Archives For Jay Winik

When I find myself immersed in a history book the question often comes, “how would I act in this situation?” This is typically a moot point because I have the luxury of context and a more complete view of history. Yet, I still am tempted to do this and as I read 1944, I kept putting myself in each of the character’s shoes to make an attempt to evaluate how I would react.

I picked up Jay Winik’s new book 1944 last year and recently finished it. Although not his best work, it is an important book. To this day, I believe his book April 1865 is one of the finest popular history books to educate and entertain. I wrote earlier it is a book that will make you love history.

1944: FDR and the Yimagesear That Changed America could turn you away from reading history books. Not because it is a bad book but because it addresses some of the most difficult questions of modern history and what evil humans are capable of. I figured the book would provide a good contextual perspective of World War II but it focuses on FDR, the Allies, and the knowns and unknowns about the Nazi regime’s oppression of the Jewish people.

Known and unknown.

Despite the improvements in society, genocide has not gone away and in fact the majority of the modern western world has essentially turned a blind eye to such atrocities as Rwanda, Sudan, Uganda, Cambodia, and Syria. These situations have proved that we have a long way to go.

The same questions arise,

We know it is going on but what are we able to do?

If we do something, what are the consequences? 

Will our reputation be damaged? 

Will Americans (or our people) perish in an attempt to help? 

Why can’t another nation closer to this take care of the issue?

We have so many other problems that also take priority.

These were similar questions asked when most of the Western world discovered about the Holocaust and the horrors of concentration camps like Auschwitz, Bergen-Belsen, Dachau, and Flossenberg. In the United States, “pass the buck” seemed to be the unofficial policy between the State Department, the military, and even FDR. There wasn’t a clear answer in what to do and it too far too long to do anything to save the lives of these people. Thousands died each day as it was debated. Eventually action was taken and some lives were saved but millions still perished when they possibly could have been saved. 1944 is powerful because it illustrates how we easily we can shy away from big problems.

What do we do?

Anytime there is discussion about these questions, it is helpful to look at the people. If we don’t humanize the oppressed, we will never act. We will never become creative enough to do. I am encouraged to get out of my comfort zone to learn more and to listen to someone who is of the oppressed. Perhaps then action will emerge.

Oppression in this world is far from over and whether the issue is with equality of minorities in America, freedom for a North Korean, or a child standing up for their religious belief in school, we must search deep inside to be creative and act. I may not know exactly what to do next time this happens but I am reminded that I must get out of my chair and move. What can I do to help those in my city? What can I do to help my neighbor? Just get up, move, and love them, Dave.

 

“Silence in the face of evil is itself evil: God will not hod us guiltless. Not to speak is to speak. Not to act is to act.” – Dietrich Bonhoeffer

 

 

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I have lived in the South for almost nine years now. As a history student for life, I have tried to take advantage of my home in Nashville and learn more about the American Civil War. I also have tried to observe how people from the South talk about the Civil War. Although I don’t live in the deep South, the war seems to be a distant past to most people here. My only fear is that people will forget what happened and more importantly, what we can learn from it.

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My father was a member of Kappa Alpha, an “Old South” fraternity, which was inspired by the gentlemanly conduct of Robert E. Lee, when he served as President of Washington College (later became Washington & Lee). My father as well as my grandfather, who was also a Kappa Alpha member, always spoke fondly of Robert E. Lee. I never quite understood why because of Lee being a General whom led a rebellious army that ultimately lost. Lee did not seem to be a perfect person but why did his soldiers fight so bravely for him and why did they follow him when he agreed to surrender to Union forces? I learned why from a story in the book, April 1865, the author wrote a beautiful ending that captured the scene of Richmond, Virginia not long after the Civil War ended.

It was a warm Sunday at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, and an older man, one of the church’s many distinguished communicants, who had spent the last four years in war, was sitting in his customary pew. With his shoulders rounded, his middle thickened, his hair snow-white and beard gray, as usual, he attracted the attention of the rest of the church. But then so did another parishioner.

As the minister, Dr. Charles Minnergerode, was about to administer Holy Communion, a tall, well-dressed black man sitting at the western galley (which was reserved for Negroes) unexpectedly advanced to the communion table-unexpectedly because his this had never happened here before. Suddenly, the image of Richmond redux was conjured up-a flashback to prewar years. Usually whites received communion first, then blacks-a small but strictly adhered to ritual, repeated so often that to alter it was unthinkable. This one small act, then, was like a large frontier separating two worlds: the first being that of the antebellum South, the second being that of post-Civil War America. The congregation froze; those who had been ready to go forward and kneel at the altar rail remained fixed in their pews. Momentarily stunned, Minnergerode himself was clearly embarrassed. The horror-and surprise-of the congregation were no doubt largely visceral, but Minnergerode’s silent retreat was evident. It was one thing for the white South to endure defeat and poverty, or to accept the fact that slaves were now free; it was quite another for a black man to stride up to the front of the church as though an equal. And not just at any church, but here, at the sanctuary for Richmond’s elite, the wealthy, the well-bred, the high-cultured.

The black man slowly lowered his body, kneeling, while the rest of the congregation tensed in their pews. For his part, the minister stood, clearly uncomfortable and still dumbfounded. After what seemed to be an interminable amount of time-although it was probably only seconds-the white man arose (Lee), his gait erect, head up and eyes proud, and walked quietly up the aisle to the chancel rail. His face was a portrait of exhaustion, and he looked far older than most people had remembered from when the war had just begun. These days had been hard on him. Recently, in a rare, unguarded moment he had uncharacteristically blurted out, “I’m homeless-I have nothing on earth.”

Yet these Richmonders, like all of the South, still looked to him for a sense of purpose and guidance. No less so now as, with quiet dignity and self-possession, he knelt down to partake of the communion, along with the same rail with the black man.

Watching Robert E. Lee, the other communicants slowly followed in his path, going forward to the altar, and, with a mixture of reluctance and fear, hope and awkward expectation, into the future.

I now understand what a humble, yet magnanimous man looks like. Reconciliation that month of April 1865 emerged in the form of Robert E. Lee.

“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven. – Matthew 5:43-45 ESV

In my Christian life, I have struggled with identifying who “my enemy” is and how to respond to them. Facing an enemy, I feel frustration, confusion, and hatred. These emotions can eat me up if gone unchecked. What do we do with this struggle of emotion?

Dietrich Bonhoeffer summed up how we deal with our enemies properly.

“The love for our enemies takes us along the way of the cross and into fellowship with the Crucified.”

As I read this quote from Bonhoeffer’s The Cost of Discipleship against scripture, three portraits of reconciliation come to mind that help me work through reconciliation and suggest ways to love my enemies.

I pray they help you too.

1. Reconciliation after Apartheid

In the dramatic storytelling of the 1994 Rugby World Cup through the movie  Invictus (2009), we see the nation of South Africa struggling to overcome decades of abuse under Apartheid. Black South Africans had been persecuted for generations under the white ruling class. But a new president had come to power: Nelson Mandela. Mandela was an activist and then a prisoner under the old regime for twenty-seven years. But now he recognized that in order to bring the nation together, he must lead by example and embrace the mostly white rugby team in their quest for the cup. The nation would see white and black, former foes, all as newly united South Africans. And it could not have been done without courage and leadership by Mandela and the rugby team. Invictus is a beautiful portrayal on how a few with great courage can make such a difference.

Morgan Freeman as South Africa President Nelson Mandela shaking hands with South Africa Rugby Captain Francois Pienaar played by Matt Damon. Courtesy of Warner Bros.

Morgan Freeman as South Africa President Nelson Mandela shaking hands with South Africa Rugby Captain Francois Pienaar played by Matt Damon. Courtesy of Warner Bros.

2. Reconciliation after The American Civil War

On April 9th 1865, General Robert E. Lee of the Confederate States of America surrendered in Appomatox Courthouse, Virginia to General U.S. Grant of the Union forces. The fate was sealed for the Confederacy after four years of intense battle. Typically the conquered like Lee would be placed in prison, hanged, or publicly humiliated after defeat. But this name was like no other before it.

The American Civil War was one of the bloodiest in the history of mankind. Most of the south was destroyed, and there were over one million casualties, among these 650,000+ dead soldiers, and 50,000 dead civilians. Both sides had good reason to hate one another after four years of extreme bloodshed and destruction.

In the book April 1865 the author described Lee’s exit after agreeing to the terms of surrender. As he left the house of surrender, General Grant walked out after Lee with his staff and all saluted the famous General as he left. Lee was not to leave as one conquered, but as a man with dignity and honor. Other soldiers showed similar grace.

“Without having planned it-and without any official sanction (Joshua L.) Chamberlain suddenly gave the order for Union soldiers to “carry arms as a sign of their deepest mark of military respect. A bugle call instantly rang out. All along the road, Union soldiers raised their muskets to their shoulders, the solute of honor.”

Enemies had been made from smallest to greatest, from the smallest families and most rural communities up to the largest cities, the most prosperous states, and even to the nation itself. And now each one who fought as enemies needed healing. The time after The Civil War is known as “Reconstruction” but it should be called “Reconciliation”.

"The Last Offer of Reconciliation" courtesy of the Library of Congress

“The Last Offer of Reconciliation” by Kimmel & Forster, courtesy of the Library of Congress

3. Reconciliation through a Handshake

Described at the end of Unbroken, after Louis Zamperini spent years in prison being tortured by the Japanese he went back years later to visit his captors. The author noted,

“Before Louie left Sugamo (the prison), the colonel who was attending him asked Louie’s former guards to come forward. In the back of the room, the prisoners stood up and shuffled into the aisle. They moved hesitantly, looking up at Louie with small faces. Louie was seized by childlike, giddy exuberance. Before he realized what he was doing, he was bounding down the aisle. In bewilderment, the men who had abused him watched him come to them, his hands extended, a radiant smile on his face.”

Beautiful.

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Along with scripture, I encourage you to read these stories and watch these movies to better understand reconciliation. My faith is strengthened by these stories, and they have helped me to better understand how to love my enemies.

Your enemy may be a person in a far away culture, or it could be your next door neighbor. Consider offering that hand as Christ offered it to you through the cross.

Reconciliation is beautiful because Christ was the example of it on the cross.

For me. For you.

What does reconciliation teach you about your own faith? What stories teach you about reconciliation?