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.