True Remembrance

1938_Interior_of_Berlin_synagogue_after_KristallnachtImagine for a moment, that it happened here. The mood in the country has been growing darker. People are beginning to say that Christians – that Lutherans are to blame for what is wrong in society, that we aren’t true Canadians, that we shouldn’t even be citizens. On the streets, we check over our shoulders to see who is around us. We have heard our neighbors talking about “those Christians” and casting glances in our direction. When we pass, they look at the ground. We gather for worship, but we are nervous. We wonder if we should leave our children at home. We wonder whether we should leave our country, but everything we own is here, our aging parents are here. And where would we go?

And then one night, all the whispers, and hate, become rage. On the streets outside, we see people we thought were decent throwing stones through the windows of a neighbors home, and laughing while they do it. We hear that in the market, certain store windows are being smashed, their contents destroyed.  When we come the next day, the windows of Saint John have been shattered, the door has been smashed in, the alter desecrated, partially burned to the ground. Some of us are missing, arrested we hear, but only for the crime of faith.

Just imagine.

This happened, of course, – last night, 80 years ago. We know it as Kristallnacht, named for all the shattered glass an angry mob of ordinary citizens left on the street, after targeting their Jewish neighbors.  It seems so long ago now, and the longer our distance grows from it, the more it feels like an event from another time.  That wasn’t us. It couldn’t be us. It would never happen here.

And yet of course it is. Of course it can. Of course it does.

As the gospel reminds us, beware: beware that you do not pay too much heed, or give too much power to peacocks preening in your midst, lording over others, devouring those less fortunate. But Jesus is also saying this to us: Beware that we ourselves are not such peacocks, preening and lording, and devouring. For as history shows – as Crystal Night shows – too much power in the wrong hands, too much power in our own hands – leads to shattered glass and broken lives. We must be our own checks and balances – the widow, generous to a fault, giving perspective, and teaching empathy to the power-hungry peacock.

We choose, on this day, to tell our own versions of history, and of war. We might remember that after Kristallnacht, many Germans were horrified, and sought to help their Jewish friends and neighbors. We may remember that while Hitler liked to quote Luther, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a Lutheran, became a brave and influential Christian voice of reason and resistance in the darkest hour. We may remember the terrible loss and devastation in the trenches, and we may also remember the courage and sacrifice of those who signed up to defend freedom in those same trenches. We may remember the hate and bigotry and rage that devoured us; and we may remember the times when people gave like the widow, everything that the owned.

Remembering is our burden. Truly understanding the cost of war – the roots of aggression is our responsibility. And practicing the kindness, grace and mercy, that saved the day is our duty.

So, let’s not hide from truth: This is us. This could be us. It does happen here. When we don’t take the time to hear out someone’s else view – to understand their experience – this is us. When we don’t get informed – figure out what is fact and what is lie – this could be us. When someone who is working, or shopping, or entering their house is targeted because of their race, when people spout hate online, it is happening here.

What we understand now, so clearly, is that no one wakes up one day and just decides to smash windows. As with all societies that turned on each other it took time to happen – the careful planting of certain myths, the worst kind of fictions. A population that wasn’t happy with their lot in life. Leaders who used their power not to create but to devour. It happened gradually, building like an argument that begins politely and grows in volume until everyone is shouting and no one is listening. And then one day, you do wake up. And you don’t recognize the world. But you see now that it was headed this way all along.

War is the result of not one thing, but many circumstances – an assassination, the right economic circumstances or interest, an evil charismatic leader, a failure of information. And yet, ultimately, it comes down to human beings not settling differences as we should. Not listening. Not trying to learn. Not hearing each other out. Not being empathetic. Not balancing the self-serving desires of the scribe in all of us, with the other-centeredness of the sacrificing widow, who gives everything. Not checking the taker against the giver.

But that is the burden of remembrance. The responsibility of those remembering. The duty of those who live in the society that was gifted to us – not by our own ingenuity, but by great sacrifice. We sit here in this church, and sing freely and loudly because of the people who listened to the Christ-centered voice and actions of Bonhoeffer, because of the young men and women who were called to serve, because of the givers who stood firm before the takers.

True remembrance is not simply retelling the past. It requires understanding how the past defines the present, and shapes the future.  So imagine for a moment that it happened here. In this place. To those we love. And then think: have we done our very best, in all we say, and do, to make sure that it never will again?

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