Last night I joined the millions of Americans who’ve experienced Spielberg’s magnum opus, Schindler’s List. It was the twentieth anniversary of this renowned movie and I confess that it took twenty years to find the courage to watch. While devoid of gratuitous violence, the story’s context is hell’s inferno. To witness the hope embodied by a soul’s redemption is to face the fire from whence it emerges. I awoke this morning weary from the emotional assault.
The obligatory characters were present in the movie but it was not they who shook my soul. In addition to a self-absorbed socialite cunning to make a fortune on the war effort (Schindler), there was a sociopathic SS officer killing randomly to increase terror, and the silently brilliant (and cunning) Jewish accountant who is at once both powerless and in charge. These were towering characters embodying the edges of human capacities, but these primary characters are not the ones that took my breath. The characters that leveled my heart were the ordinary ones, the ones that would be me or you, the nameless ones in and out of uniform that simply allowed their bodies, their voices, their hands and feet, to be used to further the killing machines. The emotionless female guard as the train disembarked and the women that stood smiling beside the men who wore the uniforms, these were the ones who haunt me. They had no visible malice but likewise registered no awareness of the evil that filled their world. Silent. Complicit.
I suspect that the true danger of our humanity is our capacity to enter a place of denial and ride with the one that brought us to the dance. How else can we explain the millions of otherwise ordinary people who participated in such a heinous chapter of history? And (of course) lest we toss our stones, history is quick to offer similar chapters in every age and continent. There is nothing 20th century or European about evil’s cunning ways. Most fearfully, if history teaches us anything it is that unlearned it is also our future.
The exhaustion I feel in the morning light is in part the imperative to learn quickly lest we repeat some ancient terror. The lesson to learn is not about Nazis or sociopathic wardens. The lesson relevant to us otherwise nice folk is the one about silent complicity. Eli Wiesel, himself a survivor of Auschwitz, says, “There may be times when we are powerless to prevent injustice, but there must never be a time when we fail to protest.” Nearly a thousand years earlier, Dante had warned of the neutral players protecting self-interest; President Kennedy, quoting Dante, said that “the hottest places in hell are reserved for those who in a period of moral crisis maintain their neutrality”. More dangerous than the demented leaders are the silent followers.
If one dares to accept this truth, one quickly faces a more troubling corollary. Those that silently follow are rarely (if ever) consciously aware. Preposterous, but true. In the cold light of morning, the evil of slavery in America is inescapable. But just 140 years ago, ordinary white women, wives and mothers, throughout the southern states in this country silently helped their husbands perpetuate an unspeakable horror. These were, by and large, “good Christian women” who would have been very “nice”, the very best of what we call “southern hospitality”. The vast majority were not mean-spirited by nature or malicious in intent. How then did they manage to not hear the screams of those being tortured? How did they not notice the mothers separated from children? How did they make their peace with the obvious likeness of their spouse in the faces of young slaves? These are blind eyes that are cultivated. Occasionally the cultural conditioning fails, as it did for the South Carolina born abolitionist Angelina Emily Grimké, but her story was stunning in its departure from the norm. The even more stunning truth, if rarely faced, is that of our human capacity to blind ourselves to what is unpleasant. This ability to walk blindly is the untold story that must be faced.
A clue to our blinders is the role of greed in each of these stories. Some years ago I toured a plantation home near New Orleans in search of clues and began to hear the messages that might have filled the mistress’ mind and closed her heart; messages about the futility of one voice, the inevitability of the economic machine, and an instinct to focus on the positive. Inasmuch as our American holocaust was accepted as an inevitable consequence of an otherwise lucrative economy, I wonder about greed as an essential ingredient in our complicity. The role of greed was a key thread in the story of the Holocaust and presented in Schindler’s List as wealth was stolen from the Jewish community fueling the German war machine and lining the pockets of locals who scurried to gather the scraps. Surely greed is the common thread in our relentless human abuse of one another.
Rearview mirrors offer remarkable, if distorted, truth. What is more pressing is our need to use these mirrors to read our current context with more intention. What is it that our great-great grandchildren will see in our time which our eyes, blinded by greed and complicity, were simply not seeing? If I follow the money trail and notice where it intersects with grave injustice, I find myself facing the massive prison industrial complex. The term was coined before the new millennium but the incarceration rates, and those who profit from them, continue to rise (PIC in America: Big Business or New Slavery?). A new wave of industry is now supported by prison labor, which allows our American economy to compete with the prison labor in China. At best a distasteful topic and at worst a nightmare that our closet cannot contain, pleasant dinner table conversation steers clear of this topic. Nice white women like me simply don’t talk about such distasteful topics over dinner. And so greed runs roughshod over conscience and innocents lie trampled. But it is nice white women who teach our children; in fact, two-thirds of our nation’s public school teachers are white women and I’m guessing that most are nice. (Disclosure: I’m happily married to one and also applying to be one.) And, at least according to the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), it’s time for us to talk.
In this month’s issue of Teaching Tolerance, the SPLC project takes on the “School to Prison Pipeline” addressing the connections between our public school policies and the prison industrial complex. This issue offers a new tool, a “Teacher’s Guide to Rerouting the Pipeline“, in an attempt to invite classroom teachers to be more conscious of the ways in which we all participate. In defense of teachers, already beleaguered from both left and right and sworn to serve the reigning god of test scores, we cannot lay the blame for our nation’s tragedy on their already burdened backs. What the articles do suggest, though, is one small window into how ordinary nice folk participate unwittingly in a heinous crime. To suggest that an individual teacher’s interaction with a student regarding sagging pants contributes to the unjust incarceration rates in this country would seem ridiculous, but the point that SPLC makes is that the path to the pipeline is paved with hundreds of seemingly innocuous choices made along the way. Lest we dismiss the challenge to quickly we would be wise to remember the millions of otherwise nice folk who were necessary to create and maintain the machinery that propagated the Holocaust. Evil cannot be carried by one or two sociopaths. Evil requires millions of good people choosing to ignore and a million or so choosing to play along on a seemingly innocuous level. In our time, what appears innocuous is to be “tough on crime” and have “zero tolerance” in our schools. In so doing, we unwittingly but unmistakably (at least according to Teaching Tolerance) become the evil we abhor. The remarkable shard of good news in their article is a practical guide to recognize unhelpful choices and an invitation to make different ones.
As my spirit nurses the necessary wound inflicted by Schindler’s List, I am aware that the moral of the story is not in defining our contemporary evil but in something far more fundamental. The call is to face our own capacity to deny lest we unwittingly condone and (worse), participate. For only when we face the potential within ourselves will we find the strength to speak against it. This spiritual movement of facing ourselves is the heart of the ancient Christian discipline of Lent; with or without the ashes, it’s time.