Last year I read “The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich,” a history of Nazi Germany. A few things struck me. One was the terrible state of Germany after World War I. This is an aspect of history we don’t talk enough about, possibly because we – the Allied victors of World War I – inflicted this on Germany. We talk about hyperinflation and a failing economy, but this book showed what those concepts, which I’ve never experienced, meant on the ground.
If I’d been asked to describe the conditions of Germany in the 1920s and early 1930s, I might have described the scenes I saw in photos of from the U.S. – bread lines, tents in parks, men sleeping in rail cars.But this was far worse. The German government in most places lacked any sort of legitimacy. Armed bands of former soldiers roamed the country, pillaging and taking what they wanted. Germany was a dangerous, terrible place to be at the time.
It’s not surprising that when someone stood up and said, “Stick it to those bastards who forced this on us,” the people cheered him on. When he put bread on their tables, they turned a blind eye as his soldiers started rounding up their neighbors. He gave them a working economy. He gave them safety. He gave them self-respect. The only cost was turning in those who worshiped God differently.
Of course, over time what was “German” became narrower. It wasn’t enough to not be a Jew. You couldn’t be disabled. You couldn’t be gay. Eventually you couldn’t support anything he deemed unGerman. Neighbors spied on each other and turned each other in. Even children were recruited to spy on their parents. Relationships didn’t matter anymore. All that mattered was loyalty to the party, which meant loyalty to Hitler.
It’s hard not to see the parallels elsewhere. In the 1960s, Chairman Mao worried that the people were losing their revolutionary fervor. So, he called for a cultural revolution. He wanted an end to anything that was deemed feudal – anything that tied people to the past rather than the communist future. If it didn’t support Mao’s brand of communism, it needed to be destroyed. Centuries of history were lost as art, books, and artifacts across China were burned and destroyed.
The things weren’t the end though. People who supported old ideas needed to go, too. No one knows how many died, but at the least, it was in the hundreds of thousands. Many of those were the doctors, teachers, scientists, and politicians. Students and children turned on their elders. No one cared about the knowledge and experience they were losing. All that mattered was purity of thought. You needed to support the ideas of the party, which meant the ideas of Mao.
Both of these tragedies happened, in part, because the people were told – and accepted – that others did not fit the full definition of their group. Those lost in the Holocaust and those lost in the Cultural Revolution – millions upon millions of lives – were lost not because two evil men hated them. They weren’t lost because people were too conservative or too liberal. They were lost because fervor for the party, loyalty to the leader, became the only driver for people’s actions. The drive to be ideologically pure led to hatred or, at the best, lack of concern, for those who didn’t fit the mold.
Contrast this with a lesson from the New Testament. When asked what the greatest commandments were – the most important rules given by God – He taught that they are to love God and our neighbor as ourselves. When asked who is our neighbor, Jesus told a story not about fellow Jews or pagan Romans. He told a story about the Samaritans – the people the Jews felt had corrupted themselves and abandoned the truth. The Jews wouldn’t associate with the Samaritans in any way. They would interact with Romans, but not Samaritans. These were the neighbors he instructed the Jews to love.
We’ve entered a year in which passions will run hot. There’s a lot of fear. Christians worry they might be asked to compromise deeply held values. Minorities worry discrimination will continue to increase. The sick don’t know how they’ll pay their hospital bills. Immigrants are afraid they’ll be forced to leave the country they’ve sacrificed so much to get to. The young are afraid they’ll be stuck with a broken climate and immense debt. It’s not surprising that emotions are intense. That’s a lot!
With all this fear, it’s not surprising to me when I read about people who stop associating with friends on “the other side.” It can hurt to hear that someone you were friends with supports a politician or position you feel is harmful. But if we divide ourselves from the Samaritans, what have we accomplished? We don’t avoid a Holocaust by separation.
So, is it a small thing to love your neighbor? Test it out. Walk outside and meet your neighbor. Go to the park, the library, a local coffee shop. Talk to someone. Or start a conversation on social media with someone you know holds different positions than you. Don’t talk about politics. Talk about sports, the weather, your hobbies. Get to know your neighbor. Find something in common. And remember that conversation as the election draws near. Remember that blue or red; progressive, moderate, or conservative; pro-life or pro-choice; we’re all stuck here together. We share this country and we have to get along. We will work it out. We have to. Because no one wins the alternative.