Throwback Thursday Books: Hitler’s Willing Executioners

The white supremacist crowd at the insurrection and attempted lynching at the United States capitol on January 6, 2021, displayed a variety of anti-Semitic symbols and slogans. Those included the “Camp Auschwitz” t-shirt worn prominently and proudly by one of the terrorists. We could also see the 6MWE acronym – “Six million wasn’t enough” – on shirts and placards. These disgusting demonstrations illustrate once again the clear connection between white supremacy and anti-Semitism. These moral and spiritual cancers grow from the same tissue and offer mutual nourishment one to the other.

These images were troubling but not surprising. I had already planned this Throwback Thursday Book Review prior to January 6. That event simply confirmed my intuition. Hitler’s Willing Executioners: Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust, by Daniel Jonah Goldhagen, is an exhaustive (and sometimes exhausting) examination of the role of nondescript German people in the extermination of six million Jews and millions of other victims regarded as burdensome and/or less than human. Since I first read this book in 1998, I have returned to it often as an interpretive tool and a cautionary tale regarding the capacity for evil in every human heart.

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Goldhagen studies three topics in his work: who carried out the Holocaust, the worldview of German anti-Semitism that made this national crime an individual possibility, and the reality of German society during the Nazi period. He summarizes the third subject in these words.

The Holocaust was the defining aspect of Nazism, but not only of Nazism. It was also the defining feature of German society during its Nazi period. No significant aspect of German society was untouched by anti-Jewish policy; from the economy, to society, to politics, to culture, from cattle farmers, to merchants, to the organization of small towns, to lawyers, doctors, physicists, and professors. No analysis of German society, no understanding or characterization of it, can be made without placing the persecution and extermination of the Jews at its center. (page 8).

The Holocaust was not perpetrated by a small subset of German society. The persecution, hunting, torture, enslavement, and murder of Jews was not a contradiction of the larger German culture. It was not carried out by a criminal element, by a complement of fanatic true believers. It was not a heavy lift intellectually, morally, theologically, legally, or politically. The Holocaust portrays the “banality of evil” as Hannah Arendt put it. But it is more than that, as Goldhagen reports. The Holocaust was not merely banal. It was, in the German context, normal and even the expected result of five hundred years of anti-Semitic vitriol.

As I have re-read the book in the last few weeks, I have been reminded of and burdened by the parallels and interconnections between German anti-Semitism and American white male supremacy. Let me hasten to add that anti-Semitism is not, of course, an exclusively German phenomenon. It is a potent force wherever western Christianity has made an imprint. But it took particular hold in German society to horrific effect (a reality that fills me with periodic shame as a German-American).

That being said, I wondered what would lead a large number of people on January 6 to find an insurrection and attempted lynching to be a credible, reasonable, and coherent set of actions, worthy of extended reflection and planning.

There is no escape into a facile and false “bad apple” theory, either for the Holocaust or for the January 6 sedition. It is not helpful to regard either the perpetrators of the Holocaust or the perpetrators of the insurrection as deranged or demonic (although those characteristics are factors for some of the participants). Rather, we must ask ourselves what it is in a given setting that renders hatred as a reasonable response and murder as the acceptable outcome.

We are still spilling ink on trying to understand the nature of the so-called Trump voters and followers. I am as disgusted by that over-focus as many others. However, I think it is worthwhile to spend enough time on the topic to debunk the self-serving and self-excusing myths that provide cover for the criminals. Goldhagen offers a similar description in his book.

Not economic hardship, not the coercive means of a totalitarian state, not social psychological pressure, not invariable psychological propensities, but ideas about Jews that were pervasive in Germany, and had been for decades, induced ordinary Germans to kill unarmed, defenseless Jewish men, women, and children by the thousands, systematically and without pity. (page 9).

We could write a similar analysis of those who stormed the United States capitol two weeks ago. It is clear that they were not suffering from economic hardship. No one held a gun to their heads, forcing them into criminal behavior. Instead, the foundations of white male supremacy and its evil twin, anti-Semitism, made this behavior normal and even required.

In his book, Goldhagen lays out with chilling clarity the fundamental role anti-Semitism played in German culture, self-understanding, intellectual assumptions, political life, and religious rules. This hatred of Jews was bone-deep for the Germans, just as white male supremacy is bone-deep for historic white American culture.

Many of us were surprised that the insurrectionists expected to carry out their coup and then return to their homes, families, jobs, churches, and neighborhoods without consequence or comment. We should not have been surprised.

Goldhagen describes how the ordinary Germans of Police Battalion 101, for example, brought their wives with them to the killing fields of Poland. Some of their spouses witnessed and offered approval for the wholesale and gruesome slaughter of hundreds and thousands of Jewish men, women, and children, often in the most inhuman and degrading of methods. After work, they went bowling, attended the theater, had picnics, and discussed great literature.

“Simply put,” Goldhagen writes, “the perpetrators, having consulted their own convictions and morality and having judged the mass annihilation of Jews to be right, did not want to say ‘no’” (page 14). If they had wanted to say “no,” they could have done so with no penalty. Goldhagen demonstrates with extensive documentation that when ordinary Germans demurred from the slaughter, they were able to do so with no adverse outcomes.

With almost no exceptions, however, those refusals were not based on moral scruples. Rather, the reluctance was typically tied to a bit of squeamishness that passed after a while. The command structure allowed perpetrators to opt out if they wished because the commanders wanted to protect their good Germans from the negative effects of committing thousands of murders. But hardly anyone passed on the opportunity. Nor did they moderate the cruelty and torture they inflicted on their victims. Rather they participated willingly and often celebrated the salutary results of their slaughter.

I was struck by the celebratory atmosphere of the insurrectionists as they cheered, took selfies, collected souvenirs, and congratulated each other – all while looking to commit mayhem, assault, and murder. The similarities between those images and the images of ordinary Germans as they hunted, tortured, and murdered thousands of Jewish men, women, and children were haunting and terrifying.

What went into the cultural worldview that fueled the gleeful participation of ordinary Germans in the Holocaust? Jews were regarded as a race of subhumans who could be used and abused, tortured and murdered, without scruple or consequence. They were of less value and importance than bugs to be squashed under a boot heel. But there was far more than dehumanization at work. Jews were regarded as the root of all evil in German society. They were thieves and thugs, parasites and pariahs, a malign infection in the body politic that could not be tolerated. “The Jews are our misfortune,” was a German byword of this perspective.

Given that understanding, the only reasonable response to the infection was eradication. The Nazi program, completely consistent with five centuries of cultural development (including, I am ashamed to say, the hateful words of Martin Luther), was “radical eliminationism.” This was carried out, not merely in the ovens and crematoria of the camps, but in the daily activities of ordinary Germans who were sure they served the greater good with their murderous efficiency.

Is there an analogous set of cultural assumptions at work in America? It is called white male supremacy, and it is four centuries in the making so far. Otherwise rational and intelligent people believe the QAnon mythology. They study the Turner diaries (and the Protocols of the Elders of Zion for good measure). Timothy McVeigh put a truck bomb in front of the Murrah office building, and we can draw a straight line from that terrorism to the events of January 6 (and back to Emmett Till). White male supremacy, underneath all the obfuscation, is also ultimately a radically eliminationist program.

Some of us would like to think that anti-Semitism and white male supremacy are the aberrations, and that tolerance is the norm. But let us not be so naïve. Tolerance is the innovation in human culture. White supremacy is the historic norm in American culture, and a movement toward civil rights is the innovation. Remember that just yesterday, our outgoing secretary of state asserted that multiculturalism is not who America is. Offensive as that assertion is, he is right in a disturbing way. Multiculturalism is who America can be, but only through ongoing and specific policy decisions, cultural changes, and personal repentance.

Embracing the other in love is the innovation. And it is when we are most human.

“The inescapable truth,” Goldhagen concludes, “is that, regarding Jews, German political culture had evolved to the point where an enormous number of ordinary, representative Germans became—and most of the rest of their fellow Germans were fit to be—Hitler’s willing executioners” (p. 454). The book is a painful analysis, a cautionary tale, and a contemporary lens. I rejoice that some measure of anti-racist, anti-supremacist, anti-eliminationist progress is being made today. Tomorrow there will be just as much work to do.

Goldhagen, Daniel Jonah. Hitler’s Willing Executioners: Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust. Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

The Common Sense of White Male Supremacy

I want to refer you to a January 14 article by Elana Schor for the Associated Press and carried by Religion News Service: “Anti-Semitism seen in Capitol attack raises alarms.” In the article Schor reports on the presence of anti-Semitic activists, symbols and expressions in the lynch mob that invaded the Capitol building on January 6, 2021. She notes that “the Miller Center for Community Protection and Resilience at Rutgers University-New Brunswick and the Network Contagion Research Institute released a report that identified at least half a dozen neo-Nazi or white supremacist groups involved in the insurrection.”

As I noted the presence of these groups, symbols and expressions of anti-Semitic hatred and violence during the January 6 attack, I knew that I needed to return to a seminal book for deeper understanding. Hitler’s Willing Executioners: Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust, by Daniel Jonah Goldhagen, details how ordinary Germans supported and participated in the Holocaust by choice rather than coercion. I will walk through that book in detail in my next “Throwback Thursday Books” post. For now, I want to look at just one aspect of Goldhagen’s work.

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From the beginning of the nineteenth century,” he writes, “antisemitism was ubiquitous in Germany. It was its ‘common sense’” (page 77). It is easy to forget that reality, if one ever knew it at all (although we Lutherans should never, ever forget it and our part in that). Antisemitism was a central organizing principle of German social and political life from the Middle Ages to the middle of the twentieth century. It morphed, as Goldhagen describes, from an assimilationist perspective to an “eliminationist” program in large part following the “emancipation” of Jews in Germany after 1848.

Assimilation was a sort of cultural elimination, since the idea was that Jews would gradually become European Christians and thus evaporate. “Built into emancipation itself—an emancipation that proceeded upon a cultural model of Jews derived from hostile Christianity—was the belief that Jews would disappear,” Goldhagen writes, “since Jews refused to do so, the false promises of emancipation created all but a structural guarantee that antisemitism would develop new virulence…” (page 78). When Jews refused to disappear “naturally,” the next step was to make them disappear systematically.

Elimination was just what it sounds like – programmatic extermination. This is what Goldhagen describes as the “common sense” of nineteenth and twentieth century German culture. It was unnecessary for the Nazis to invent German antisemitism or to infuse it with a genocidal impulse. It was only necessary for Hitler to energize and enact the common sense which was already there.

The intersection of Goldhagen’s book and the Capitol insurrection raises several terrifying thoughts for me.

The first is that antisemitism does not come and go. It hibernates. Goldhagen notes that the explicitly anti-Semitic political parties in Germany in the late 1800’s ceased to exist, not because antisemitism was rejected, but rather because it became a part of the mainstream political platforms. Thus, the fringe parties were no longer necessary. “Again, this meant not that antisemitism was dissipating,” Goldhagen notes, “but that it was merely less articulated and therefore partly disappeared from view. It would erupt again with great force only a few years hence” (page 76).

Who needs fringe political parties in our system when virulent racism walks into the halls of local, state and federal government on a daily basis?

Goldhagen’s work reminds me that antisemitism, like white male supremacy, is a dual process phenomenon. The “emancipation” of Jews (a stunning connection to America in the same period) was met with a virulent revival of antisemitic rhetoric, behavior, literature, politics, and violence. Modest moves toward toleration were met with the full development of eliminationist theory and practice. The primary reason that a full-blown genocide did not occur sooner was that Germans were distracted by the run-up to World War I.

Antisemitism was a dormant fuel needing only the right conditions to burst into full flame. Those conditions in Germany were the economic and social collapse following the First World War, and the rise of Nazi grievance culture in response to the defeat and devastation.

All that was needed was a bunch of angry white men who were sure they had been robbed of what was rightfully theirs. All it took was a culture certain that they were entitled to dominate and to root out the Other who stood in their way. All it took was an Other who could be blamed for all that was wrong in individual lives and in the lives of the aggrieved collective.

That’s all it took then…and now.

“It is thus incontestable that the fundamentals of Nazi antisemitism, the antisemitic brew that spawned Nazi thinking about the Jews, had deep roots in Germany, was part of the cultural cognitive model of German society, and was integral to German political culture,” Goldhagen concludes, “It is incontestable that racial antisemitism was the salient form of antisemitism in Germany and that it was broadly part of the public conversation of German society” (pages 74-75). It was not only common sense. To suggest any other way of looking at the world was to be a radical, a subversive, a communist(!), and an enemy of the Volk and the state.

We should be clear that this continues to be common sense for a number of our neighbors. Varieties and degrees of antisemitism participate in our Christian worship services weekly. Not only is antisemitism its own form of cultural cancer, but it also fits neatly into the larger framework of white male supremacy on display among us.

What leads a large number of people to find the violence of January 6 to be a credible, reasonable, and coherent set of actions, worthy of extended reflection and planning?

While there is plenty of the deranged, demented, and demonic in that crowd, that’s not sufficient for our understanding. For most Americans for most of our history, white male supremacy has been “common sense.” Hard as that might be for some of us white men to absorb, it is true. Identifying, resisting, and seeking to dismantle that common sense is the innovation. Suggesting that no one is entitled to power, privilege, and position simply based on gender and skin tone is the novelty. Common sense may slip below the surface at times, but all it takes is a combination of change and demagoguery for it to explode into potency.

We can diagnose this for antisemitism, in part, because everything old is new again. According to Schor’s report, “Eric Ward, executive director of the progressive anti-discrimination group Western States Center, linked the far-right conspiracy theory QAnon, adherents of which were at the forefront of the insurrection, to the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, the infamous 20th-century screed that falsely claimed Jews were colluding to take over the world.” This is the basis for a deranged white man attacking a New Jersey pizza parlor in search of Hillary Clinton and her ring of pedophiliacs a few years ago.

In much the same way, the white male supremacists at the heart of the January 6 lynch mob rely on the Turner Diaries as their bible and handbook for their own eliminationist fantasies. The Turner Diaries and related documents lead in the end to a worldwide campaign to eliminate every nonwhite human being from the planet in order to achieve “peace.” Goldhagen’s work provides the chilling German parallel. “Modern German anti-Semites,” he writes, “unlike their medieval forebears, could say that there would be no peace on earth until the Jews were destroyed” (page 77).

As a Christian, I must ask myself and my fellow Jesus followers, what do we regard as “common sense”? That takes work and help from outsiders, since most common sense is about as visible to us as the air we breathe. Jewish interpreters of Scripture help us to see that many of our founding documents and certainly our interpretations of them are profoundly antisemitic. There are some New Testament texts that I can no longer read in public worship for that reason and others which require extended explanation and caution if they are to be used.

That reticence is regarded by some Christians as heterodox, but I read somewhere that “you shall know them by their fruits.”

The natural and rightful hegemony of white, male Christianity is regarded as common sense. It’s obvious on the face of things that we continue to regard white male supremacy in and out of the church as “common sense.” Just try to challenge the assumptions of that view in most white Christian congregations, and the proof will be quick in appearing. In the best of times, we white Christians will talk about anything else – even politics, sex, or money – rather than to talk about racism and antiracism. In most places we can’t even call this conversation “antiracist” because that’s too confrontational.

Of course, during The Pandemic we have the perfect distraction to keep us from thinking about what it would mean to be Dr. King’s “Beloved Community.” We have the ideal excuse to focus obsessively on a whole series of white-privilege problems and to ignore a host of underlying issues. We assure ourselves that God is merely “with us” in our difficulties and ignore the possibility that God might be longing for us to repent and grow as a result of our struggles.

We treat the necessary connection between whiteness and Christianity as common sense. We treat the capitalist invisible hand of the market as common sense. We treat the potential for armed violence in order to stand our ground as common sense. We treat the right to take what we want from others and from the earth as common sense. Is it any wonder that moves toward justice, peace, sustainability, and equity are treated as subversive and “communist”?

I’ll have more on Goldhagen’s book in my post next Thursday. But this was too much on my heart and mind to wait for that.

Throwback Thursday Books: Forgiveness, Pardon and Reconciliation Distinguished

Current events reveal once again our cultural and theological confusions regarding confession and repentance, forgiveness and pardon, reconciliation and gaslighting. The current rush to reconciliation on the part of some in the wake of the attempted lynching in our nation’s capitol on January 6th is a symptom of this confusion. So, on this Throwback Thursday, I want to share an excerpt from my own book, Forgiveness: The Road Home. You can find that title on my “Books for Sale” page on this site. Or you can go here.

On October 2nd, 2006, Charles Carl Roberts IV entered a one-room Amish schoolhouse with a nine-millimeter semi-automatic handgun.  He removed all the boys from the building.  After a few students and a teacher escaped to get help, Roberts nailed the doors of the building shut.  During the standoff with police, Roberts shot and killed five of the girls, the oldest of which was thirteen.  He wounded five more before turning the gun on himself. 

While the tragedy was shocking in and of itself, reporters were soon focusing on how the Amish community of Nickel Mines was forgiving the gunman and caring for his family.  The outside world could not comprehend how forgiveness was possible in such a situation.

The authors of Amish Grace explore a number of factors that made such forgiveness possible.  First, they point to “the habit of forgiveness” that forms so much of Amish life and faith.  The capacity to forgive did not spring out of the moment.  It was not manufactured for its public relations value.  The forgiveness the Amish expressed as a natural outgrowth of their life together, their faith in Christ, and their understanding of the Gospel. 

In a very real sense, they had prepared for this moment for the five hundred years of their existence as the Amish faith community.  Miroslav Volf describes the power of a forgiving community this way, referring not to the Amish community but to his own parents: “They forgave because they were part of a community that followed Christ and for whom Scripture wasn’t an old religious book, but the life-shaping word of the living God…Do you want to become a forgiving person?  Seek the company of forgiven forgivers!” (Free of Charge, pages 213-214).

Because the Amish make forgiveness a central part of their Christian walk, they have had to think long and hard about the nature of forgiving itself.  They distinguish between forgiveness, pardon, and reconciliation.  These are related but separate processes.  We often confuse the three in our thinking.  This confusion often then makes it impossible for us to consider any of the three processes.  So, it is worth exploring what might be meant by each of these processes. 

Forgiving is unconditional, or it is not forgiving.  Pardon, in distinction from forgiveness, is completely conditional.  Pardon means that the wrongdoer has been declared free from suffering any discipline or other consequences as a result of his or her actions.  The Amish Christians are very careful about dispensing pardons.  When it comes to breaking civil law, they do not protest the operations of secular law enforcement agencies. 

They may plead for leniency in many cases based on their understanding of forgiveness and their rejection of the pursuit of revenge.  The Amish of Nickel Mines and elsewhere have often visited in prison those who have done wrong by them.  They supported the family of the Nickel Mines gunman.  They do not, however, believe that damaging actions should go without response.

As Jesus hung dying on a cross, the man next to him made a clear confession.  We are worthy of our punishment, he told his colleague in banditry, but this man has done nothing deserving of such a death.  Then he asked Jesus to “remember him” in his kingdom. 

Jesus offers words of pardon in response to that clear and repentant confession— “Today you will be with me in paradise.”  It is interesting that Jesus did not relieve the immediate consequences of the man’s actions.  The man still died for his crimes.  Those crimes, however, did not have a permanent reality.  The man was pardoned.

Pardon requires a clear identification of the wrong done.  It requires an acknowledgement of that wrong on the part of the wrong-doer.  Pardon requires a request on the part of the wrong-doer for forgiveness.  It may still entail real consequences for the wrongs done.  But when those consequences are carried out, the record is wiped clean.  As our Amish sisters and brothers know, pardon is also a process that is most likely to happen in a community where forgiving is a regular practice; a practice deeply seated in the story of God’s forgiving us.

Pardon can only be given if the offending partner seeks it.  The offender must confess her/his wrong(s)—preferably in the presence of a trusted third party so that there is both clarity and accountability.  That confession must be honest and specific.  The offender must express genuine remorse and the desire to repent—to turn away from the offending behavior and the roots of that behavior.  The offender must also be willing to endure whatever reasonable consequences result from the wrongdoing.  All of this can happen more often in a place and among a people who know about being forgiven and forgiving.

Reconciliation is the restoring of the relationship after it has been broken.  None of this erases the wrong that has been done.  The question is, rather, “How do we live in health and hope even though such a wrong has been done?”  Desmond Tutu describes this in profound and passionate words.  “To work for reconciliation is to want to realize God’s dream for humanity—when we will know that we are indeed members of one family, bound together in a delicate network of interdependence” (Tutu, No Future Without Forgiveness, page 274). 

Reconciliation requires a commitment to a future “beyond me and the moment.”  At some point we will choose the embrace the future or to remain locked in the past.  As forgivers, we will choose at some point to re-narrate our lives to include the offense and the forgiveness, or we will choose to remain locked in the broken narrative where only the offense exists.

Reconciliation is an essential feature of Christian ministry and mission.  Let’s remember Paul’s words in 2 Corinthians 5:17-21—“So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new! 18All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation…”

Our ministry of reconciliation is rooted in God’s mission to us.  If we think for a moment, we can see that God has taken the path I am describing here.  “God will forgive; and with that forgiveness,” N. T. Wright says, “God will not only release the world from its burden of guilt but will also, so to speak, release himself from the burden of always having to be angry with a world gone wrong” (N. T. Wright, Evil and the Justice of God, page 156).  Even God is released by forgiving!

God’s forgiveness to us is unconditional.  It is an act of pure grace in Christ.  The consequences of our wrongdoing remain and must be pardoned.  This is the “new-making” power of the cross and resurrection of Jesus Christ.  God enters into relationship with us as healed, renewed, and forgiven sinners.  God takes us with utter seriousness but will not allow our sin to destroy the loving relationship between God and us— “that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself,* not counting their trespasses against them…”

We who are forgiven, pardoned, and reconciled then become missionaries of that reconciling love to a whole world in need of God’s healing.  This is our calling, to be royal representatives of the Lord of Divine Love— “…and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us. So, we are ambassadors for Christ, since God is making his appeal through us; we entreat you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. 21For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.”

This means we can and must exercise some care in this process of forgiveness, pardon, and reconciliation.  Volf has some powerful words for us here.  “Forgiveness places us on a boundary between enmity and friendship, between exclusion and embrace.  It tears down the wall of hostility that wrongdoing erects, but it doesn’t take us into the territory of friendship.  Should those who forgive stay in this neutral zone?” (Free of Charge, page 188).  At some point a forgiver decides to move out of that neutral zone.  Otherwise, the process of forgiveness, pardon and reconciliation is stillborn. 

Reconciliation is the final destination — not the beginning of the journey.  “Forgiveness between human beings is one crucial step in a larger process,” Volf writes, “whose final goal is the embrace of former enemies in a community of love” (Free of Charge, page 189).  When we read Matthew 18:15-20, we need to back up one paragraph, to verses ten through fourteen.  What you read in those verses may sound familiar.  It is the parable of the one and the ninety-nine.  In Luke we find that parable as one of the three “lost and found” stories, the third of which is the lost son, or the parable of the prodigal.  Matthew places it in the context of conflict and reconciliation.

The punch line of the parable is crystal clear: “So it is not the will of your Father in heaven that one of these little ones should be lost.”  This section of Matthew’s gospel is about including all in God’s reign, about seeking and saving the lost, about holding the “little ones” close, about releasing one another from sin and debt.  To use Matthew 18:15-20 as a lever by which we would exclude people from our lives or from our churches is to abuse Scripture for our own purposes. 

Can you hear the words of the father in Luke 15— “my son was lost and is found, was dead and is alive again”?  That is the goal of the forgiving process, that not one of these little ones should be lost.  Forgiving begins the process.  Pardon makes it possible for the offender to accept the gift of forgiving.  Reconciliation means the restoration, to whatever degree possible, of the loving community for which our God creates us, redeems us, and sustains us.

Reconciliation may happen at some point, although it may be incomplete and halting in this life.  There will come a time when the wronged spouse, for example, will need to make a decision.  I have been asked so many times, “When will I ever be able to trust her/him again?”  The short answer is, “When you decide to give that trust.” 

I have no desire to be flippant here.  That decision can only come after long thought and prayer, and after the offender has demonstrated some long-term and good faith changes in behavior.  At some point, however, the person who was wronged will need to decide if reconciliation is prudent and/or desirable.  That decision can be assisted if a trusted third party is called upon to help both partners remain accountable in healthy ways.  Sometimes, however, reconciliation will simply not be possible in this life.  Then the partners must go their separate ways.  Sometimes that is the case in conflicted congregations as well.

What if the other either refuses to forgive or to accept forgiveness?  In church fights, for example, some folks will choose to hang on to their hurts as a way put a roadblock in the way of any move forward in the life of the community.  Wright describes this as “a position of peculiar power…to exercise in perpetuity a veto on the triumph of grace.”  Congregations cannot and should not grant such veto power to anyone. 

If forgiveness is asked for or offered, and the other party can demonstrate no good reason for moving forward, then the community must move forward without them.  This is not a happy time for anyone.  It is a failure in the process and a concession to our still-powerful sinful desires.  But this may be the best that we can do as forgivers if the recipient cannot accept both the exclusion and the embrace, both the judgment and the reconciliation, that forgiving entails.

Let us be clear at this moment.  The community is not excluding those who refuse to participate.  L. Gregory Jones notes that “those unwilling to engage truthfully in this practice exclude themselves form the communal life of those seeking to live ‘in truth.’  Such exclusion, however, ought to be seen only as temporary and always in the context of the hope that those subject to it will return to the fellowship” (Jones, Embodying Forgiveness, page 183).

This refusal to engage in the process must be observed, of course, by other members of the church acting in good faith in steps two and three of the process outlined in Matthew 18:15-20.  Wright gives this council.  “Thus, just as when we offer genuine forgiveness to someone else we are no longer conditioned by the evil that they have done—even if they refuse to accept this forgiveness and so continue in a state of enmity—so when God offers genuine forgiveness to his sinful creatures he is no longer conditioned by the evil they have done, even if they refuse to accept his forgiveness.  Otherwise the grouch, the sulker, the prodigal son’s older brother, occupies the implicit moral high ground forever” (N. T. Wright, Evil and the Justice of God, page 141).

“In the act of forgiveness we are declaring our faith in the future of a relationship and in the capacity of the wrongdoer to make a new beginning on a course that will be different from the one that caused us the wrong” (Tutu, No Future Without Forgiveness, page 273).  Without forgiveness, pardon and reconciliation, I can never truthfully move “beyond me and the moment.”  With forgiveness, pardon and reconciliation, I can re-narrate my story in such a way that truth is told, life is celebrated, and new community is possible.

I conclude that the necessity of prosecuting and penalizing those who attempted a lynching in our nation’s capitol is unquestionable and must move forward.

After January 6 — Thinking More than One Thing at a Time

It’s January 7, 2021—the day after another of those days that will live in infamy in American history. The responses are predictable. This is not America. This is not who we are. This is a low point, but tomorrow we get better. I’m waiting for some hybrid of “It’s morning in America” and “Yes, we can!”

I appreciate the hunger for hope in such responses, the aspirational energy, the urge to reach beyond our grasp. I’d like to get paid on the basis of how many times people quote Lincoln’s longing for the better angels of our nature. In fact, I do believe that some things will get better as a result of the obscene debacle in the capitol of the United States of America.

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I also believe that some things will get worse. That’s what so many people struggle to embrace – that the American project is now and always has been a dual process phenomenon. “History duels,” Ibram X. Kendi writes in How to Be an Antiracist, “the undeniable history of antiracist progress, the undeniable history of racist progress” (page 33).

That dueling consciousness, that dual process phenomenon, is the framework for a great variety of competing arcs in American history. Liberal democracy duels with strong man authoritarianism (just revisit the rhetoric of the nineteen twenties and thirties if you have any doubts about that). Equitable distribution of wealth duels with increasing concentration of privilege, power, and position. White male supremacy duels with the just demands of others for a place at the table.

No matter how pure our aspirations, we are not all one thing. I was reminded again this morning of Maya Angelou’s line: “When someone shows you who they are, believe them the first time.” We white, privileged, comfortable, unconscious folks might wish that January 6, 2021, was an aberration, an outlier, a blip on the cultural radar, an exception. We cling to the illusion that this is not America.

But it is. It is not all that America is, but it is some of what America is. We who are privileged must give up our insistence on uncomplicated thinking and try to learn a thing or two about reality in this society, historically and in the present. We have to learn how to think two things at the same time, both of which are to one degree or another true.

I have recently read Dr. Eddie S. Glaude, Jr.’s book, Begin Again. Glaude admits that this book, focused as it is on the thought and writing of James Baldwin, is neither biography nor literary criticism nor history. “Instead,” he writes, “Begin Again is some combination of all three in an effort to say something meaningful about our current times” (Kindle location 191). In my view, Glaude succeeds brilliantly.

While W. E. B. DuBois famously wrote about the double consciousness necessary for Black Americans in his context, Baldwin explored, whether he wanted to or not, the double consciousness of White Americans. “To be sure,” Glaude writes, “the idea of America is in deep trouble.” Baldwin uncovers and returns to this insight repeatedly.

“Though many will find consolation in the principles of the founders or in the resilience of the American story,” Glaude continues, “the fact remains that we stand on a knife’s edge.” We are hearing the plaintive pleas of those who seek that consolation in our founding principles and who promise that in America we can do anything if we do it together.

But such pleas and promises, however well-motivated, tell only half the story. “Donald Trump’s presidency unleashed forces howling beneath our politics since the tumult of the 1960s,” Glaude reminds us (Kindle location 193). That howling became a hunt yesterday as insurrectionists came to the capitol with guns and zip ties, intending to imprison the very heart of American democracy.

Black Americans and American people of color are not shocked by the events of the last forty-eight hours. Nor do they find any news here. In fact, those events are crystal clear examples of the dueling impulses Kendi notes above. Indeed, Georgia voters have elected a Black man and a Jewish man to the United States Senate. That is cause for wild celebration. And the immediate response is an attack on the very system that made such an election possible.

Which one is America? Both are. Until we privileged white folks in the ruling class admit, repent, and reckon with some complicated thinking, we will continue to be stupidly surprised. “The American idea is indeed in trouble,” Glaude repeats. “It should be. We have told ourselves a story that secures our virtue and protects us from our vices. But today,” he concludes, “we confront the ugliness of who we are – our darker angels reign” (Kindle location 329).

Forty years ago, an earnest lay person pushed me on a point in an adult class. I have no recollection of the point. But I do remember the critique. “You don’t sound very optimistic about this country,” he accused. For him, that was a cardinal sin. “I’m not,” I remember replying as a right-thinking Lutheran theologian of the cross. “But because I’m a Christian, I’m hopeful that things can be different.”

I’ve changed in many ways over that span of time, but in this regard, I am the same. Blind optimism is a privilege of those whose positions are secure. We must be willing to see reality, and then perhaps things can be different. “Not everything is lost,” Glaude writes. “Responsibility cannot be lost, it can only be abdicated. If one refuses abdication,” he declares, “one begins again.”

Glaude reviews with us Baldwin’s diagnosis of American brokenness under the heading he calls “The Lie.” One element of The Lie is that “black people are essentially inferior, less human than white people, and therefore deserving of their particular station in American life” (page 7). The second element is the massive historical coverup of the trauma visited by white people on Black, Native and people of color, both here and around the world. “But the lie’s most pernicious effect,” Glaude writes, “when it comes to our history is to malform events to fit the story whenever America’s innocence is threatened by reality” (page 8).

This is the real problem with President-elect Biden asserting that “this isn’t America.” His intention is certainly otherwise. But in that statement, he cooperates with the malformation of our historical understanding that allows white male supremacy to hide in the shadows, adapt to the next bit of anti-racist progress, and then roar back into the spotlight for another round. Baldwin helps us to see all of what is America, not just the pretty bits.

Glaude notes that he uses Baldwin “as a moral compass.” Glaude asserts that we live in a period of racist “after times,” quite like the failures of post-Reconstruction and the judicial reversals of the Civil Rights era in the 1970’s and beyond.

 Our after times are still a reaction to the election of a Black man to the office of the presidency. “Trump is the dominant manifestation of our after times. His presidency is the response to the political and social possibilities of Barack Obama’s election,” Glaude writes, “and the radical demands of the Black Lives Matter movement” (page 21). That response will certainly outlive Trump’s tenure in the White House.

That’s because Trump is not an aberration, an outlier, a blip on the cultural radar, an exception. He represents one part of who America is, a part that is more engaged and enraged than any time since the 1920’s. “Trump and his supporters have shattered any illusion that we might have passed through the moment,” Glaude says. “Some thirty years after Baldwin’s death we are still wrestling with the fact that so many Americans continue to hold the view that ours is a white nation” (page 27). Thousands of those Americans sought to commandeer the capitol of the United States on January 6, 2021.

What happens if we insist on thinking only one thing at a time? Not only do we unilaterally disarm in the face of white male supremacy for the sake of our mythical American goodness and innocence, but we become moral shadows as we try to maintain the façade. Baldwin understood that for white people to do to black bodies what we do requires that we drain our souls into the abyss of emptiness. White male supremacy makes and keeps us sub-human.

Saying “this is not America” can morph easily into saying there are “good people on all sides.” The danger is that we white people will come to another accommodation built on the bodies of Blacks and people of color. This was precisely the compromise of 1876 that led to the end of Reconstruction and the Jim Crow system of veiled and legalized slavery. The thin Democratic margins in the House and Senate put us at profound risk of another white man’s compromise.

Glaude quotes Vann Woodward in this regard. “Just as the Negro gained his emancipation and new rights through a falling out between white men, he now stood to lose his rights through the reconciliation of white men.” In the efforts to bring privileged whites back “together,” history tells us that it is likely that Black people and people of color will be sacrificed on that altar once again. That will certainly happen if we think only one thing – and if that one thing is the myth of American innocence.

Read Glaude’s book. And read Baldwin – repeatedly. I finish these thoughts with Glaude’s call to conversion. “We have to muster the moral strength to reimagine America,” he writes. “We have to risk everything now, or a choice will be made that will plunge another generation into that unique American darkness caused by the lie” (page 142).

America has been a system designed to maintain white male supremacy. And America is a place where real democracy can happen. Both are true. We Lutherans like to say that we are simultaneously sinners and justified. No wonder we humans have to think at least two things at once. If we do, we can leave behind the former tyranny and embrace the latter freedom, but only as we are willing to think more than one thing at a time and act accordingly.

Eddie S. Glaude, Jr. Begin Again. New York: Random House, 2020.