Happy December everyone –
It’s been a whirl, as usual. In all that has happened, I never had a moment to linger on a significant anniversary: the Kristallnacht. On November 9 and 10, 1938, civilians and paramilitary forces conducted a pogrom against Jews throughout Germany, including Austria. The German authorities looked on without intervening. 91 people were killed, almost 300 synagogues were destroyed, and 30,000 Jewish men were arrested and placed in concentration camps.
80 years is not much time, and there are people living among us who can offer first-hand accounts. But who needs to hear about something that happened generations ago to know that hate is alive and well now? We can go to the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C. to look at history and also know that in 2009 a white supremacist entered that same museum with a rifle and killed museum guard Stephen Johns before being wounded by other guards. Who needs a museum?
Who needs a museum when white men marched in Charlottesville with torches and chanted “Jews will not replace us?” Who needs a museum when the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh becomes the next small Kristallnacht? We continue to live in times when people are targeted because of their religion. This includes the two Unitarian Universalists who were killed during worship services at the Tennessee Valley UU Church in Knoxville.
This widespread violent hatred baked into segments of American society is no less than a spiritual crisis. And if it had an easy solution, it wouldn’t be a crisis. It’s confusing; I have zero tolerance for anti-semites AND I want to understand how they got that way. The Quaker theologian Parker Palmer tells us that at the heart of all activism, progressive or conservative, lies heartbreak.
I’m reminded of a time when the Buffalo chapter of Showing Up for Racial Justice came out to do a counter protest against a recruitment rally by the militia group The Three Percenters. They are a right-wing, anti-government, gun fanatic organization. Depending on who you ask, they may or may not be a hate group.
It was a cold day as we walked into Niagara Square in downtown Buffalo, a dozen or so white anti-racists. Across the square stood a dozen or so of the militia, all carrying variations on the American flag, including a history-bending combination stars and stripes and confederate stars and bars. We had our Black Lives Matters signs. We stared at each other for bit. Then after a ten minutes or so, a man walked from their group towards us. I braced myself.
The man came up to me and extended his hand. He said “We’re all just out here using our rights of free speech, so I wanted to come and say hello.” As we shook he told me his name was Ray. I asked Ray about his rally and he lingered, and eventually his group trickled over towards us. Then the darnedest thing happened: We slowly broke up into small groups and talked about why we were there. Not everyone, mind you, but most of us.
These folks, mostly men, were rural and working class. It was apparent that they didn’t have access to good dental care. They talked about corporations and conspiracy theories, immigrants and governments, and above all, about feeling left behind. We were standing in the Rust Belt, one of America’s abandoned places, and they were right about that part at least.
I realized after a while that these men had reasons to be angry, but somehow they had ended up blaming the wrong people. There’s probably a lot of explanations for that but ultimately wrongful blame is no surprise in a racist and blindly capitalist country like ours. I hated their conclusions but ended up having compassion for their heartbreak. I felt like I could see the faintest outline of a path forward.
I’ll never excuse racism, and I’ll fight it without hesitation when it comes from places of power. But the Universalist in me clings to the belief that individuals can change, and that redemption is always possible. So I try to tone down my judgment of folks caught in systems they didn’t create. Arrogance is a poor posture for teaching, and shame is a poor posture for learning. Maybe we can stop this Kristallnacht before it goes much farther.
Warmly, Rev. Bob