The Gun and the Shovel:
An Essay on Religion and Humility.
In my “religion,” I try not to come from anger. To be transparent, I think of my religion as “White, first-born, raised Catholic, sister died from Leukemia when she was three, Priests told us it was God’s will, Jewish Grade School, Catholic Middle School, wanted to be a Martyr or Guardian Angel in 8th grade, Altar boy, Dog Guardian, Grandfather died, ditto from the Priests, public high school, studied comparative religions in spare time, went to “Young Life” camp, became born again until we left the camp on the bus, private and public college, became Agnostic because I like the wishy-washy, dancer, believer in a dancing god, married, firefighter, father, sister died of Leptomeningeal Carcinomatosis, dad died of Dementia, Mom died of COPD, Grandfather, oldest of an extended family whom I love, new Zen Buddhist practitioner. Still a believer in a Dancing god.
Again, I try not to come from anger. But as my friend, Rabbi, and fellow firefighter, Howard Cohen, reminded me, righteous anger is not only acceptable, it’s often required.
Here is how this started. A few days ago, I read The New York Times, and I came across an article titled “When Genocide is Caught on Film.” It was a review of the book “The Ravine” by Wendy Lower.
There was a photograph of Nazi soldiers and Ukrainian citizens shooting a Jewish mother and throwing her — must have been no more than 3-year-old son — into a pit to be buried alive. The German position was not to waste bullets on children.
Like many my age, I grew when the Holocaust cast a horrible shadow over what humans could do to others. I was born in 1950. The camps had been liberated in 1945. the Nuremberg trials had ended in 1949. Eichmann was captured and put on trial in Israel in 1960. At a predominately Jewish school in sixth grade, we had camp survivors speak to us about their experience. Hannah Arendt and Elie Wiesel were writing, reminding us to never forget.
For me, the shadow of the Holocaust was fundamental to my understanding of “us.” I read about it, went to lectures all through college. It largely formed my spiritual beliefs. And I thought I knew, right? I thought I could not be shocked again.
But this picture broke me.
After reading the review, I asked that same question I asked walking home from school as a sixth-grader, “How, how could this happen?” How could people do such a thing? What is in us to that creates such monstrosity?” I thought about hate. I thought about that bearded man standing in the Capital on January 6th with a “Camp Auschwitz” t-shirt.
And I was angry — so I wrote, this is how I explain the world to me.
First, let me note few alive today are directly responsible for the genocide of World War II. However, children then chased down Jews, broke into homes, and assisted with the killings. Some may be alive today. If I was a religious person and since they were children then, I would say, may God have mercy on their souls.
Next, although I am going to use Christianity as an example, it doesn’t mean I am anti-Christian. I try to understand and practice the lessons of Christ, not as my “savior” but as a teacher.
Simply, we are a predominantly Christian nation ( in 2019, 65% of Americans identified as Christian — but that number seems to be steadily declining). Christianity frames our worldview and is an underpinning for much of our national life. Even if you are not Christian, it is the sea we swim in.
A final caveat, because I know this will upset some. The argument I want to make is not just about Christianity. There are similar narratives in most religious and secular traditions. In the end, no matter our spiritual beliefs, no matter who your god is, we are human first, for good and for evil.
The Pakistan writer, Dur E Aziz Amna, wrote, “Lives should be led in the present, the eye has to look to the future, but all meaning is in the past.”
To understand our spiritual traditions, we must be able to look at the past. As Amna noted, that is where meaning comes from. Because we are human, we tend to “white-wash” the past to make it more palatable to our moral sense. We do this as individuals, and more dangerously, as communities. In the end, we have to remember that the teaching of histories and even the histories of religions is a political act. It is designed to create a narrative that supports the victor, the majority, or often our own sense of benevolence.
So here is the hard truth. As I looked at the picture of the small boy being tossed into the pit and his mother being shot in the back of her head, I realized this: the Ukrainians and Germans with the guns and the shovels were Christians.
Now, Sister Mildred, my middle school teacher, would adamantly claim they weren’t. In discussing the Holocaust, she would point to the swastika and proclaim that it was a symbol of atheism, that Nazis did not believe in God.
But that is just not true. (and it took me years, as a Catholic to come to grips with this) Most likely, given the times, the Ukrainians were Eastern Orthodox Catholics, and the Germans were either Protestant or Catholic.
I would assume they were all baptized. They were all likely confirmed and went to church. Probably, even as they pulled triggers and shoveled dirt, they thought of themselves as Christian and believed in their God. There is even more than just a whiff of a medieval Christian mission here. The Eastern European culture was virulently anti-Semitic. The church and governments promoted anti-jewish propaganda. Especially at Easter, Priests would preach that Jews were “Christ-killers.” It wasn’t until 1962 that the Catholic Church admitted that Jews did not kill Christ. Pope Benedict XVI had to reiterate that admission in his 2011 book, “Jesus of Nazareth, Part II.”
Even after the war and the discovery of Auschwitz in Poland, there was a pogrom in Kielce, Poland, on July 4th, 1946. Kielce had been “ethnically cleansed” by the Nazis. After the war, Jews returned. Tensions rose, the Catholic Bishop refused to intervene, and 42 Jews were murdered.
Consider our own original sin. From 1619, when the first slaves landed in Virginia, to the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863, slavers and slaver owners considered themselves on the main, devout Christians. They even used the Bible, the curse of Ham, to justify slavery. Through the era of reconstruction, and then Jim Crow, to Gov. George Wallace standing on the steps of the University of Alabama in 1963 shouting “segregation now, segregation forever,” these were Christians who were able to hold their interpretations of the teachings of Christ on the one hand, and on the other, be savagely racist. It was Christians in Colfax, Louisiana, in 1873 who killed 150 Black Americans. It was Christians in Tulsa in 1921 who murdered nearly 300 Black Americans and left 10,000 homeless. From the end of the Civil war, until 1968, there were over 4,000 lynchings, according to the Tuskegee Institute. 70% of the victims were Black Americans. Again, we can presume these were done, not by some secret society of non-believers, but by Christians.
And tragically, there is more that has happened in more recent times. Over three days in July of 1995, Orthodox Christian Serbs and Catholic Croatians slaughtered close to 8000 Muslim Bosnian men of all ages. This after Bosnian Serb military leader Ratko Mladic offered Muslim children candy and told them they were protected. (Know his name)
Again this is not a condemnation of Christianity. That would be foolish and mean-spirited. It isn’t “Christianity” that pulled the trigger, burned Greenwood, swung the noose, gave out candy, or shoveled dirt. And it certainly isn’t only Christianity that has a dark side. There were the Hindu-Muslim riots in the late 1940s after the partitioning of India. There were the Militant Buddhists in Southeast Asia and, of course, 9/11. And Christian sects have been persecuted in the Middle-East and Africa to near “genocidal” levels. This according to the British Foreign Secretary, Jeremy Hunt.
Then there is the blind eye — When millions of people, of faith and goodwill, people just like you and I, turn away. Germans (and Eastern Europeans, French, and Italians) turned away from the Holocaust. Whites turned away from the brutality of slavery and its centuries-old aftermath — the crowds gathering to watch the lynching of Black men, the White mothers — Mothers — yelling profanities at Black children.
We are led down this road when we are caught in the maelstrom of believing that we are right, superior, and everyone else is wrong. We are led down the road when a charismatic leader tells us our troubles are caused by a common enemy, a scapegoat. Mix in fear, economic deprivation, and add the fuse that it is “god’s will.” Then evil and its traveling companion, indifference, happen.
If you’re like me, your first thought might be, “I would never be like that.” We draw a distinction, some separation between the individuals who have guns and shovels in their hands and us, or those who were bystanders to it.
But we need to be cautious here. It is essential for us not to be sanctimonious about what we might or might not do.
A personal example. Think of the mass murderers who flew into the towers on 9/11. They believed they were sacrificing their lives for their faith, for Allah. They were zealots (“zealot” literally means zealous on behalf of God).
That seems like such a dark and horrific belief to hold.
Yet I distinctly remember absorbing the message, as a young Catholic (although I don’t think it was explicitly taught), that the easiest path to heaven was to be a Martyr, a Zealot, for the faith. Okay, I was a rather intense child who worried my mom. But I would day-dream about giving my life to save the poor and persecuted Catholics in Moscow. My reward would be a guaranteed path to heaven, a first-class ticket.
I wised up. But it is humbling to think the thread of martyrdom existed in me. Thank goodness for puberty.
Christian or non-Christian, inside us all exists the potential to do both good and evil. When we are terrified, exhausted, starving, our children at risk, we are capable of horrific things. When we actually believe that we are superior to others, Gentiles superior to Jews, Whites superior to Blacks, Brahmins to Dalits, Hindus to Muslim — and the list goes on — we are capable of evil and rationalizing why it is righteous.
I have two remedies.
The first is doubt. It is essential to hold on to a seed of doubt. True faith requires doubt. We need to hold close the words of Oliver Cromwell, “”I beseech you, in the bowels of Christ, think it possible you may be mistaken.”
It is the individuals who have no doubt, who firmly believe they are right, who admit no fallibility, that scare me. So, a seed of doubt, please. Your faith will not be diminished by accepting some of the mysteries of the universe. Humility in the face of the unknowable is more important than righteousness.
Next, step back, gaze upon this ball of earth, Carl Sagan’s “pale blue dot,” and ask what is the purpose of the nearly 4000 religions on this planet? (most of them believing they are the “One, True Religion)
A long time ago, I read that spiritual traditions are simply different poems of the same experience.
For a long time, I thought that that “experience” was a numinous one, something like the poet Rilke described, “… come more fiercely to interrogate you, and rush to seize you like a blazing star, and bend you as if trying to create you, and break you open, out of who you are.”
That was a mistake. Now I think the “experience” is more straightforward. It is compassion. It is kindness. It is the understanding there is suffering, and our most important spiritual task is to ease it. We are not here to get ourselves to “heaven.” We are present, in the finite amount of time we have, to care for each other.
Take away the supernatural. For a moment, think not of life after death. Take away the desire to comprehend the universe, whether Genesis or “turtles all the way down.” Think only that each religion teaches us how to “be” in this world and how to treat each other. The different poems are about compassion and kindness.
Past the lips of teachers, be they Priests, Rabbis, Imams, or Preachers, we do not need words of judgment, of sanctimony and righteousness, as powerful and addictive as they might be. We need to be guided into compassion and kindness.
Yet for me, the question lingers, what am I to do with my anger? The answer is that we can turn our anger into courage. With courage, we may not be Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who stood up to the Nazis and was hung, or John Lewis, who led 600 freedom marchers across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma. But with courage, we can teach ourselves to not be indifferent to suffering, to not look away. With courage, we can step back from the passionate crowd and ask, is this the path to compassion and kindness, or is this just a “religion” of saving oneself?
This is tough stuff. It is the stuff of self-examination, of asking ourselves, why am I here? It is the hard work of finding your own spiritual path, your own cause for being. Let that cause be moderated by humility and in service to compassion and kindness.
Be Brave. Be Kind. Fight fires.