The Right Side of History?

The entrance to Dachau Concentration Camp – September 1999

My daughter came home from school full of questions. Her class had just started talking about the Holocaust in preparation for a unit on Anne Frank and her teacher had run her class through a series of scenarios; now she wanted to test her parents. She described each scenario, explained her reasoning for the answer she gave in class, and then asked the inevitable: “Mom, what would you have done?”

What would I have done?

It’s a question I have asked countless students over the years as we have read books and studied about the Holocaust, other genocides around the world, and civil rights. I’ve presented them with history and background information and personal accounts. I’ve presented them with the harsh realities of what it would mean for them and their families if they had spoken up when everyone else was just going along.

And when they’ve asked me what I would do, I have answered with an honest, “I don’t know.”

Because I don’t know.

When I was twenty and a bright-eyed junior in college, I spent a single afternoon walking around the grounds of the concentration camp in Dachau, Germany, the first concentration camp established before the start of World War II. The warm September sun served as a stark contrast to the dark realities of what had happened sixty years before. When I finally walked back out of the gates, I swore that I would make genocide education a part of my mission as a teacher. My students would know what had happened there. They would know what had happened in other places around the world. They would know the importance of justice and respect for all of humanity.

And despite their confidence and idealism and newfound compassion, over and over again I have pointed out to them that there is no way they could know what they would have done if they had been been forced to choose between their own comfort and safety or risking it all to stand up for what is right?

I look back into history and question what my role would have been. Would I have risked my family’s safety to help runaway slaves escape to the north? Would I have stood against my fellow western settlers in their determination to force Native Americans off of their land? Would I have hidden Jews in occupied Europe? Would I have spoken out about my Japanese-American neighbors being shipped off to internment camps? Would I have walked alongside my black classmates as they integrated the schools?

I know what the right answer should be, but the truth remains that I don’t know.

And then I consider the things that have happened in my own lifetime. How would I have treated Ryan White if he had been my classmate? How have I treated LGTBQ friends and family when facing a faith and culture clash? Have I listened to and learned from my black and brown friends and neighbors when they have discussed their struggles and then worked to do better? Have I always stood up for the student struggling with difficulties that make learning a challenge for them? How many homeless have I avoided looking in the eye to keep them from approaching my car and asking for financial help? Could I have done more than just send money to help the babies and children stripped from their mothers’ arms at the US border?

I think about the honest answer to all of those questions and I don’t always like what I see.

History is full of “good” people who have discovered they made the wrong choice in the best of circumstances and who have been swept up in the wave of injustice in the worst of circumstances. “Good” people have been faced with choices that turned their stomachs, but have eventually done the despicable. Many of those who worked in the concentration camps did not start their positions believing that they would or could be part of mass murder of the elderly, women, and children, but over time they eventually gave in, choosing self-preservation and caving to desensitization to the violence they would commit. We have such a cartoonish view of good and evil that we refuse to admit that individuals who commit what are eventually considered evil acts are still people. They love their spouses. They love and care for their children. They show affection to their pets. They are loyal to their friends. They laugh and yes, even cry. But somewhere along the way they willingly cause harm to the oppressed, one act leading to another even worse act, until the damaging system of oppression is finally stopped by those who are willing to stand against it to the point of defeat.

So which side of history would I have been on?

I look at the United States today. I look at the world my children are growing up in and I ask myself which side of history I want to be on. Our country and our world have been through difficult times. The more history I study, the more I see the patterns and cycles and the hope at the end of each tunnel. But I also recognize the importance of being on the right side of history as it is happening. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the Lutheran pastor who was executed after his involvement in a failed assassination attempt against Adolf Hitler, stated “Silence in the face of evil is itself evil: God will not hold us guiltless. Not to speak is to speak. Not to act is to act.” It is a weighty truth that challenges me every time I consider the many issues facing us today.

Which side of history will I be on? My prayer is that I will be on the right side. My prayer is that I will act in a way that will make my children proud. My prayer is that I will be on the side of history that glorifies my God and introduces people to His heavenly kingdom.

My prayer is that no matter what, I will remember the Bonhoeffer quote that hangs in the front of my classroom: “We are not to simply bandage the wounds of victims beneath the wheels of injustice, we are to drive a spoke into the wheel itself.”

Because if I want a better world for my children and grandchildren, I don’t have any other choice.

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