Unexercised Hearts

I just finished reading Kristin Hannah’s The Nightingale.  I had been avoiding reading novels about World War II for a while now, unwilling to face the similarities of the rising white nationalism that is evident in our country today.  When I concentrate on it, it causes an ache in that tender place right below my diaphragm and I can’t stand up straight.  It’s hard to explain the physical impact that I feel watching the white nationalism bubble up into public view—with adherents emboldened by the words they are hearing from the campaign trail and White House.

The novel is very effective—well-written, with engaging characters who survive World War II in France and become involved in the French resistance.  But just as I suspected, I couldn’t absorb too much at a time.  I kept stopping as the author described how gradual the Nazi movement towards the “final solution” was—one tiny administrative step, followed by another, with average citizens feeling helpless to fight it.    By the time the horrifying reality of the concentration camps is revealed, it seems oddly both mundane and jarringly unexpected.  They were people.  The people who killed and the people who died—they were just people.

I had three uncles who fought in World War II.  One of them was in Europe and helped liberate the camps.  He didn’t talk about it until right before he died.  My last veteran uncle just passed away a few months ago.  We are now losing the last of those with a direct memory of the holocaust.  And how ironic and tragic that this is happening just as we’re faced with a resurgence of the cancer that led to the war in the first place.  How quickly we, as a people, forget.  How could we?  How could we, in one generation, betray the memories of those who suffered so much?

About now, I think we have some readers who are cracking their knuckles and getting ready to type GODWIN’S LAW in all caps.  An “in the know” response intended to shut down any comparison between our current political leadership and Nazism.  It’s an ugly accusation.  I know that.  But I’m not making it lightly.  Against the backdrop of all the Muslim-blaming and deportation-hungry policies, news is starting to leak out about top Presidential advisors being enamored with fascist ideas, or allegedly affiliated with extreme European Nazi groups.  I am terrified that our democratic process—the beautiful weakness of which is that it trusts the people—has been exploited by very manipulative men with a really scary agenda.

Now our commenters are getting ready to type “but we’re not going to have a holocaust here, because of obvious distinguishing facts a, b, and c.”  Obviously, this is not Germany in the 1930s.  Neither is it Stalin’s USSR, Srebrenica, Rwanda, nor Darfur.  This is not the cultural revolution, nor the killing fields.  But this chilling list should be a reminder of the very many ways that we label one another and attach violence and repression to those labels.  It may not be gas chambers, but unless we change course, there will be more injustice and more tragedy.  (The thought of American children whose parents have been forcefully deported, and of mosques being vandalized, cannot allow me to write that sentence in the future tense.)  Human beings seem to constantly find new and creative ways to be vicious and cruel.

We are failing at truly living the religious admonition that Jesus seemed to know we would struggle with:  to identify someone who we think of as “other” as being our “neighbor.”  Undistracted by the lawyerly trap of the question “who is my neighbor?”  Christ tells the story of the good Samaritan and asks “Which now of these three, thinkest thou, was neighbour unto him that fell among the thieves?”  He turns a philosophical question into a call to action.  Go and do.  Look at the example of this Samaritan, this “other,” and follow him.  Serving and defending our neighbors is not a Christianity of the pews, it’s a Christianity of the community.  It is an absolute call to find, and to befriend, and to love.

Ultimately, the lure of a philosophy like fascism is an intellectual argument—which its adherents believe is unassailable—about the degradation that occurs when “races mix” and the authoritarian measures needed to stop it.  And ultimately, the failure of a philosophy like fascism is the utter inability to recognize the humanity of other people.  It is a failure of love, service, loyalty, and empathy.  Once we bring people into our lives, and we know them, and we serve them, these grand historical theories and conspiracies dry up and blow away.  They are the mean-spirited, spitting sobs and insults of unexercised hearts.

Please God, open our hearts to love—and spur our feet to action.


  1. This is a fantastic post, Karen. I always bristle a little bit when the Nazi comparisons come out, but, at the same time, it makes perfect sense to look at historical examples of the rise of ultra-nationalist, fascist leaders and compare what happened when they rose to what is happening in our country today. One need not accuse somebody of wanting to pursue a genocide in order to note clear comparisons between the European-style fascism of the 20th century and the nationalistic fervor of America in the 21st century.

    In 1935, when Sinclair Lewis wrote _It Can’t Happen Here,_ America was not at all unanimous in its opposition to Hitler. Nobody knew about the Holocaust at the time, nor had America entered the war. There were plenty of people in the US who could manage a good word for the Nazis without having to condone the death camps. It is into this environment that Lewis injects an eerily plausible scenario of fascism in the United States. We owe it to our children to see it coming–and to clearly mark the distinction between its philosophy and the one we call “The Kingdom of God.”

  2. Jason K. says:

    A hearty Amen to your concluding prayer!

  3. I have no problem with people calling out white nationalism. By all means, if you want to call people Nazis call people Nazis, but I think in doing so you are making the same mistake Trump and company are making: othering foreigners. Is there really no comparison of injustice we could find on our own shores? Or do we always need to look to foreigners to slander our political and ideological opponents? I can think of at least half a dozen home grown American atrocities off the top of my head, like when FDR decided to detain 110,000 Japanese people. In fact, though the Muslim ban is an atrocity, thanks to the courts it has thus far not passed the interment camps. Thank heavens we so far don’t have a Korematsu. Or what about the eugenics movement, and the courts ruling that “three generations of imbeciles is enough!” Or segregation, or slavery, or the trail of tears This isn’t to say all is well in Zion, just that the Nazi comparisons are at best lazy and at worst xenophobic. Rather than trying to compare today’s white nationalists to foreign bad guys it would be nice to discuss today’s problems with our own problems.

  4. Karen H. says:

    Jason, I’m making foreign comparisons because my jumping off point was a book dealing with a foreign conflict–leading me to think about my family’s own involvement in that conflict. Not to mention the fact that I cited a couple articles dealing with alleged ties between Bannon, Gorka, and European ultra-right nationalist movements. The point of this blog post is to say that we are LITERALLY needing to talk about actual nazis right now. I’m not lazy. And as a professor who teaches Constitutional Law, I’m also not unaware of U.S. history.

  5. wreddyornot says:

    Thanks for this posting. Another work of fiction people might consider reading, especially with their children or youth, is Zusak’s *The Book Thief.*

    In the spring of 1968 at age 19, I made my way to Dachau. I lived just south of Munich and the visit to the defunct concentration camp had a haunting effect upon me that will last until I turn around the last mortal bend and beyond. I went back to Dachau several times, the souls of the living and the dead calling me. As I worked among Germans in nearby Munich, I was surprised to encounter Jews still — or perhaps again — making their homes there, so close to Dachau, so soon after Hitler and his henchmen. These early experiences furnished my life with both an angst and a vision: with angst to recognize the potential for evil within every human being and with vision to see the possibility for courage and compassion in picking up a piece of bread to feed a cipher. In the words of Elie Wiesel, “Because if we forget, we are guilty, we are accomplices.”

    In small or large measure we must be vigilant and not forget. It’s the Savior’s gospel.

  6. it's a series of tubes says:

    I suspect Karen has already read each of these, but I found the following to offer a variety of perspectives on an aspect of the topic at hand:

    Ordinary Men by Christopher Brown
    The Last Lion: Winston Spencer Churchhill:Alone, 1932-1940 by William Manchester (helpful, though probably not necessary, to tackle the first volume, Visions of Glory, beforehand)

    That being said, I think Jason B’s point is well taken.

  7. When today’s American white nationalists deliberately draw from Nazi rhetoric, we would be foolish not to compare them to Nazis. Comparing them to other toxic movements is also useful and appropriate, but it’s bizarre to say that comparing them to Nazis is lazy or xenophobic.

  8. It’s also an absurd “political correctness” of the right wing that they are called “alt-right” or other things instead of Nazis.

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