The Common Good
July-August 1995

The Uneasy Prompting of History

by Elizabeth Holler Hunter | July-August 1995

I began this piece on the 50th anniversary of D-day-June 6, 1994.

I began this piece on the 50th anniversary of D-day-June 6, 1994. During the commemoration of the Allied invasion of Europe, I was moved by the remembrances of the soldiers and astonished by the magnitude of their undertaking and their loss.

Then as now, just days after the 50th anniversary of Hitler's surrender, I have conflicting emotions. One difficulty is this: Is affirming the courage and sacrifice of those who fought the same as affirming the war?

I understand, at least intellectually, that Jesus calls us to love our enemies and not kill them. I also feel strongly that it is neither appropriate nor loving to denigrate those who fought and died.

Remembering war is a slippery business, though. Words like valor and heroism are on my lips and at the tip of my pen. I don't ordinarily use those words. The emotion of what I see, hear, and read pulls me closer to the violence; it is a seductive tug and I can't readily identify what is happening, I only know that it is happening.

One never knows, but I can imagine that, had I been alive at the time, I would have rejoiced in the "liberation of Europe" and hailed the defeat of Nazi Germany. It is not difficult for me to imagine that I could justify violence in the face of Hitler. Yet I am aware that an important struggle is taking place within me during these days of reflection, and I know that the stakes are high.

IN THE MIDST of the journey from D-Day to V-E Day, I have been thinking about a visit I made to Dachau, a German death camp located just outside of Munich. I was 20 years old at the time, not so many years ago.

Three images remain with me. The first is a very clear picture of a young German boy. He was perhaps 8 years old, and his father was walking with him through a museum that documents the extermination of Jews at Dachau. He looked bewildered as his pained, blue eyes searched his father's face. Through his alternating silence and protest, the boy's father held his hand and patiently told him that the pictures were real and the story they told was true.

Outside of the museum were the cinder-block barracks that had housed the prisoners. They were precisely built, each the same size and perfectly aligned. There were white concrete paths with white pebbles on either side. One of these paths, straight and narrow, led to the tidy ovens, stripped of any sign of their use except the faintest smell that lingered in the air.

I moved from the ovens down another straight path, seeing the big sky overhead but still wondering why there was not enough air to breathe. Down at my feet on the white concrete, so ordered and clean, was a shoot of hope. A weed, green with life, had made its way through the death poured on top of it. There it was nurtured by the ashes. Persistent in the face of formidable opposition, it grew defiantly. The groundskeeper will come to pluck it, I thought, but another will grow in its place.

Many were crushed by the tyranny of Nazi Germany. But there were those who rooted themselves in love. They grew in the face of overwhelming evil. Resisting. Persisting. Choosing life over death.

The grounds of Dachau are no different from the orderly rows of crosses-white and straight-backed-planted across Europe, in Arlington Cemetery, and in many other places throughout the world. Our need to "make white" the signs of so much blood spilled and hope blown away is telling: We compulsively use order to represent utter chaos.

I know it is not easy to speak the truth to a child. It is not easy to look honestly at what dwells within my own heart. More important, it is not possible to have neat and tidy solutions when I engage my faith with real issues in my own life, and in the life of our complex and suffering world.

It is possible, however, to find a living God in all things. Always, I want to look for and be open to the signs and wonders of a risen Lord who shows me the way. Remembering that God is in the small things-in the details, as a friend once wrote-I am better able to turn away from the lies which justify death.

As usual, taking a serious look at these events in our history is not easy. It means that we must look closely at ourselves, our role as people of faith, and our present-day context. As we do so, it is not possible to whitewash the devastating effects of our own greed, pride, and desire for power.

The hope is that if we, as individuals and communities, engage in this painful process of reflection, we will come to know God in the details and be able to root ourselves more firmly in love. n

ELIZABETH HOLLER HUNTER, former development director at Sojourners, is now a development consultant in Asheville, North Carolina.

 

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