atonement

heather-heyer-funeral

Charlottesville pays homage to Heather Heyer.

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

7 thoughts on “atonement

  1. I hear you, Karin. I too am beginning to feel like what I’ve done isn’t enough. It’s not enough just to hold these values inside. If I want to see them expressed in the wider world, I have to be bold and take a stand. Thanks for the post!

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  2. I’m not in any way minimizing the horror of that truly heinous night in Charlottesville, yet it’s the events since that, when I thought NOTHING could disgust and outrage me as much as nazi’s (and I purposely leave that in the lower case, because they are undeserving of any form of elevation, even grammatically) marching and chanting in such numbers, disgusts and outrages me further. The president known for his off-the-hip rants against everything and anything, had to “get the facts” before he spoke out, and even once he did, would not condemn nazi’s and their ilk. A man who tiptoes around nothing, not even nuclear war, tiptoed around this blatantly horrific group.
    The second thing that saddens me, more than it angers me, is that I asked if anyone has heard of any of those statue-protesters walking away once they saw what their protest had become. Better, someone who called them out, and even better, someone who turned around and helped those being harmed despite their feelings about the events that started the whole thing. Not one story. I’m sure there are some. And yet, no one can give example, because no one sees the good, when they can rant about the bad instead.
    We NEED these stories. Not to somehow counter the horror–because nothing can truly minimize what happened, and happens still. Good people need to know that there IS kindness, goodness, fairness, people who can and will stand against this horrific tide. If they think they’re alone, they might give up the fight as unwinnable. And those who perpetuate these horrors need to know that there are those who will stand up to them, stand them down, drive them out. Allowing them to believe otherwise emboldens them–as we’ve seen is the result of 45’s campaign and presidency thus far.

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    • I know what you mean. What I think many people don’t understand – if they don’t know their history – is that nazism in Germany did not begin with the gestapo and concentration camps; that’s where it ended. The beginnings were much more humble, almost innocuous: rallies in crowded beerhalls in Munich, a crazy guy that screamed like a banshee and that nobody in the political mainstream took seriously. So many people turned a blind eye to what was happening, letting it grow and grow until the Reichstag burned down, and by then it was too late. I have friends who thought I was paranoid when I tried to talk about this during the 2016 campaign, but the parallels are uncanny and even if they weren’t, the ONLY way to deal with racism and hate is zero tolerance from the very beginning. In a democracy, that means racism, hate, and incitement to violence must be a deal breaker when deciding for whom to cast our vote.

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  3. Well said Karin. I’m ashamed to admit that I’ve had the same thoughts but have been reluctant to express them on my blog. After all, some of our readers might be Trump supporters. OMG now I’m ashamed to have said that. I will say here and now that I don’t want Trump supporters as readers. Their money is not important to me. I don’t think they’re going to like my writing anyway because my last two books are not very favorable toward middle age Christians. You encourage me, as always. I’m going to take some time to write my own thoughts about our Great Orange Leader on my blog. We must, as writers, do what we can to help take down this tyrant, possibly the worst and most dangerous tyrant in all history. And he should watch out because “The pen is mightier than the sword” or in this age, mightier than Tweets by a Twit.

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    • Thank you, Jini! There are other ways to resist, too, if for any reason you don’t feel comfortable talking about it on your blog. Politics on-line is a risky business; it’s not always conducive to constructive debate. And of course, speaking out in times like these can make you vulnerable to trolls. But at some point, the bigger picture starts to matter more. I was hesitant about sharing these thoughts in this space, but I’m glad I did.

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      • I’ve been speaking out about Trump for the last three months on Quora. There are many there sharing opinions about him and besides politics, there are discussions about writing, publishing, sex and all sorts of interesting things. I can’t recommend it as a site that will help sell books though because promoting one’s own products will get you banned from Quora, making it a refreshing change from other social sites. You can have a profile and talk about your books there so people interested in the things you post can find your books.

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