Tuesday, November 11, 2008

The Lessons of History

I've been on a self-imposed Internet fast for most of the last week. I spent so much time obsessively hitting blogs and news sites in the days leading up to the election that I felt positively poisoned by the news and analysis overload.

So last weekend, I decided to read a book. A REAL book. With covers and pages and everything.

That book was written by my friend Joel Haas. Joel is one of the most creative people I've ever known. He is a sculptor by profession, but he is also a storyteller--a first-rate raconteur. He comes by this honestly, as his father spent Joel's childhood entertaining Joel and his brothers with a whole universe of make-believe characters who had wonderful adventures.

(Hearing Joel's stories about his father always make me hang my head in shame--I couldn't make up a story for my kids if my life depended on it...)

Joel's whole family history is fascinating. He grew up in Charlotte, NC--where he lived between the Billy Graham family on one side and the John Shelby Spong family on the other. That, as he says, "explains a lot." (Doxy's Note: Joel corrects me about this in the comments. It was his dad who grew up between the Grahams and the Spongs. I still think my version is funnier. ;-)

Joel's father came from a German Jewish family, and Joel's novel, Adlerhof, is based loosely on his paternal family history. It is the story of two halves of the Adler family--one set of individuals who make their way to North Carolina in the late 19th century, and the others, who are forced by circumstances and disastrous choices to remain behind in Germany. (You can read more about Adlerhof at Joel's blog about the novel.)

It is a sobering book, as any tale about the Wilmington race riots and the Holocaust (no link necessary) must be--and I recommend it to you. There are scenes in it that I will remember forever. In fact, I finished it just before Dear Friend's Saturday Mass, and I spent most of my time during the service praying over how awful we humans are to one another.

Joel's novel was doubly poignant for me for me this week, as I mourn the passage of California's Proposition 8. In the wake of so much finger-pointing and so many recriminations about the result of that vote, Joel's book reminded me of what happens when a minority group (whether it be Jews, gays, or African Americans) is blamed for all the ills in a civilization. It reminded me of how craven and cowardly people can be when those in power use their might (and their money) to intimidate--and how "little people" will often use whatever power they have to trample others.

It reminded me of how easy it is to demonize others and to convince yourself that you are doing right in the bargain.

On this day, 70 years after the Holocaust began, I see few signs that we've learned much. Oh, sure...we just had a peaceful election, and--as long as you don't count Gitmo--we don't have any concentration camps.

But we still demonize those who differ from us. We still rush to put our boots on the necks of others, so that we can feel that we are in control. We still live in a world where we must rely on the threat of punishment--rather than the inherent goodness of the human heart--to keep people from hurting others.

As I said before, I live in hope. But that hope is sorely tested on occasion. I do not understand how people can sit by and do nothing when others are being persecuted merely for who they are. I do not understand how people can actively participate in persecuting others. (And let the reader understand, "persecution" does NOT mean "disagreeing with your position." It means taking away the rights, freedoms, livelihood, or personal safety of others.)

I particularly do not understand how people can do so in the name of Christ.

Joel's book was a powerful reminder that we must always be vigilant in the defense of the vulnerable in our midst. That evil only wins when good people stand by and do nothing--or participate in it out of fear or manipulation.

It was also a reminder that there is a price to pay for standing up for what is right.

This is the hard part--the part we don't like to acknowledge...that protecting our freedoms can require great personal sacrifice. On this Veteran's Day, we acknowledge the sacrifice of those who have gone before us, as we honor those members of our military who paid the price for our freedoms.

"Freedom isn't free," as the saying goes---and it isn't only those in uniform who fight for it. I think of Mickey Schwerner, Andrew Goodman, and James Chaney. I think of Jonathan Daniels and, of course, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

I also think of Alice Paul and Lucy Burns who went to jail and endured being tortured so that women could have the vote. And I think of the gay and transgender rioters who fought back against the brutality of the New York City police force at the Stonewall Riots, starting the modern gay rights movement in the process--and the members of ACT UP, who fought to get access to lifesaving drugs for those living with AIDS.

Today is a day to remember the brutal lessons of history--and to pledge ourselves to ensuring that we do not repeat them. It is a day to ask yourself:

  • What prejudices do *I* hold, and what am I going to do to remedy them?
  • When have *I* participated in violence (rhetorical, physical, economic, or spiritual) against others, and what am I going to do to avoid committing violence in the future?
  • Just what sacrifices am*I* willing to make to usher in the Kingdom of God in the here and now? (No fair demanding that others make sacrifices you are not willing to make yourself...)
May God bless all those who struggle for freedom and justice, and may God guide those of us who have so much of it to extend it graciously to others.