Both Uruguay and Venezuela issued travel advisories this week to their citizens considering a trip to the United States. Venezuela has been ranked the most dangerous country in the world for the past two years, according to a Gallup survey in 2018. Yet they are warning their people about walking our American streets! It would be funny except that…it’s not! Their reasoning is based on the loss of 31 innocent lives in two separate tragedies in just one weekend! Folks from Uruguay were told that indiscriminate violence (specifically, racially-motivated hate crimes) were reasons to avoid spending time in our fine nation right now. The problems cited by officials from this South American country are extensive possession of firearms by the population as a whole and the impossibility of our police force to prevent the sorts of massacres we witnessed this past weekend.
Wow. We have become that country, the one known for violence. On the list of twenty most dangerous cities in the world are Detroit, Baltimore and Albuquerque. The travel ban urged foreign visitors to be especially wary in densely populated settings of our country because these seem to be a draw for mass killings. So a summer visit to a zoo, an outing to the theater, a ballgame or back-to-school shopping trip seem threatening.
The picture painted of America the Beautiful after the umpteenth week of crowd killings makes drug-infested South America seem almost quaint.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer is a German theologian who spoke out courageously against the mounting Nazi power. A pacifist, he used words to fight against this hatred. He established places of study that challenged Christians to reject the violence Hitler promoted and take a stand for Christ. He became an enemy to the Nazi authorities who limited his movement and shut down his underground seminary. In 1939 he was invited to serve as lecturer at Union Theological Seminary in New York. He accepted the call and slipped away from Germany to our shores. But it wasn’t long after his arrival that he knew he had made the wrong decision. He had spent time at the seminary years before as a graduate student. His involvement in the Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem had exposed him to the power of the Gospel in oppressed populations. He fell in love with the Christ who was joyfully praised in this Harlem neighborhood and his identity changed from astute theologian to lover of and advocate for the down-trodden. His 1939 return to the seminary as Hitler’s aggression marched forward suddenly felt like a betrayal to his compatriots. His friends urged him to remain in New York City, where he could work against Hitler from a safe distance. But he could not. He wrote a letter to theologian Reinhold Niebuhr voicing why he had to return to his beleaguered homeland:
“I have come to the conclusion that I made a mistake in coming to America. I must live through this difficult period in our national history with the people of Germany. I will have no right to participate in the reconstruction of Christian life in Germany after the war if I do not share the trials of this time with my people…Christians in Germany will have to face the terrible alternative of either willing the defeat of their nation in order that Christian civilization may survive or willing the victory of their nation and thereby destroying civilization. I know which of these alternatives I must choose but I cannot make that choice from security.”
In 1939 the horrors of World War II spread from one country to the next. Nations banned travel to Germany and even to other parts of Europe. Out of his Christian conviction, Bonhoeffer returned to his beloved country on the last scheduled steamer to cross the Atlantic Ocean before borders where shut down. He was later arrested for his outspoken positions against Hitler. He was ultimately sent to Flossenburg, a concentration camp, where he suffered alongside of the very people he had sought to save. Though he could have been teaching and writing from the safety of a distant continent, he was killed by hanging on April 9, 1945, just one month shy of the surrender of Germany.
On our travels through Europe last summer the terror of World War II cropped up repeatedly. In Amsterdam we took a tour that led us by foot through the Jewish neighborhoods of the 1930’s and 1940’s. We were deeply impacted by the sacrifice of Christians in an effort to protect the innocent in their Dutch communities. Walter Suskind was a German Jew who managed the Dutch Theater in Amsterdam. As the Nazi soldiers set up their system of arrest and exportation of Jews, the theater became the central clearing house through which Jews were herded before deportation to concentration camps. Walter used his position with the Dutch Jewish Council to rescue as many children as he possibly could. He intentionally mismanaged the books on the children who were in this holding tank, failing to record and even removing names from registries. He recommended that it would be better for the small children to attend the school across from the theater each day rather than sitting idle with their parents in a tight space. This proposal was accepted. Children from the country came to school with large backpacks into which small Jewish children were secreted away. These non-Jewish children headed home literally with a child on their backs in the hopes that these forbidden youngsters would have a chance at life as part of a non-Jewish family outside of the city. Jewish parents in the theater had to agree to this for their children, if you can imagine that anguishing decision. Through Walter’s creative inefficiency, 600 children were saved from death camps. Walter, his wife and daughter were eventually arrested and taken to concentration camps where many of the prisoners were those whose children he had saved. At age 38, Walter died unheralded in Auschwitz, just months before the end of the war.
Along the east side of the Hermitage Museum stretches the Shadow Wall. A Jewish neighborhood from the time of the war, it is an avenue of dwellings that served as home for more than 200 Jews. The Nazis had quietly investigated the Jewish population of Amsterdam, before they began their pogram. They put together a map of where Jews lived. When they began the terror of their arrests, complete neighborhoods like the one across from the Hermitage, were removed from their homes and carted away. The Nieuwe Keizersgracht Canal lost 215 of its Jewish residents to concentration camps, with fewer than 15 surviving. Their homes were given to others. Yet the surviving Jewish owners who beat all odds and returned, had to pay the taxes on the homes they had lost. Even though the war was over, the hatred that fueled it continued to tear apart the survivor’s lives.
Present day residents of this neighborhood wanted to commemorate the individuals who once laughed in their living rooms and ate meals around prayerful tables. So they placed plaques naming those Jewish residents along the canal’s edge across from the homes. Referred to as the Canal of Shadows, each plaque lists the names, ages and date of death for each former resident. It was dedicated in 2013 as a powerful memorial to the innocent who lost their lives at the hand of a hateful and mentally ill dictator. It was a sobering part of our trip that deeply impacted us.
The news broadcasts the past couple of days show crosses outside of the El Paso Walmart and Dayton bar. The crosses are marked with the names of the 31 victims who were slaughtered as they picked out back-to-school supplies for their children and sat at tables enjoying good food with friends. The scene of candlelight vigils and weeping mourners has become far too familiar to us. The location and the names change but the agony is replayed almost weekly. Sometimes the killings are racially motivated, as in El Paso. Many times mental illness plays an important role. Isolation and bullying have come under scrutiny as ostracized young people have found these massacres to be their best revenge on a cruel world.
I have grieved the senseless loss of life at too many different locations: the 911 Memorial at Ground Zero, the Gettysburg battlefield, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, the Holocaust Museum in Jerusalem, lost Palestinian villages in Galilee, the American Cemetery in Normandy, to name a few. Since the Oklahoma City bombing and the shooting in Columbine, Americans have struggled to find ways to honor those lost in countless acts of terrorism across our nation. There comes a day when the crosses, the votive candles and the bouquets of flowers have to be removed and the lives of the mourners are expected to grind forward into a new normal. But things are never the same. The fact that a backfiring motorcycle in Times Square sent throngs of people running for their lives yesterday evening speaks volumes of the fear that is never too far beneath our national surface. We have become the blacklisted destination at the top of the travel advisories because we claim too many murdered victims to remember.
In the wake of each senseless crime we learn of heroes. We meet folks who are taking the unthinkable worst situation and inviting a response of compassion. 11-year old Ruben Martinez of El Paso told his mom he didn’t want to go in stores any more. How could they be safe. His mother told him they couldn’t live in fear and asked him what might be a helpful way to respond to the devastating loss. The result is the El Paso Challenge that he hopes will help his Texas community heal. He is passing out fliers and holding up a sign inviting folks to do 22 good deeds to help others in honor of the lives lost in the El Paso Walmart. The examples he gives are simple and reflect the options an 11-year old might be able to choose: mow someone’s lawn, bring someone flowers, hold the door for others, leave a dollar on the vending machine for the next person. People are following his lead and choosing goodness over evil. It’s the beginning to a long journey but I fear we will move on soon to another crisis even as El Paso and Dayton residents are left grappling with their devastating loss.
Most heroes act quietly. No one knew what Walter Suskind was doing at the Jewish Theater until children returned long after the war with stories of how their lives were spared. Dietrich Bonhoeffer was just an outspoken pastor who refused to look the other way—like many German Christians did in World War II—when confronted with anti-Semitic genocide. Young Ruben joins the ranks of those who choose action in the face of seemingly impossible odds. The easy response to our messed up national crisis is to do nothing. We can hole up in the places and prejudices that make us feel secure. Or we can take the more difficult path—some might call it bearing your cross—and look for the ways we can shine the light of Jesus in the darkest places.
When these shootings were first beginning we held special worship services to counteract the atrocities. We rang bells. We lit candles even when our church was far away from the place of crisis. I struggle to know what to write on our church Facebook page in response to these tragedies. Since these killings have accelerated in the past ten years I seldom acknowledge them on social media. Sadly, they have become too numerous and, even, routine. Rather I pray and urge my people to pray continually for the ways we can respond to the hatred that starts in our own communities. The cry from my heart each time I learn of another terrorist act is ancient but relevant: LORD HAVE MERCY. CHRIST HAVE MERCY, HAVE MERCY UPON US. May it be so. Amen.