The sign to Dauchau paralyzed us. An unplanned detour now threatened our romantic getaway to the Austrian and Bavarian Alps. Chasing the footsteps of Mozart and Julie Andrews through Salzburg, a tour of Neuschwanstein castle, a cathedral visit here or there were all on the agenda/ Dauchau was not. Our rented car seemed to turn itself toward the notorious city: the internal forces of unspoken grief, solidarity with humankind, and black and white photos imprinted on our consciences drew us. In a moment of collapsed time, my wife and I were walking silently into the gates of the concentration camp.
Eichman was not a monster; he was a fool.
It is one thing to see photos of the camp gates. “Arbeit macht frei.” The sinister, false promise cast in iron on lifeless doors: “Work will make you free.” It is another thing to rub your hands against those iron words, to walk through barracks, to smell residual smoke. For those who have had a similar experience, you know the “tour” is haunting. The concentration camp’s proximity to the city of Dauchau was especially troubling. It was situated on the eastern side of the city, over the rail-road tracks if I recall. Towns-people passed by it on the way to pick up their children from school and bread from the baker. Normal life proceeded unchecked while the unspeakable took place over the fence. We all run the danger of assuming the cultural norms around us without bringing them and ourselves under critical scrutiny. I run that danger.
I teach the Bible for a living: a prosaic and mundane profession at first glance. I examine the literary dimensions of the Bible whose images and grammar seem foreign, even odd. On the other hand, in the strange images and grammar of that book is God’s own voice. Or, at least, I believe this is so. When we open the pages of the Bible, we are sucked into the very world whose primary subject is God. We are challenged to see ourselves and the world around us from God’s perspective. From this vantage point the air becomes thin. Breathing becomes more difficult. The strange new world of the Bible is inviting and frightening, both at the same time. In this light, my job is not so mundane: burning bushes, Hebrew syntax, and the possibility of encountering the divine.
I have just finished teaching the book of Micah in a six week bible study at Cathedral Church of the Advent. Micah is anything but bland. In the first chapter, God shows up and the mountains melt like wax. The rest of the book proves equally evocative. Micah 6:8 has achieved bumper-sticker status—“He has shown you, O man, what the Lord is seeking from you, to do justice, to love mercy, to walk humbly with your God.” The rendering “walk humbly with your God” works but another, possibly better, reading would be “to walk circumspectly, to walk wisely, to walk reflectively with your God.” To put it in other terms, to walk in a posture where reflection on the character and will of God shapes our outlook and actions.
The Jewish philosopher Hannah Arendt warns against what she calls the banality of evil. Arendt attended the Eichman trials at Nuremberg as a journalist. Expecting to find a monster on trial, Arendt was struck by a different discovery. Eichman was not a monster; he was a fool. She came to the very unnerving conclusion that the people committing such atrocities were banal, commonplace. The deeds were not banal. The holocaust is an iconic representation of the grossest of human atrocities. The deeds were anything but banal; the people were.
The fall 2008 edition of Culture Magazine, showed pictures—from undeveloped rolls of film found long after the war--of members of the SS female auxiliary and SS officers laughing, playing accordions, eating blueberries and lighting Christmas trees while on weekend holiday from their posts at Auschwitz. They were thoughtless and carefree while unspeakable horrors were going on around them and being committed by them. What a contrast in the impressions they left behind. The article concluded, “Arendt came to the striking conclusion that thoughtlessness—that is, the failure to think reflectively about the world around us, our actions, and their possible consequences—can be a moral failing of the highest order.”
Micah says something similar, “Walk reflectively with your God.” The verses preceding Micah 6:8 are not as well known: they are on no bumper-stickers that I know of. Despite their obscurity, these sentences are loaded. The ancient prophet reminds the people about grace: that five letter word on which everything hangs. Allow me to paraphrase these verses. “Don’t forget your slavery in Egypt. Don’t allow amnesia to create a block in your memory banks. You were unlovely, and I loved you. You were dying, and I raised you from the dead.” Micah 6:8 becomes a cheap slogan without the aforementioned words. As a Christian it goes this way for me. As God raised Israel from the dead, so too he raised Jesus. Because of this, I have been redeemed from the tyranny of sin. I once was blind, but now I see. And in this seeing, in this knowing, in this being known, I now have the retina needed to walk reflectively with God in loving acts of mercy and justice. Grace changes the way I look at the world around me. As a colleague of mine recently reminded me, God does not need my good works, my neighbors do.
Years from now, perhaps long after we are gone, when the undeveloped film left over from our lives is exposed, and reveals the impressions we left behind, what will it show?
Mark Gignilliat is Assoc. Prof, Beeson Divinity School Samford University.