My wife and I are in Germany right now, and we’re having a wonderful time. I still speak very little of the language, but am thoroughly enjoying myself in spite of that barrier and I feel completely at home here. A few nights ago we went to the Hofbrauhaus, where they only serve beer by the liter. After that, we went to walk through the Veinaksmarkt, which is basically a winter market. They have all sorts of different stands selling chocolate covered fruit (amazing!), chestnuts, and handmade crafts. We also had Gluwein, which is wine heated up with honey and herbs. Amazing.
Last Thursday morning we took the train out to the Dauchau concentration camp. It was such a humbling experience to see the site where some of the worst atrocities in history were committed. It was even more humbling to walk over soil that had literally been fertilized by the ashes of thousands of people who were burned in the crematorium. While we were there, we saw several large groups of high-school aged students. I learned that one of the requirements in the German school system is to visit at least one concentration camp during your schooling. The reason for this is to remind the students of the terrible mistakes that were made in the past, to educate them on the reasons for these mistakes in hopes of ensuring that nothing like this ever happens again in Germany’s future. I began thinking about the mistakes that have been made in my country’s history: slaughtering thousands of Native American men, women, and children as we expanded westward; dropping two atomic bombs resulting in the gruesome deaths of thousands of innocent people and terrible health complications for years afterward. I believe most people today would admit that our nation has made many mistakes, as has any nation; this is how we learn. However, students in Germany are forced to confront in a very personal nature the mistakes of their nation’s past. They are required to visit a site at which thousands of people were murdered. They walk down the line where the barracks built for 200 people housed 2000. They walk through the rooms where dead bodies were stored and cremated. They see pictures and hear stories from people who spent years in the concentration camps. They confront their country’s past mistakes in a very real and personal manner. People fear showing too much patriotism in Germany like flying a flag or singing their national anthem because these symbols were associated with such gruesome acts in the past. I wonder what our nation’s flag represents to the families of those who were murdered as our society expanded westward. I wonder what our flag represents to the families in Japan who lost loved ones when the bomb was dropped and for years afterward. I believe in what our flag represents, but I also recognize that many mistakes have been made under the authority of that flag. I’m not attempting to argue that we should dwell on our mistakes and constantly feel guilty, but continually being aware of the mistakes of our past is the only way we can avoid making them again. It is the only way to ensure the motto that is written upon the memorial at Dauchau, “Never Again”. When we talked about the horrific events in the history of the U.S. in my in schooling, it was seldom in a manner that forced us to confront and learn from mistakes. I almost feel as if we attempt to forget about the mistakes of the past in order to work toward a better future. But as I contemplated during our visit to Dauchau, I realized that if we forget about our mistakes, we might make them again.
There now stand on the grounds of the concentration camp 4 memorials erected by the Jewish, Catholic, Protestant, and Russian Orthodox churches. These memorials exist to honor the many who were killed and function as a place where visitors can offer up prayers. Directly on the other side of the north wall of the camp now lies a convent, formed in the shape of a cross. The nuns who live in this convent are there solely to pray for redemption and reconciliation as a result of the atrocities committed in this camp. This tells me that these nuns recognize the long-lasting effects in the spiritual realm of grave mistakes and terrible evils. The effects of such events don’t just go away, I believe that there are long-lasting implications in both the spiritual and physical realms. You can’t bury the past.
All of this has me thinking a lot. It makes me think about how we handle the past in the church as well. Like our country’s flag, the church represents pain, hurt, and suffering to many people. Sometimes I wonder if we have spent so much time trying to overcome our guilt that we have failed to spend the time we need remembering the mistakes of the past so that we don’t make them again. Some of the evils that have been done in the name of the church (and our country) warrant building a convent and spending years in prayer.
And naturally, I must end with some personal reflection, for I know that the problems in my church and country begin with me and change must begin here as well. I’m a guilt-ridden person. Anyone who knows me can testify that I feel guilty for the silliest things because I am constantly concerned with the approval of others. In this vein, reflection on past mistakes has always been torture for me because I felt bad enough when I made the mistake. Why would I want to revisit it? My solution has always been to move on to the next thing, hoping that the future will improve as I live and learn. But I’m realizing that perhaps I’ve been looking at it in the wrong light. I’m not talking here about constantly dwelling in the past, that’s ridiculous. What I’m talking about is being a true student of history on a personal, spiritual, and political level. I’m talking about studying mistakes to discover why they were made and what the results were. I’m talking about truly learning from the mistakes we make. Because as I reflect, I begin to see that I often do not learn from my mistakes, I make the same ones over and over again. And I think part of this is because I move on far too quickly in order to avoid feeling guilty. I don’t spend the time that I need in order to truly learn from my mistake so that it doesn’t happen again.
I was reading a book called “White Teeth” last night by Zadie Smith and I came across a quote that I believe sums up what I’m getting at quite nicely. “He was no student of history (and science had taught him that the past was where we did things through a glass, darkly, whereas the future was always brighter, a place where we did things right or at least right-er)”. I think this is how I have viewed life for quite some time, things just automatically get better and brighter as time progresses. But now I’m beginning to wonder, if we don’t take the time to reflect and learn from our mistakes, will the future still get brighter? If we forget about our deep, dark, secret past, what will keep the past from becoming our future?