Learning to Die, Learning to Live
By Charles Rush
April 1, 2012
Mk. 14: 1-9
(mp3, 5.7Mb) ]
e first time that I saw Leni Riefenstahl’s movies, I was somewhat incredulous. Riefenstahl was the official documentarian for the Nazi party, known in the West mostly for her film about the 1936 Olympics, as the great triumph of Aryan fascism. All that triumph was rudely interrupted for a moment by the American sprinter Jesse Owens.
the youth movement in Germany but what was incredulous was watching those early
demonstrations that the Nazis held in Nuremberg, all of these people marching
together. All of them unified, thousands upon
thousands of good looking people with good looking children in a country that
had the best university system in the world and arguably the most sophisticated
culture in Europe before World War I.
How did this
come to be? Of course, later I would understand that the weed of fascism only
grows in the body politic under certain conditions. But it is astonishing how
fast it spread.
At the end of
World War II, the world was so horrified that it cried, “Never Again”. In fact,
what actually happened was “over and over again” in a chain that was hardly
unbroken from China to Korea to Vietnam to Burma to Serbia to Rwanda to Syria
And after the
war was over, when we tried to piece together the moral of the tragedy, it
turned out to be much more complicated than we imagined. Fifteen years after
the end of the war, they found Adolf Eichmann living in Argentina as a quiet
family man, working in a factory outside Buenos Aires. Before and during the
war, Eichmann ran the train system in Germany, which shipped Jews to death
camps. So when he was arrested, the world over wondered what sort of monster he
covered his trial for the New Yorker, as it was front page reading in major
newspapers the world over in 1962. It turns out that Eichmann was a rather shy,
little man. He wasn’t the least bit reticent to speak to the interrogators
about his job. He was particularly given to digressions on the many technical difficulties
of coordinating a complex system with all of the interruptions that one has in
the midst of an active war.
Over the course
of many weeks the interrogators learned that he had been frustrated that his
organizational capabilities had not be really recognized earlier by his
superiors and that he felt he should have been promoted earlier. It was an odd
pressed him on the trains that took Jews east to the death camps in Poland and
returned empty, he would respond with the logistical difficulty that these
types of transportation posed. As for the cargo, he didn’t need to know. He
didn’t engage. There was just silence.
At the end of
the trial in Jerusalem, the judge pronounced a sentence of death, and asked
Eichmann if he had anything to say. The diminutive man in thick black glasses
started a rambling farewell of sorts. In the middle of it, he quoted a Nazi
slogan, one of the hundreds that adorned ordinary billboards around Germany during
the war. Hannah Arendt said it was almost as if he was trying to re-invoke the
world where his actions all made sense. In that moment, Arendt wrote, he
embodied the “word and thought defying banality of evil.”
something of a metaphor for our age because he was a lot more ordinary, like so
many of us, than we expected. And he illustrated the collective power of a
thousand bureaucrats that don’t need to see the bigger picture in any wider
society, actually in every developing society. Editors at the time filed his
example away in their minds, waiting for the day in the future when the whole
world population was large enough and inner-connected enough that group
structure could have that power. I think in some sense we all recognized that
this would be our besetting challenge in the future, not to let ourselves just
become a cog in a wider wheel that is seemingly clueless.
Reinhold Niebuhr used to describe it as the irony whereby
moral men create immoral society. We are one way alone, or with our families,
quite another when we act as a group.
Jesus during this week because he shows us how to die. The way that the gospel
of Matthew puts it, ‘he turned his face towards Jerusalem’. He lived with a
larger sense of purpose in his life. He had a mission and by the time he actually
turned towards Jerusalem, you didn’t have to be a rocket scientist to figure
out that he was probably on a collision course with the Romans who killed
insurrectionists and would be revolutionaries, religious or not, with impunity.
Like all of us, he struggled with how much integrity was worth in this
situation. He prayed, ‘let this cup pass from me.’ Before it was all said and
done, when he was at prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane, his concentration and
concern was so great that the gospel of Matthew says, he sweated blood. These situations
are never easy when you are in the middle of them. It is never easy to know
whether your little protest is worth the violent response that it is likely to
He was afraid.
He was unsure. We always are, usually to the core of our being. Over those
concerns, he also invoked the higher way. He prayed, ‘Thy will be done, not mine… Thy kingdom come.”
In the end, as
the pressure around him mounted, he became singular in focus, which is what we
hope for in the midst of the ambiguity. He became stronger of character. We
hope that in the midst of trial, we might find an inner integrity, when push
comes to shove.
would strike out, perhaps in revolutionary violence, when the guards came to
arrest Jesus, Jesus kept to the method of non-violence. ‘Get Thee behind me
Satan’ he would say.
Though all of
the disciples would fade away, one by one, understandable afraid,
understandably confused and anxious, Jesus keeps true to himself, true to God.
Though he is
tortured and ridiculed, embarrassed and humiliated in public, he keeps his
compassion and humanity, so that at the very end of his life, literally from
the cross, he would speak a word of sympathy and understanding to the criminals
on his left and his right.
In the Gospel
of Mark, it is one of the Roman guards, watching all of this over a couple days
that finally says, “Surely, he is the Son of God”. In
these moments, the powerful spiritual transcendence fills our ordinary humanity
with this deeper, life giving, healing force.
Even in the
midst of death and tragedy, that life force can be so radiant and strong, that
it makes you remember what it means to actually live, why it is that we are
here, and what we are supposed to be about. It is a beautiful witness.
And it has
inspired people through the centuries to rise to the occasion, do the noble
thing, sometimes at incredible personal sacrifice, to preserve humanity and
compassion. You read about them now from ‘the greatest generation’ as Tom
Brokaw called those who lived through the forties, because they are passing on.
Like Irena Sendler,
who died in 2008 at the age of 98. During World War II,
she worked as a plumber that maintained the sewers, among other places, in the
Warsaw Ghetto. When she left the ghetto, she would smuggle infants out in the
bottom of her tool box. She also carried a burlap sack for larger kids. She had
a dog that went with her in the truck and she had him trained to bark on
command, like when soldiers were inspecting or kids were too noisy.
kept the names of the kids that she smuggled out under a tree in the back yard
of her home. After the war was over she tried to locate the parents of
survivors and connect them with their adopted children. Of course, almost all
of them died. All in all, she got about 2,500 children adopted, taking them to
the convents around Warsaw.
she was caught and beaten until both arms and legs were broken. But what was
not broken was her integrity of character. What was not broken was her humanity
and compassion. What was not broken was her conscience. Sometimes that is worth
the price of considerable frustration, pain, even unjust humiliation.
before he died, the TV host Tim Russert asked his
father, Big Russ, and a bunch of Big Russ’ friends, the secret of happiness
when you are genuinely old. They mentioned a few different things but finally
Big Russ said, “being able to sleep with your
conscience at night” which ended the discussion.
lot of families, Tim never asked his Dad what exactly he had to live through
and Big Russ never wanted to share the details. And in some sense it doesn’t
matter. In your lifetime, there will simply be enough challenges that come at
you that you will have to define yourself and decide whether you are going to
go along to get along or whether you are going to do what you know is right. It
rarely comes at a time when you are prepared. It rarely comes in a way that the
right thing is the obvious thing to do. You may live through a particularly romantic
challenge like the French Resistance or it may be almost boring.
that moment, you will have a sense that this is important, not only because
humanity and compassion need to win the day; it is important because it is
about you deciding who you are going to be. It is about standing for what you
believe in. It is about making a statement with your life.
when you get to that moment, you will sense that this is not just a challenge
for the Son of God. The Son of God can fill you with transcendent strength for
you too are a Child of God. You can make a powerful difference. God can use you
and you can glow bright.
follow in the way of the One that the gospel of John says, “In Him was life and
that life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and
the darkness did not overcome it.” It is true that collectively we are capable
of deep darkness, occasionally overwhelming darkness… But the darkness will not
don’t have to go looking for a cause. The Bible is very realistic that a cause
will come and find us. In the gospel of Matthew (10:16), Jesus says, “I am
sending you out like sheep into the midst of wolves.” At points, our world can
start to resemble wolves circling for the kill. Jesus says, “be
wise as serpents and innocent as doves”… “When they hand you over”, Jesus says,
do not worry about how you are to speak or what you will say; for what you will say will be given to you in that moment”. You will
define yourself. And then he has this wonderful line, “for it is not you who
speak, but the Spirit of God speaking through you.” You might even surprise
one way or the other, the way of integrity is never wrong. Good does not always
triumph in this world. Jesus death reminds us of that. But authentic integrity
has a transcendent power to it that opens a new depth of living that death
cannot undo. The Gospel of John says, And the Word
became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of
the father’s only son, full of grace and truth.” My brothers and sisters, may
you be privileged to live in the direction of grace and truth. Amen.