Monthly Archives: March 2007

Ordinary Men Doing the Unspeakable

ordinarymen.jpgI read Elie Weisel’s Night as part of a literature class in 11th grade, and ever since, I’ve been drawn to Holocaust literature. It’s not fun stuff to read. It’s pretty horrifying. What draws me? Probably the question which thunders to the forefront with each book: “How could people do this?”

How, indeed. But they did. And they could do it again.

Two weeks ago I finished Ordinary Men, an astounding book which focuses on a reserve police battalion–ordinary men holding ordinary jobs, most too old for the regular army–who got called up as reserve policemen and stationed in Poland. There, they participated in the deaths of 85,000 Jews, either directly executing them or herding them into trains bound for Treblinka and Sobibor.

The author asks:

How did these men first become mass murders? What happened in the unit when they first killed? What choices, if any, did they have, and how did they respond? What happened to the men as the killing stretched on week after week, month after month? [What were] the personal dynamics of how a group of normal, middle-aged German men became mass murderers?

The author magnificently weaves the recorded testimony of numerous men (they went on trial in the 1960s) into a chilling narrative.

In most Holocaust literature and movies, Germans are portrayed almost as caricatures–all without conscience, all Jew-haters, all capable of great evil. But the people who carried out the policies of the true-believer ideologues at the top (Hitler, Himmler, and company) were ordinary people much like you and me caught up in unimaginable events.

This book humanizes the Germans of Reserve Police Battalion 101. You see men who refused to take part in mass executions, and who were excused from doing so. You see Germans leading small groups of Jews into the woods, where they made them lay on the ground, stuck the bayonet at a point on their neck, and then fired in unison. One German killing one Jew, and then they go for another batch. After a few rounds of this, you see soldiers approaching officers and saying, “I can’t do this anymore,” or even just wandering off. You also see reservists who enjoyed what they were asked to do, and you see civilians who wanted to know when the next roundup of Jews would occur, so they could come watch.

Interestingly, “No one could document a single case in which Germans who refused to carry out the killing of unarmed civilians suffered dire consequences.” This was the conclusion of prosecutors in the 1960s, after two decades of trying Nazi war criminals. Ordinary Men focuses a lot on this. You see the peer pressure, the feeling among the solders that they had to “do their part” in the dirty work of executing Jews, and to leave it to your comrades was to let the unit down. But nobody was penalized; they were just given some kind of alternate duty not directly involved in killing. “The battalion had orders to kill Jews, but each individual did not….Since the battalion had to shoot even if individuals did not, refusing to shoot constituted refusing one’s share of an unpleasant collective obligation.”

Anyway, this was a fabulous book with new insights for me. It resonated with my perceptions of how people think and behave, and I can better understand how ordinary people can be caught up as collaborators in horrible atrocities.

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The Other Side of Disappointment

Two weeks ago, I posted about my disappointment of setting up a meeting with several 20-something young men, and then nobody showed up. I said I’d give it another week.

Well, last week three guys showed up. Dan, Allen, and RJ. We sat around a table in the sanctuary (our sanctuary seating includes four large round tables, and people flock to them), and I walked them through the bridge illustration. I just wanted to determine where they were in their understanding of the Gospel and their personal experience with Christ. I wrote out some questions for them to respond to before we started chatting, things like: “I consider myself a Christian,” “I think I’ll go to heaven when I die,” “It’s possible to know for certain that you’re going to heaven,” and a couple more. Each question had four possible responses: Yes, No, I Think So, I’m Not Sure.

I tell you, it was a lot of fun. They all drew out the bridge, and then we moved on to the three Campus Crusade circles (with Christ on the throne, with Christ at the foot of the throne, and with Christ not even in the circle). I find those very helpful in picturing the three types of lives.

We talked about sin and forgiveness and Christ’s death and eternal separation and “accepting Christ as Savior.” I did a lot of probing, and by the end of the hour, I felt confident that all three were, indeed, Christians. So I guess I’m not gonna get any notches in my belt.

This past Monday night, Dan and RJ showed up. I had typed out about eight subjects on a sheet of paper, and we informally discussed four of them–The Church, the Holy Spirit, the Bible, and Witnessing. I am very comfortable leading a free-flowing, unstructured discussion, and that’s what is required with these guys. I learned a great deal about them, things that surprised me. And they want to keep the discussion going next week.

So, disappointment turned into great reward for me.

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Subversive Questions About Family

Pastor Tim wasn’t supposed to preach today. He and Tara were supposed to have their new baby last week, and Tim’s dad, Gerald, was slotted to speak in his place. But the baby, alas, seems in no hurry to greet the world. And so there he was, speaking about pride, one of the Seven Deadly Sins in this “Vice-Busters” series.

He’s been using a Bible figure with each sin, and today he used Joseph–that spoiled kid who thought he was better than his brothers (and was, actually, but that’s beside the point)–to go along with pride. As an aside, Tim pointed out that, if you want good models of family life, the Bible is not the place to go. That’s certainly true. You don’t find healthy families in the Bible, just lots of dysfunction.

Why is that? When God put the Bible together, he was fully aware of what he was leaving out.

We’re big on the family–family time, family values, strengthening the family, protecting the family, etc. We want our churches to be family-oriented, and we constantly stress the need for strong families. We take the gloves off in the political arena to protect our view of the “traditional,” as-God-intended-it family.

You would think the family is a central theme of the Bible. But it’s not. Why is that? Is it okay to ask that? Does God view the family differently than we do? Is our view of the family wrapped up in our culture? Why didn’t God ever chastise those Old Testament heroes for having multiple wives? Did God care, or not? Don’t worry–I’m not headed toward advocating polygamy or gay marriage. I’m just askin’. In sort of a quasi-heretical way.

When Jesus spoke about the family, it was usually about alienating family members and redefining the family as the total body of Christ (“For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother”). The New Testament writers give some basic instructions regarding family roles, parenting, and husband-wife relationships, but not as much attention as they give to church roles.

Why doesn’t the Bible give us examples of good families? “What about Mary and Joseph?” you ask. But for all we know, Joseph, despite his superb start, could have become an alcoholic and committed suicide with a nail gun. We don’t know.

Is there some heavenly paradigm that we’re missing? And could that be the reason so many “good Christian families” go haywire? Are we doing family in a way which seems right to us, but isn’t really what God had in mind? Am I going absolutely nuts?

Okay, I can tell that you’re getting really really mad, so I’ll stop. But…I’m just askin’.

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Email Obsession

The last thing I do each day, before leaving work, is check my email. Well, almost the last thing. I then close the email program, start the screen saver, and put the rechargeable mouse in its cradle. Then I leave.

It’s a nice, liesurely, 25-minute drive home, during which I typically listen to ESPN, which has nothing new to contribute to my life. Upon arriving home, I turn on the computer and…check my email.

Because, after all, it’s been a full 25 minutes since I last checked.

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The Intrusive March of Technology

Does anyone else find musical ringtones annoying? You’re in a meeting, or a church service, and somebody’s phone goes off with a a vaguely familiar tune. It’s loud, and the person takes forever to silence the thing. A few weeks ago in church, we heard Shakira’s “Hips Don’t Lie” several times (since the phone’s owner was out of the sanctuary at the time). Ringtones are like fonts–there are zillions available, and you’ve got to try them all. So the theory evidently goes.

But the advance of technology has now created something even more annoying. At BP stations, when you start pumping gas, a voice from a speaker at the pump intrudes into my personal space with verbal advertisements. Thankfully, you can hit a “mute” button to silence the voice, an option I always take (as I did this morning). But I find this intrusion to be entirely diabolical and evil.

I thought nothing could be more annoying than pop-up ads. Then along came ringtones, and now these spoken ads at BP stations. I can hardly wait to see what’s next.

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He Sounds Like a Democrat

I now officially like Mike Huckabee, who is running for President. I don’t endorse him, and may not vote for him. But I like him. Why? Because he plays bass in his church’s praise band.

Time magazine has a very interesting column by Joe Klein called The Second Commandment Republicans. Klein contrasts what he calls the “grace” views of Huckabee and Sam Brownbeck with the “condemnation” proclivities of Jerry Falwell, James Dobson, and Pat Robertson. I think that’s a bit simplistic and unfair, but there’s only so much you can do in a short column. And it does point out something worth pointing out.

Huckabee attends a church in Little Rock, Ark., which he describes as “very similar to Rick Warren’s. We’ve gone from 25 members to 5000 in eight years. Our focus has been to minister to people who were otherwise neglected….We are a multicultural, multiracial congregation, with rich and poor.”

I like that. I feel like Huckabee is a lot like me, and a lot like the new wave of Christian leaders, who emphasize causes that previously were the habitation of Democrats–concern for the poor, the environment, AIDS, etc. Rick Warren is perhaps the foremost person in this movement of new leaders, though he’s not particularly leading anything (except by example). It’ll take a long time for displace Falwell, Dobson, Robertson, et al, but the day is coming.

Klein mentions heaing Huckabee speak to the National Review’s Conservative Summit, and stressing his views on feeding the hungry and healthcare. A person told Klein, “I think he’s in the wrong party.”

We’ve got a highly committed Christian interested in the poor, and Republicans are saying he sounds ilke a Democrat–that he doesn’t belong in a Republican setting. Yes, there’s a change coming, and it’s a good one.

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Pink Panther, American Dragon, Easter Bunny

This really made me laugh. It’s from my brother Rick’s blog, Rick’s (not so) Deep Thoughts, and it concerns his young son, Cameron.

I was home alone with Cameron the other night and Dorene called. When I hung up the phone, Cameron asked me who it was. I said, “It was the Pink Panther.” Cameron said, “He’s not real, who was it?” I said, “It was the American Dragon” (a cartoon Cameron likes). Again, Cameron said, “He’s not real, who were you talking to?” I then said, “The Easter Bunny,” to which Cameron replied, “He’s real, but you weren’t talking to him.”

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Messing with Genes for a Good Cause

R. Albert Mohler Jr., the president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Kentucky, opened up a can of worms. He said that if a gene is found that controls sexual orientation, he would support efforts to alter that gene inside the mother’s womb, thereby changing a person from a homosexual to a heterosexual. He likened it to supporting “any appropriate means to avoid sexual temptation and the inevitable effects of sin.”

So is he saying that homosexuality is genetically based? That that’s how “God made me”? Such an admission will upset some Christians, who view homosexuality as changeable behavior. (Please, I’m not making any personal statement on the subject–just reporting what I read.)

But beyond that, it raises lots of ethical questions. What about doing other gene tampering with unborn fetuses–increasing intelligence, enhancing athletic ability, decreasing any disposition to violence? All kinds of possibilities arise. Since the avoidance of temptation is an issue, how about cutting the sex drive of all humans, regardless of sex or sexual orientation, while they are still in the womb?

The thing is, before I depart this earth, these issues will have gone beyond theory. People will actually have listings in the phone book as “Meddler in Human Genetics.”

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Among the Mennonites

Tonight we held our fourth community Lenten service, this one at the Mennonite church. I had never before really noticed the Church of Christ, the Presbyterian church, or this Mennonite church. Nor have I noticed the Methodist church where we’ll be next week. That’s pretty sad. These are fellow churches trying to reach our community, and I’ve been insulated from them. Sad.

But we’re getting past that. We’re learning a lot about each other, and that we have much in common.

I appreciated the Mennonite pastor and what he told us about Mennonite history and beliefs. Their pacifist stand is, obviously, a central piece of their puzzle. I do appreciate how the Mennonites are consistent in their pro-life ethic, as opposed to us “Republican evangelicals” who mix-and-match, depending on what our religious leaders tell us to believe–be anti-abortion but pro-death penalty, for instance. The Mennonites are consistent.

We United Brethren, with half of our roots being in the Mennonite tradition and half in the German Reformed, like it both ways when it comes to military service: it’s okay to fight, and it’s okay to be a conscientious objector. Me? There are aspects of pacifism that I just can’t reconcile (like: “How should we have responded to Pearl Harbor?” and other questions that Mennonites probably get tired of hearing). I’m fine with “just war” scenarios (yes to Afghanistan, no to Iraq, though I favored going there initially). I guess if I spent more time with Mennonites and heard their responses to my objections, understanding might occur. Heaven forbid.

I didn’t realize the “diaspora” element of being a Mennonite. To avoid compulsory military service, their people have moved from country to country. One nation might exempt them from military service, but a century later, some new regime takes over that “knows not Joseph.” And so, they have to either find a new country, or accept military service. That was very interesting to me.

These five churches are holding a joint Vacation Bible School for the second year. Last year it was at the Presbyterian church. This year the Mennonites will host it.

As we all ate together in their downstairs fellowship hall, it struck me that many people, particularly fundamentalists, would be highly suspect of what we’re doing. That amidst ecumenicalism, compromise and watering-down inevitably happens. Even some of you readers are looking at this warily. Aren’t you?

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My First Ping Pong Tournament

Today I played in my first table tennis tournament, a big annual tourney in South Bend, Ind. Since I am unrated (you need to play in a sanctioned tournament to get a rating with the USA Table Tennis association), I played in the two lower categories, for persons rated under 1000 and under 1200.

They put you in groups of four, and you play a round robin–three matches, best of five games each. Whoever wins that table advances to the next round. Unless you’re unrated, in which case you can’t advance. Such was my lot. I won my table in both categories, the under 1000 and under 1200 (actually had much tougher competition in the under 1000). So I felt quite pleased with myself.

My toughest competition came from two girls–or, one teenage girl (who beat me) and a thirty-something woman who took me to a fifth game and I had to come from behind. We don’t have any females in the Fort Wayne club.

So it was an interesting, fun experience for me. Next tournament, I’ll be able to advance after winning my table (should that happen again).

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