On December 14th, I started noticing headlines on my phone about a grade school in Connecticut. Each update brought a deeper layer of dread and despair, the kind known to mothers and fathers who know just how vulnerable we all are. This is a grade school, I thought as I watched each headline reveal worse and worse news. These are very young children and yet, even here we can not keep our loved ones safe.
Four days later, my eldest daughter emailed me with news about one of her best childhood friends. Now a young woman, this friend had started crossing a street when she was hit by a box truck turning the corner. On a regular work-day morning, an ordinary morning, she was suddenly gone.
On Dec 23rd, Eldest arrived in Munich with her Beloved for a week and a few days visit. They were our first guests in this new home with unpacked boxes still scattered about. They were good sports about sleeping in gerry-rigged beds and taking daily baths rather then showers due to ongoing plumbing issues. We did our best to spoil them. We had German cell phones for them to use, we bought transit passes, and we gave them maps. They didn’t really need all this fussing, they are grown adults and have been managing well on their own for quite a while now. Still, we fluttered about because we are parents and that is what we do. We make the way clear for our children. Even our perfectly capable, all grown up children.
They left for home yesterday morning. We got them on the train toward the airport and then entered into radio silence. They had left the cell phones behind. They were now on their own to get to their flight and then home and there was nothing left for me to do about it. Not that they needed me to do anything.
It felt odd to let go again but this is how it is to be a parent. Sooner or later our children will go around the corner out of sight and we have to let them go. Which is hard to do in a month like this month has been for parents everywhere, like how this month has been for the parents of my daughter’s childhood friend, the parents who are also my friends.
We took my daughter and her beloved to the places we thought would be interesting to them: The Jagdschlössl on Rotkreuzplatz, The Viktualienmarkt near the Rathaus, and we gave them directions to the Hofbräuhaus. We cooked and ate a lot of food, drank a lot of wine and beer and occasionally got out the door to see the some of the farther away sights. We started with the Dachau Concentration Camp about ten miles north of Munich.
Dachau was the starter camp, the base model and training camp for all the others. We went out on a cold, raw December afternoon where the wind demands your soul from you. The sunlight was still winter solstice thin and the sky swept from broken blue to rain saturated gray and back again while we were there.
Dachau sneaks up on you, or at least on me. It starts out simple: First one encounters the visitor center and a path. Then there’s the gate with the deceptive phrase woven into the design: “Work will Set You Free.” There is the barbed wire fence, over there is the barracks and right here the open assembly center. We start reading some of the signs, listening to our audio tape and trying to imagine what this place must have been like. To the south is what used to be the maintenance building and is now where the exhibits are located. It is also, that afternoon, a place where the the wind isn’t blowing so we head to the door. Inside, we find photos of healthy men arriving bewildered at the front gate in the camp’s early life and photos of gaunt men posing in joy with the shocked liberating G.I.‘s. It builds up slowly but by the time I got to the place where the beams used to be when men were handcuffed and then hoisted up… I had to leave. It became better to be out in the sharp cleansing wind.
We walked down the center pathway, marked by trees, pausing to read about how the men were emptied from their barracks, formed into groups and marched to and from the assembly area. We read about the trees, how their green life gave some hope to the men caught up in the nightmare. We walked till we saw the five religious buildings built at the far end of the camp after all this had taken place in an attempt to reclaim this horror for God or at least testify against the power of this great abuse.
Honestly, the architecture fell short as a rebuttal. Two structures burrowed into the ground which doesn’t seem helpful as a healing image. One structure stood tall and open to the elements but began and ended with the suffering of Christ. The two remaining buildings stood off behind a wall or set into the woods on the path leading toward the crematorium. None of these buildings set within the wall were attended by humans other then us visitors trying to sort it all out.
I’m not sure unattended architecture answers evil. I’m not completely sure religion, attended or unattended, answers evil either. The problem is this: if God is all powerful, all good, and all knowing then Dachua’s very existence means there’s some explaining to do. And Dachau is just one item on a very long list of horrific sufferings which also includes but is not limited to an entire kindergarten class or my daughter’s childhood friend or….
If any place on earth has deserved to be smoted by the all loving, all powerful, all present God, then Dachau is very near the top of that list. And yet, it was left standing to the end. It just kept going till the whole horrific outbreak fell of its own hollowness.
Three days later we went to Salzburg which is a delightful little cream puff of an Austrian town. Everything I know about Salzburg I learned mostly from The Sound of Music. It was a little surreal to walk past varies film sites like the gardens or the grand stage or the graveyard (okay, so that part was filmed on a set that looked just like the graveyard!). Salzburg is the home of Mozart and grand cathedrals and fine chocolate and major public works of art scattered here and there. It is light and Do Ra Me only perhaps it isn’t really but this is is what we saw in our quick tour through town between eating and drinking and train riding.
Salzburg got smoted. They took a bomb through the center of the cathedral’s roof and it took nearly 15 years to get that rebuilt. In the meantime, they took in post-WWII refugees and fed them. As best they could, as best as anyone was able to eat in those lean post-war years. Many American protestant churches celebrate Easter with a One Great Hour of Sharing offering which was originated as a way to send food – whole train cars filled with american wheat for example – to Europe least everyone starve in the rubble. Something to think about should you find yourself sitting in a congregation on Easter morning.
In several ways, Salzburg says to the world: “This is the place where humans are at their best. This is our hopes and dreams expressed in art and music and food.” Also in very expensive purses, shoes, and jewelry but that’s another day’s rant. In several ways Salzburg is an answer to Dachau. So is the town of Dachau, which had become a gathering place for artists before the camp was built but we didn’t stay to see the town itself. We went to fluffy Salzburg instead. I’m not saying that Salzburg is pure either. I am saying that our best and our worst is often very close together.
Still, this camp. Still, these guns, this brokeness, this breaking in and this disordering of our lives washes over our art, our hope, our Christmas light. How is it that this evil existed, still exists if God is indeed all loving, all powerful, all present?
An answer I have long resisted is this: God, who loves us freely and without reservation, desires our love in return. Love is not love if it is compelled. Not only does God love, God desires to be loved. By us. So we have the freedom to create art and horse baths and grand cathedrals and Raindrops on Roses. We also have the freedom to create shooting machines and crematoriums. To hold a beating stick over our heads ready to arc downward toward exposed skin or to turn a corner in a rented truck without seeing this young woman starting to cross the street with the light. We have this terrible responsibility of Free Will. To make a choice for or against love.
What I think all those churchy buildings at the end of the field are trying to say is that while our worst selves were so brutally at work, God was still present. That while some parts of humanity were lost in such violence, God was still somewhere in the middle of all this at work in love. An entire barrack was set aside just for clergy who were just as human as any of the other men. I don’t know what that means except that Authority doesn’t like challenges to their power and God is the ultimate challenge to all human power. Even if the clergy were absent, many men who came to this place became their best selves and their worst selves. Sometimes at the same time.
Dachau was not just for Jews but for everyone the authorities deemed subversive, unworthy, a political threat. Jesus was very much – and still is – a very dangerous threat to Authority and not for nothing was Peter denying Christ three times before the cock crowed that chaotic Friday night of Jesus’ own suffering and death. If caught, he would have been at serious risk of being thrown into the Roman Empire equivalent of Dachau. I am not surprised that clergy got thrown into Dachau. How they coped once they arrived, I don’t know. I stopped reading the exhibit signs. I guess that some, if not all, fell into despair and some, if not all, found a courage they didn’t know they had.
I think God was in Dachau with everyone, in love and urging for love. I think God had no need for churchy buildings in order to show up. I think that the fact that the remains of this hell hole still exists to be seen, to be remembered, is a sign that free will can choose toward the good. We must remember this place. We must remember and witness this brokeness so that we might learn how to keep turning toward the wholeness. We must also remember how centuries of slavery in the United States still breaks out in violence-satuarted poverty, how women everywhere have been at risk to men’s rage, how hunger and hoarding kills young children everywhere. We must also remember that all this brokeness is not the last word of our human experience. None of this makes Dachau okay or happy now or healed or whatever. It doesn’t make the empty beds in too many homes in Connecticut okay. It doesn’t make the searing absence of my daughter’s childhood best friend okay.
It just means that this isn’t the last word. God is still at work. Even in this. God is still tending and healing and challenging and recreating and weeping and screaming and laughing and waiting. I don’t know why. I don’t know why God just doesn’t throw in the whole thing and just walk away. Especially in the middle of Dachau. However crazy the end times date setting may be, at least there’s a hope in that dreadful conflagration for restoration and an end to suffering. Or at least there’s meaning for all that suffering. If the zombies have taken out the power grid then there’s a context for resisting the zombies, a purpose for nobel suffering. Which denies the truth: Suffering is never nobel.
Still, even here, the clock doesn’t run out. At least not for the whole world, at least not yet. Instead we keep creating beer and handcuffs, sonatas and gun clips, antibiotics and box trucks with poor visibility angles. We keep getting it right and we keep getting it wrong.
Yesterday morning I hugged eldest and her beloved good by. We trust that we’ll see each other again but there are no promises in this world. Just Love, Ancient Love, who has already seen too much brokeness and yet who is still with us even in this, all of this. Who is still grieving with us the loss of this young woman.
Which is still not okay.
Which will never be okay.
I write this as a Christian trying to figure out my own religious faith response to terrible events. My daughter’s friend and her family are Jewish and I want to be very clear – what I write is from my context and for my context. I am not in any way desiring to trespass upon their grief nor their faith. Or anyone’s faith. Or lack of faith.