not have a perfect story. No one does, so our nation and our church doesn’t either. We must work together to sing the songs that didn’t, and never will, end well. Perhaps in doing so we can work together to write a new song, a better song, that will be the happy song we will want to sing again and again.

Berlin Cathedral