Sermon for Sunday October 23, 2016
Phillip Roth is an author many of you know. He’s a novelist and Pulitzer Prize winner.
In 2004 he wrote a book about an American election that was turned upside down by the entrance of a candidate for president who was an international celebrity, who ran as an outsider with a populist message and was accused of being too close to America’s enemies and too dismissive of America’s alliances.
The book opens with a factual historical accounting and then changes one historical outcome in creating a work of historical fiction.
There was in fact a celebrity that was indicating he might run but then he didn’t. Roth’s book from 2004 starts with this factual basis and then changes one thing: what if this candidate did run.
The book is titled “The Plot Against America” and it looks at our nation during Roth’s childhood. He paints a picture of our country and he imagines changing one historical turn: He has Charles Lindberg enter the race for President instead of Wendle Wilke in 1940. Roth has Lindberg run with a message of neutrality towards the war in Europe. If that secured victory in the election of 1940 and treaties were signed with the Axis powers whereby America would not enter the war, Japan would not attack Pearl Harbor, the US would not lend aid to England, how different the world would be.
Roth takes real events. Lindberg was the featured speaker at a rally in Madison Square Garden. Roth relies on his actual words here. His message drew a large audience around a theme of “America First!”
The election of 1940 was only one year before the US entered the war. It was still a time when opposition to entering the war would – almost by itself — be enough to win an election.
We find ourselves in the midst of wars now but they are very far away — to most of us — unless we know someone serving which most of us don’t. It feels far away. It doesn’t enter our daily awareness as much as it should.
The cost of war is hidden, the rhetoric of the hawks unshackled.
I was reminded of this book and that war this week when Greenwich High School was on the news, the national evening news, and not in a good way. The football coach wanted code words for his team to call out a play that should go left or right. He decided that they would call out ‘Hitler!’ for right and ‘Stalin!’ for left. When the team was playing against another school the play was called: ‘Hitler!’ The public response was as swift as it was negative. Still, some people have responded that for the event to be making the national news was overblown. Some people have said things to the effect that, ‘It wasn’t saying anything complimentary about Hitler, why can’t we just say that word?’
And why not say a word as just a word?
Imagine this had been younger children. Imagine children coming home and telling their parents that they learned a new game at the boys and girls club. Everyone gets in the pool and one kid has their eyes covered. Instead of “Marco?” “Polo.” the kids call out “Joseph?” “Stalin.”, or “Adolph? “Hitler.”
That seems pretty clearly wrong, no? Is it different than those names being called out on a football field at a high school? They just say his name, nothing complimentary. But that’s the problem. Those names should not be said as if they don’t mean anything. They should only be said with a context, with a negative description.
Those names should only be said with revulsion, disdain, with horror. Who needs to hear those names? We don’t even want to recall that despicable time; let’s mention them as little as possible. I feel like I’ve said them too much already. Knowing who they were is necessary! The history must not be forgotten! If we are to hear the names we must hear the context, the lessons.
We must not imagine that those names are irrelevant to us. We cannot disregard their importance for us today. Their impact is felt today in people whose families were murdered in genocide, people whose family served in the war and didn’t come back. America had a movement of Nazis, it was public, it was growing and credible. We had a wide spread interest in communism of various kinds. Those extremist views seem impossible today as anything other than some fringe element not worth mentioning.
We cannot, we must not, imagine that these ideas are harmless. America had an element of people advocating Nazism. Charles Lindberg voiced anti-Semitic ideas, he went to visit the Third Reich more than once and accepted an award, a service cross surrounded by four swastikas. He even considered moving his family to Berlin. Instead he would start fathering children there with three women. And he was a plausible, formidable prospect for president of the United States. It’s not hard to imagine a ground swell electing someone determined to hold a more neutral stance than FDR, someone who advocated ignoring axis aggression and expansion. Someone who was an international hero wildly celebrated on his return from his historic cross-Atlantic flight.
Is it a big deal to use Hitler’s name in a football game? I think so. We cannot imagine that such extreme views are so remote to us as to be harmless. It has happened here. We narrowly avoided tolerance of totalitarianism. We belatedly acted against genocide.
I saw a movie last week about a man who made his living pretending to be an historian and publishing books denying the Holocaust. When publicly criticized he decided to sue. He brought a libel suit in London in 1996. As a young man David Irving objected to the harsh treatment Hitler received in the British media.
It’s hard to imagine an American public figure admiring the Nazis. It’s even harder to imagine a British man making a career of it. The film is called “Denial” and it recounts the story of the woman he sued, Queens born Deborah Lipstadt who is a professor at Emory and who spoke after the movie at the Jacob Burns film center last week. This woman put her life on hold to re fight the war against totalitarianism and racism.
Our democracy is a fragile thing. Our society is built on mutual trust and faith in our institutions and support for their functioning.
At Greenwich High the Headmaster addressed the students on Thursday. He wanted them to know that this incident was wrong and that the social issue is extraordinarily important. Here’s some of what Chris Winters said:
“What I have learned from working with high school students for many years, is that there are limited times when an adult truly gets your undivided attention. I believe this is one of those times. The football incident brought national and very negative attention to GHS. We, meaning the adults involved in the situation, can’t go back in time and change what we did wrong. What we can do is acknowledge that a mistake was made, accept responsibility for it, apologize to those who were hurt, and try to learn from the mistake. That is what our football coach has done. Now we need to look forward. In doing so, I think there is a powerful message from this incident that we all can learn from.”
After recounting what happened and explaining what the issues are Chris Winters concluded by saying:
“So what’s my message to you today? I believe it’s very simple: to be good and decent citizens, we need to know what happened in the past so that we can understand the impact of our words and actions in the present….
What can you do?
· Stand up and say something when someone fails to think or recognize how certain words or actions impact others, even if they do not directly impact you.
· Stand up and say something when you hear others using attacks or slurs against someone because of stereotypes
· Stand up and say something when a bunch of friends get excited and start picking on someone who has lesser power (younger, smaller, different) even when it is done as a joke.
· Stand up and say something when someone makes fun of someone for the color of their skin, the country they come from, the religion they believe in, the shape of their body, the gender they identify with, the sexuality they orient toward.
These are some of the small actions that can have a big impact. Know the past, know the power of certain words, symbols, actions. Stand up for inclusion and tolerance. We are all counting on you.”
Any incident that causes us to remember those who died in genocide, to remember all the costs that were involved in a war, to think about the things that precipitated that conflict is a good thing, IF it is used as one of those teaching moments. To be silent at such a time is to allow events to take a dangerous turn. I’m grateful for the way this school administration handled this incident and I think we should all use the opportunity to support that and to be inspired to work together at being a compassionate community.
America is one of a kind. We who love this country, it’s not about food or culture or religion or even language; that’s why people are fond of ordinary countries. Every other country loves their traditions just because they are familiar and their history just because it is long. To love America for what makes it best is to love the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, the Bill of Rights. It is to love the Gettysburg Address which we read to start our church’s 150th Anniversary last year. America is about ideas, ideas which are honorable and noble even though we do not live them out every day. It is about liberty and justice for ALL. It is about a very rich understanding of freedom beyond just being free.
As Lutherans, Freedom is very important to us. We understand it in deep and particular Biblical ways.
For Martin Luther a Christian was “perfectly free lord of all, subject to none, and perfectly dutiful servant of all, subject to all.”
The cross tells us we are freed from sin AND free TO BE people who join and devote ourselves lovingly to a community of faith. We are freed to serve our neighbors voluntarily and charitably. We respond in freedom to the one who set us free, a God who made the cross a sign of suffering, sacrificial, selfless love. Our freedom is made possible by that God and our lives are to be shaped by that love.
“Allentown” – Billy Joel
And they’re closing all the factories down
Out in Bethlehem they’re killing time
Filling out forms
Standing in line
Well our fathers fought the Second World War
Spent their weekends on the Jersey Shore
Met our mothers in the USO
Asked them to dance
Danced with them slow
And we’re living here in Allentown….
Every child had a pretty good shot
To get at least as far as their old man got
But something happened on the way to that place
They threw an American flag in our face
Well I’m living here in Allentown
And it’s hard to keep a good man down
But I won’t be getting up today
And it’s getting very hard to stay
And we’re living here in Allentown