This article appeared as the “Keep the Faith” column in the Saturday, July 11, 2020 edition of the Worcester Telegram and Gazette.
Protests in Worcester and across the country demanding racial justice have led to an increased demand for books on race and antiracism. Here’s one I am currently reading I highly recommend: “Learning from the Germans: Race and the Memory of Evil” (Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 2019).
Written by Susan Neiman, a Jewish woman who grew up in the American South and who now lives and works in Berlin, Germany, the book compares and contrasts the ways Germans have come to terms with the atrocities their ancestors committed during World II with the ways Americans have, and more disturbingly have not, confronted the atrocities of slavery, lynchings, segregation, discrimination, and oppression against Black Americans in this country.
In weaving together dozens of interviews with Americans and Germans, Neiman’s book is full of interesting and provocative insights and observations. Among those I found helpful is the distinction between “remembering” the past verses “confronting” the past. Remembering the past can be value neutral, even cultish when unthinkable evil is glorified. Confronting the past, on the other hand, is the complex and difficult process of acknowledging, confessing, and working through injustices and oppressions whose effects persist even today.
In confronting the German past, in one brief put powerful section, Neiman writes about her love of an overlooked and under-appreciated monument in Berlin commemorating the Rosenstrasse protests at the height of World War II. The protests erupted in February 1943 when Nazi authorities rounded up hundreds of Jewish men married to non-Jewish women. In response, their wives took to the streets in protest, “as heedless of the Gestapo’s guns as they were of the icy wind” Neiman notes. For a full week the women fearlessly protested outside the building where their husbands were being held for deportation. Finally their husbands were released!
Neiman suggests the tragedy in this relatively unknown protest is “not so much that the story is hardly known, but that nobody followed their example.” She suggests a subtle and implied message in Germans honoring those who sacrificed their lives resisting the Nazis: that resistance meant sure death. If the choice to resist meant a painful and horrific death, then there was a self-serving logic and justification in remaining quiet. Remembering the successful Rosenstrasse protest against the Nazi regime, is to acknowledge the reality that millions of Germans instead chose to remain quiet in the face of unthinkable evil.
In confronting our American past, and writing prior to recent attention given to Confederate statues and military bases named after Confederate generals, Neiman notes that most Confederate statues and monuments were erected in one of two waves: the first, fifty years after the end of the Civil War by sons and daughters of the Confederacy in creating the Lost Cause narrative (the belief that distinguished Southern gentlemen fought valiantly, but hopelessly, against Northern aggressors attempting to steal their rights and their land, with no mention of slavery or no place but servitude for Black Americans in their idealized vision of the Antebellum South). The second wave was erected in the 1960’s in direct response to desegregation. Neiman describes this second wave of statue building as “provocative assertions of white supremacy at moments when its defenders felt under threat.” For Neiman, the danger of these monuments of the past, both the time period in which they were constructed, and the time period they represent, is that they shape the future. “When we choose to memorialize a historical moment,” she writes, “we are choosing the values we want to defend and pass on.”
Neiman suggests the important in confronting the past is less about learning historic facts, and much more about knowing who we are today as fragile, broken, and vulnerable people. The past is confronted “as warning – this is how fragile our civilization can be.” In sober confession we acknowledge how close we are to committing unthinkable atrocities ourselves, and how much the effects of past atrocities live on in us today until they are fully confronted.
As a Christian, I see in Jesus’s crucifixion on the cross his rejection and rebuke of the ways Empire, whether German or American, criminalizes and dehumanizes people. To follow Christ of the cross is to confront my past and renounce the ways I myself am complicit in systems of Empire and racial hierarchy that gives life and privilege to me while stealing away opportunities and life from others. As a follower of Jesus on the path of discipleship, I must kneel alongside all victims of Empire. As an act of faith, I must confess, repent, and confront my past so I can follow Christ into a new future of justice, liberation, and healing for peoples of all nations, languages, and tribes.