Short answer: without surprise, and with the courage to ask hard questions and act on the answers.
Long answer: Friends, if you’ve been shocked by news and images of violence today, now is the time to pray and mourn. It’s also time to think hard about your assumptions about what what your fellow human beings are capable of…and how doing nothing or very little about it might shape our country.
“It’s a terrible mess,” you might say, “but it’s just some crazy extremists throwing out Nazi salutes and racial slurs. An isolated incident.”
Maybe. But I’m afraid of what happens next if you’re wrong. Let me explain by talking through the books I finished this week.
In the conclusion of my nonfiction read, The Boys in the Boat, the author sets up the decent, loyal, hardworking Americans who believed in freedom and dignity for all in contrast with the Nazi regime. And while I loved the underdog sports story and beauty of the language, that idea fell flat to me.
Why? Because the fiction book I’m reading at the same time is All the Light We Cannot See, which shows the courage it takes for a decent, loyal, hardworking person to stand up to a corrupting evil that starts subtly and becomes your whole life. In that book, you feel the passion of those who were told that to gain glory and wealth and the awe of the nations—all they ever wanted for themselves and their country—all they had to do in trade was sort the world into “us” and “them.” You experience the desperation of a young soldier following orders when the stakes are too high to take a stand. You see the raw agony and shame of men and women just like us who didn’t just choose the wrong side, no. It’s worse than that. They made thousands of smaller, trivial wrong choices along the way that led to Hitler’s Germany.
Justifications came before gas chambers. Neighbors quietly turned away about business restrictions and revoked community group memberships before they turned in anyone to be sent to labor camps. They were silent before they cheered “Hiel Hitler” in unquestioning salute.
We use the Nazis and their imagery as general villain patterns in debates and video games and movies, in part, I think because we’re still trying to figure out how the Holocaust happened. It’s a great unsolved mystery of human nature because most of us like to believe we would have been brave enough. We are the Resistance, the heroes, the incorruptible.
Do you believe me when I say that, apart from the grace of God, you are deeply corruptible? So am I. So are my neighbors. So are thousands of Americans who are products of our time, warped by prejudices that only history will see clearly enough to point out to us, whether that’s racism or materialism or worshipping an ideology instead of God.
You’re not holding a torch this weekend. Good. Some of your fellow citizens are. What does that tell you? How bold have your prayers been? What small things have you turned away from instead of speaking up? Along what lines have you divided your world into “us” and “them”…and how can you replace that with love?
I ask because we Americans were on the right side of that world war, and we’re proud of it. History has vindicated us in that slaughter of millions…but don’t think for a second that we don’t have blood on our hands in hundreds of other ways. If the riots in Charlottesville surprise you, remember: virtue isn’t a passport stamp. America stands for freedom only as long as Americans stand for it.
I want to be a brave person. Even more, I want so badly to live in a brave country. But we have to remember: courage takes action when the stakes are low, in the small things, and those million tiny decisions make us who we really are.
Do you hear me, church, called to the radical love of Jesus? They make us who we really are.
Do you hear me, America, torn and battered but still trying to live up to the meaning of our creeds? They make us who we really are.
Do you hear me…you?
You and I, we are so very small. But that is the beauty to balance the terrible truth of All the Light We Cannot See. We aren’t heroes. No. But by the grace of God, we can be brave.