(Father Lelere testifying at the Flossenbürg trials, June 1946, courtesy of Wikipedia)
James, a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ, To the twelve tribes in the Dispersion: Greetings.
My brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of any kind, consider it nothing but joy, because you know that the testing of your faith produces endurance; and let endurance have its full effect, so that you may be mature and complete, lacking in nothing. If any of you is lacking in wisdom, ask God, who gives to all generously and ungrudgingly, and it will be given you. But ask in faith, never doubting, for the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea, driven and tossed by the wind; for the doubter, being double-minded and unstable in every way, must not expect to receive anything from the Lord. Let the believer who is lowly boast in being raised up, and the rich in being brought low, because the rich will disappear like a flower in the field. For the sun rises with its scorching heat and withers the field; its flower falls, and its beauty perishes. It is the same way with the rich; in the midst of a busy life, they will wither away. Blessed is anyone who endures temptation. Such a one has stood the test and will receive the crown of life that the Lord has promised to those who love him.
I was recently reading a little bit about the Flossenbürg trials. For those of you who hadn't heard about the camp at Flossenbürg in WWII, it was one where a lot of Polish political prisoners went, as well as those who were rounded up as homosexuals dangerous to the Third Reich. It also was often the destination for religious political prisoners, and is famous as the camp where Dietrich Bonhoeffer was imprisoned and executed. Several others involved in the 1944 plot to assassinate Hitler were imprisoned, tried, and executed at Flossenbürg.
It's interesting that a significant number of Nazis were tried at Flossenbürg (46 in all) but it was overshadowed by the more high profile Nazis tried at Nuremberg. All but five were found guilty. The U.S. Army marched the townspeople of Flossenbürg to the camp to see piles of emaciated bodies stacked like cordwood. By and large, the people denied knowing exactly what had been going on at the camp, although over time, a few stories broke as feelings of guilt grew.
How much did the townspeople of Flossenbürg know? No one will ever know for sure, but we can probably be close with this educated guess: Probably most everyone knew something was going on that they thought it was best not to know any more than what they might have heard. The townspeople also feared the SS in some ways; to know and protest was dangerous. Some very likely knew much more but felt it dangerous to stand out with that knowledge. Some might have been very knowledgeable about what was happening and might even agreed, and now had guilt and shame for what they once believed. Probably some knew, but were faced with the seemingly impossible task of reconciling the fact that people they knew as "good people" and "nice people" were simultaneously capable of such brutalization.
One of the things I have learned when people find themselves in a surreal situation, no matter what role they might occupy in the drama, is that in times of trial, denial runs high. Memories soften and change over time and become unrecognizable woven bits in a much larger tapestry. But the bottom line is there becomes a place where the raw memory of the truth is no longer of much use--even for the victims. By the third generation following an event, even the memories of the last remaining survivors weakens and begins being lost to the ravages of time, and even when written record of their more raw memories still exists, they don't carry the edge of when an army of live survivors can back it up.
Frankly, it's one of the things that makes interpreting the Bible difficult. Thousands of years later, we don't fully understand the genre of storytelling in the Hebrew and Greek traditions. We don't fully get what is real, what is symbolic, and what is sheer hyperbole or metaphor.
In our reading in James, we are told that our personal trials have the ability to create an endurance in us and a constancy of our love for God.
What it doesn't talk about, though, is that in this endurance, memory fades, and justices we once might have clamored for don't always happen...yet at some point it no longer matters in one sense of it.
Although most of us will, thankfully, never have to have our spirit tried in the way the prisoners at Flossenbürg did, all of us have certainly been through difficult physical and psychological trials in our life, and the process to healing encompasses many of the same things.
Take, for instance, something as common as a very contentious divorce. We all say we're not going to take sides, but we do. Over time, we might discover if we did take a side, we took the wrong one. The heroes become less heroic as their flaws are exposed, and the goats become less "goaty" as time reveals some things the other person did wrong, too.
In short, there's enough "despicable" to go around for everyone.
The other problem we have in those sorts of trials is we can't always reconcile the smiling, generous person we know from work or social events as someone who is also a drug addict, alcoholic, spouse-beater, or child-terrorizer. We can't always see the stronger willed person as a victim, and we have a hard time believing a shy, wounded-appearing person as the aggressor.
But over the years, I've come to realize all these things are possible in the human condition. I've come to realize I can't change others' opinions of me, if the part of me they hook to are the uglier sides of me. I can never totally seem a victim to people who have watched me verbally line people out in my episodes of hot temper, and I can never appear to be an aggressor to people who have seen me be laid back and charitable in the heat of others' moments. I'm only using "me" as an example. This is true for each and every one of us.
No one human being ever fully knows the total of who we are. Some people can be intimate enough to get close, but even those people never fully get there. Only God knows all of it.
But what we find in the development of that endurance, as we become fuller people as a result of it, we find it takes a lot of letting go. Things we might have obsessed for years to "get our due" over, die of atrophy. There becomes a place we accept it won't happen, and we either have to move to a different place with it or the toxicity of it will poison us with bitterness. Old and bitter is a truly sad state of being.
Really, I "get" why the people of Flossenbürg, by and large, were in denial--denial that shreds of it might even have been carried to the grave. There was just a place where the "now" was more important than the past, their guilt had been worked out, and there just was no reason to upset people. Many may well have internally finally believed their friendly neighbor probably was a brute in the camp, but it simply got in the way of polite living. I am sad this happens, and I am sad that the victims never got the acknowledgement of their victimhood that they deserved, but really, most of the victims had moved on with their lives, too.
However, with that said, there are times the "late apology" can be tremendously healing. I thought about a time my Jewish friend Mitch had heard about Pope John Paul II apologizing to the Jewish people for the atrocities the Roman Catholic church knew about, but remained silent. It softened Mitch's stance on the Vatican from that day forward.
I thought about a time I once learned what I had been told about another person, and had believed it wholeheartedly, turned out to be absolutely, positively dead wrong, and I went straight to that person, hat in hand, and admitted it. It not only opened a door to my own healing, but put closure on that person's pain over something else.
I've thought about the times people came hat in hand to me, and I had the grace to accept it. Things changed for me from that moment on greater than 90% of the time.
Granted, sometimes the late apology is too late. Sometimes we aren't at the place with our own healing, or the other person with theirs, that it can be accepted with grace. But it's a chance worth taking, because when it does work, it becomes a quiet joy--one of maturity, wisdom and sufficiency.