How do we talk to our children about war and enemies and hope and love? How do we talk to one another? I had the opportunity to practice the other morning as my six-year-old examined the library books scattered on the family-room floor. The conversation went something like this:
“Mom, that picture on The Vanished Kingdom book looks scary.”
I glanced at the book and the dark painting depicting men in the throes of hand-to-hand combat, a tangle of swords and spears and crazed eyes. “It does look scary,” I agreed.
Examining another book, he asked: “Mom, what is the Forgotten Land?”
I explained, “Both of these books tell the story of East Prussia, the land where Omi and Opa grew up. Germans had lived there for a very long time, for over 500 years. But after World War II, the land was taken away from Germany. All of the Germans had to leave.”
“Because the countries that won the war felt that Germany needed to be punished. Actually, Omi and Opa’s families left before the end because they needed to escape from the Russian Army. The army was doing very bad things to German people. Omi had to leave her home, and she never got to go back.”
My six-year-old frowned. “Russians are mean.”
This tendency to dismiss entire nationalities starts early, doesn’t it?
“The Russian Army did terrible things. The German Army and Germany did awful, awful things. Pretty much all of the countries did terrible things in the war. But Germany started this war and killed a lot of people. It was a terrible time for humans.”
“But Omi and Opa are Germans.”
“They didn’t do awful things?”
“I don’t think so. But war is awful. I don’t know what Opa had to do in the war, but Opa isn’t terrible or awful, is he? Opa was a good, kind-hearted, brave man.”
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There is a strange gift in growing up the granddaughter of an “enemy,” of someone who fought on the wrong side. It makes me pause when fear causes the crowd to paint “Enemy” with a broad brush over entire people groups or countries or religions. I remember that there are human faces and hearts and hands underneath that label. There are grandfathers and teenagers. Dreamers. People who long for peace. People who love deeply. Poets. Soccer players. Teachers. Farmers. People who pray. Grandmothers who cook too much food. Mothers snuggling and singing to their babies. They are people like me.
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I made the mistake of reading Forgotten Land before bed the other night. I read about the death march of 7,000 starving Jews who were driven into a January sea after walking 30 miles from Königsberg. This happened just a few days after my own grandmother had left Königsberg by horse and wagon to escape west. How do you read of such things and then fall asleep? I wondered if my grandmother saw any of this. When she heard gunfire in the night, was she hearing the Russian Army or was she hearing the Nazis desperately trying to carry out their final solution before the war ended? My heart was heavy for these people who used to have names, homes, families, jobs, hobbies, love, and laughter and then were swallowed up in terror by both hatred and the sea.
We hope and pray that humanity is no longer capable of holocausts, that humans know better. But a cancer lingers, and it is most dangerous when we are blind to its existence, when we think that we are incapable of complicity in anything similar.
We read history books, not just to remember the past, but hopefully to learn from it. Human history is littered with the pervasive dehumanization of the “Other.” Fear and mass hysteria infected with such dehumanization easily turns deadly. World War II is a hyperbolic but horrifyingly real example. The Nazi regime dehumanized Jews, Slavs, homosexuals, the disabled, and others. Millions upon millions of people were murdered, while nations stood by. When determining the fate of Germany toward World War II’s end, Winston Churchill recommended the expulsion of all Germans from East Prussia. “It’s rough, but they deserve it,” he said. He didn’t know my family. My Opa’s sisters were the sweetest people you could meet on this earth. My Opa sang his heart out while he worked the farm fields surrounding their village and left flowers on my Omi’s bedroom windowsill. They worked hard, loved deeply, and lived simply. My grandparents and their families did not deserve to be expelled from their farms, never to return. The Red Army propaganda commanded its soldiers to unleash hell on the German people in East Prussia claiming that all Germans are evil and vile and need to be destroyed. Did Germany commit evil and vile acts against Russians? Yes. Are all Germans evil and vile? No.
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“People don’t still think like this today?” I wondered out loud to my husband. That was before that terrorist attack in Paris unleashed a barrage of fear turned to hateful words and actions.
What frightens me more than terrorism or extremism is the vigilante response of “us” against a very broad “them.” It frightens me that this response comes from governors and presidential candidates and influential religious leaders. The applause received by these leaders is even scarier. Have we evolved at all in the last 70 years?
Humanity has a knack for unleashing hell on earth, especially when we are afraid. Fear hardens our hearts, solidifying the boundaries between “us” and “them.”
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Yet, in the face of fear, I choose hope.
I hope in redemption.
I believe that humans have the capacity to participate in bringing heaven to earth, participating in the kingdom of God that Jesus talked about.
I wonder if the key to this is in Jesus’ teaching to love our neighbors. This isn’t just an admonition to Christians. This is an invitation to all humans: Love your neighbor.
We all ask that famous question: “Who is my neighbor?”
Maybe we’re secretly hoping it’s not the people with the signs and the shabby clothes who stand near the exit ramps to the freeway. Maybe we’re hoping that it’s not cranky people or opinionated and loud people. Or people who are just plain wrong in their thinking. Or people who come from countries that are war-torn and scary and whose prayers are different than our prayers.
Isn’t our neighbor, anyone on our path who needs a neighbor?
Instead of answering the question, “Who is my neighbor?” Jesus described someone who acted neighborly. Jesus turned the question around and asked: “Who was the neighbor?” He then advised: “Go, be a neighbor.”
Before I can take this directive seriously, maybe I need to ask: “Who is my Other?” We all have them. Who is the person that I would rather not find lying on the side of a road needing my help? Who is the person that I would rather not encounter?
I hope because my Other is a lot like me.
I hope because God can change my heart.
I hope because God loves my Other and can help me love them too.
I hope because love trumps fear.