I’ve spent a lot of time this week processing the events in Charlottesville.
I wasn’t surprised by what happened; anyone who knows history and has a little bit of common sense could have predicted what this administration would unleash. But even when you see the cracks in the wall, even when you know the dam is on the verge of collapse, confronting the moment it actually breaks can leave you stunned and speechless.
This long night of our nation has moved many things inside of me. As a German-American, I grew up keenly aware of the danger of blind patriotism and most especially, of the terror and brutality that comes with the doctrine of white supremacy. One could call this the unique burden of my cultural identity. I had much to be proud of in my German heritage, but much to be ashamed of as well.
Born in the United States, some four decades after the Nazis came to power, I could hardly claim personal responsibility for what happened in the 1930s. But that which is not our fault must sometimes, nonetheless, be our responsibility – especially when it comes to cultural identity.
While children should not pay for the sins of their fathers, I’ve always believed in embracing the task of atonement. We have been given this life to help heal the wounds caused by our predecessors, and in this way, to build a better future. Ever since I can remember, I’ve felt this instinctive commitment, though when I was young, I didn’t really have the words to express it. In grade school, I found those words in the Prayer of Saint Francis:
Lord, make me an instrument of your peace.
Where there is hatred, let me bring love.
Where there is offense, let me bring pardon.
Where there is discord, let me bring union.
Where there is error, let me bring truth…
And on it goes. Coming from a cultural legacy that – in spite of its many positive aspects – instigated the darkest war of modern times, it seemed to me that choosing a personal path of peace and commitment, of truth and justice, of encouraging love among all neighbors, was an appropriate and noble goal.
Over the years, I’ve tried to live by this creed in many ways. But since the summer of 2015, I’ve had to face up to an ugly truth: Whatever I may claim to have done with this short life has not been enough. It hasn’t been enough, because here we are again: torches in the night, young people gripped by a twisted ideology, innocents dying in the streets. Worst of all, this racism, bigotry, and violence is openly incited and endorsed by the man who holds the highest office in our nation.
I’ve often wondered what I would have done, had I lived in Germany during my grandparents’ time, during the 1930s when the fever of Nazism was beginning to take hold. What would I do, if confronted with a rising tide of white supremacists? I’ve been learning the answer to that question over the past couple years. Despite all the brutal lessons of the 20th century, my grandparents’ time has become my own.
Something that gives me hope in these difficult times is the tremendous effort on the part of many fellow Americans to fight against the blight of white supremacy. In the case of Charlottesville, what began with a handful of students on Friday night and has now engulfed the nation and reached beyond our borders. I continue to believe the human spirit is greater – much greater – than all the ugliness and violence that converged on this one university town in Virginia last weekend. We can stop the tide of hate, but we have to stand up, speak out, and resist. And that resistance will not come without cost.
“No one is born hating another person because of the color of his skin or his background or his religion … People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love … For love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite.” – Nelson Mandela
“No one is born hating another person because of the color of his skin or his background or his religion…” pic.twitter.com/InZ58zkoAm
— Barack Obama (@BarackObama) August 13, 2017