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Real Crossings, Real Lynchings

October 28, 2019

 

After visiting Barcelona two summers ago, I travelled up the coastal road into France where, quite by accident, I happened to cross the border at a place called the Coll de Belitres. On this stomach-lurching mountaintop, I found a memorial to the near half a million refugees who made their way over the wind-swept Coll de Belitres to the French border—open for ten days, during the deepest of winter, 1939.

 

480,000 people made this arduous journey on rugged mountains roads and into uncertain exile, seeking shelter, even if it turned out to be a concentration camp in the rugged Pyrenees—which it did. Some 350,000 more fled Spain through a mountain pass just further west.

 

But that is not the end of the story of the pass of Coll de Belitres. Hardly.

 

Because a few years later, an untold number of people fled France for Spain, crossing the Coll de Belitres in the opposite direction. Police controls were seeking to capture and deport to camps all whom the Nazis deemed undesirable. To remain in France meant internment and likely death for many--Roma people, gays, intellectuals, communists—but primarily French Jews or Jews who had sought shelter in France when it was unsafe to stay in Germany or Austria. And so, they crossed this steep and unhospitable pass with nothing: no promise of safety on the Spanish side of the border, no assurance that the new fascist government in Spain would receive them. But they had to flee.

 

Somalian poet, Warshan Shire writes:

 

No one leaves home unless
home is the mouth of a shark
you only run for the border
when you see the whole city running as well

 

*********************

 

On this day, last year, 11 people were murdered shot at Tree of Life synagogue just outside of Pittsburgh. Before he opened fire Robert Bowers shouted a violent anti-Semitic threat consistent with the kinds of violent, vile and hateful things he regularly posted. The massacre at Tree of Life was the worst attack on Jews in America since the beginning of our history. But anti-Semitic attacks go back much, much farther--in the high middle ages, Jews were made to wear clothing to identify them.

 

The Bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Pittsburgh threw shade at newscasts which referred to the Tree of Life massacre as "tragedy," calling it murder, a willful and hateful choice. "Human beings have moral agency. Someone chose to hate, and chose to kill."

 

“Human beings have moral agency.” As Martin Luther wrote in his Small Catechism--that booklet of instruction most Lutheran children were required to learn, sometimes by heart—what does this mean? What does this mean? “Human beings have moral agency?” You know what it means. My sister has it defined on a bumper sticker on her car. It’s reductionist, but still: Be good. Don’t be bad.

 

We’ve gotten bad at being good in this country. We need to do better. We do. We need to resist to our marrow the temptation to draw "us" and "them" lines. Jesus didn't. But sadly, Martin Luther did.

 

Perhaps true of most Lutheran pastors, I thought for a time Martin Luther was a worthy and quirky historical mentor: smart, soulful and foul-mouthed, a man of multi-faceted skills and a personality.

 

But here’s the thing I discovered: the man I revered as the founder of what I find to be the most faithful understanding of what it means to be Christian was an unrepentant and vocal anti-Semite.

 

Lutherans have made a lot of excuses for him. We like to say “well, his anti-Semitic writings were done late in his life” (which is true). We like to say “None of that writing is anywhere to be found in the documents by which we identify ourselves as Lutherans.” And that is true, too. We like to say that “It was maybe after too many beers. Luther liked beer. Sometimes maybe he drank too many beers.”

 

Well, maybe Luther was an old-ish man who drank too many beers. But fewer than a hundred years ago, Luther’s later writings were used to support a Nazi agenda. And American Lutherans like to talk about the German Confessing Church which opposed Nazi policy, but that was only 10% of the state church.

 

We really need to own this--but not simply to be ashamed of this sad and sobering fact. We need to own it so that we can call out injustice when we see it--and learn from history precisely so we don't repeat it.

 

Which is why accuracy and sensitivity in speech is so important. Which means--when the term "lynching" is applied to a political process, we sully the victims of actual lynchings. Actual lynchings were extrajudicial, tortuous public executions. From 1868 to 1871 estimates indicate that the KKK was involved in more than 400 lynchings. And lynchings of members of other ethnic groups, such as Mexicans and Chinese, have been undercounted. The largest lynching was the Chinese massacre of 1871. And in 1891 a mob lynched eleven Italian immigrants in New Orleans.

 

Nevertheless, from the 1890s onwards, the majority of those lynched were black, including at least 159 women. "Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees," Billie Holiday sings to those who will listen.

 

The Jewish concept of tikkun olam calls for people of faith--all people--to make the world a better place. And not because it will lead to a heavenly reward, but because it is what we are all called to do right here, right now.

 

The bullying in our public discourse, the normalization of racism and misogyny, the "might makes right" mentality and the fomenting and enacting of violence against groups it is somehow easy to hate? Not tikkun olam. Not a moral stance at any level. Religiously speaking, it is also ungodly. I am on steady ground when I say that Jesus would not like it. Hashem (whose name be praised), would not like it. Allah would not like it. We need not be partisan in our politics or in our professions of faith. When it comes to tikkun olam, to making the world a better place, we are best, in fact, when we are not divided, but struggling to unite.

 

Borders should provide safe crossings for people in search of safety.

Houses of worship should be sanctuary spaces.

Trees should bear summer fruit. They were never meant to bear mutilated bodies.

 

Only in learning history can we change what happens next.

 

 

 

 

 

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I'm a writer, yoga teacher, Lutheran pastor, and music nerd living in New York. I find a feast in daily living - most days, anyway - and write about it here. 

Finalist for the 2017 Chautauqua Prize!
The frank and funny story of a church-geek girl who spent twenty years in the ecclesiastical trenches as a Lutheran pastor, preaching weekly words of hope she wasn’t sure she even believed.