‘To the victims of violence and betrayal, in the hope of an enduring peace.’ (Willy Brandt)
Angelika gave me a gift this year of a shiny German 2 Euro coin. It was minted in 2020 to commemorate 50 years since West German Chancellor Willy Brand’s legendary ‘Kniefall’. I had heard of Willy Brandt but, I must confess, not the act that has, since, gripped my imagination. The German word Kniefall means, quite literally, to fall to one’s knees. I’m especially indebted to Valentin Rauer’s exceptional social-psychological study, Symbols in Action (2009), of what took place in that extraordinary moment in world history. I’m curious about what it meant and what made it so powerful.
Brandt visited Warsaw in Poland, 25 years since the end of World War 2, on a mission to seek post-war reconciliation. Poland, including its Jewish population, had suffered horrific genocidal brutality at the hands of the Nazis. At the Monument to the Heroes of the Jewish Ghetto Uprising (against their Nazi oppressors in 1943), with a crowd of media reporters watching, Brandt suddenly and unexpectedly fell to his knees. He stayed there, in silence, as those around him looked on in amazement. It was an astonishing example of an action speaking far louder than words.
At a political level Brandt, as Chancellor, represented West Germany. At a personal level, during the war, Brandt had been an anti-Nazi activist. The imagery of Brandt’s Kniefall, as an act of penitent humility that acknowledges guilt and seeks ‘forgiveness for an unforgivable past’ (Rauch), resonated deeply in a prevailing Christian culture. The symbolism of ‘the innocent (who) takes up the burden of the collective’s sin, thus redeeming the nation’ (Rauer) reflected Jesus Christ’s death on the cross. Brandt was in the square from which Jews were deported to concentration camps.
For me, the most striking and moving dimension of this event was Brandt’s own reflection on the spontaneity and authenticity of his act: ‘Faced with the abyss of German history and the burden of the millions who had been murdered, I did what people do when words fail us.’ It paints the picture of a human being, beyond the public trappings of a politician, who allowed himself to feel empathy and brokenness, to take undefended responsibility and to reach out in peace. It transformed the trajectory of Cold War politics then. How desperately we need leaders like that now.
‘Not all of us can do great things. But we can do small things with great love.’ (Mother Teresa)
Small things are big things in the hands of the poor. Imagine this: you live in dire poverty, in a cemetery. You and your neighbours each have only a handful of possessions – mostly a few clothes – and have nowhere to keep them clean or dry. In fact, you live life day-by-day, moment-by-moment, and have no discretionary income whatsoever. No-one sees you, and no-one helps.
Then, today, a woman appears, as if out of nowhere, carrying sturdy plastic boxes and offers them to you freely, as ‘a gift from Jesus’. At first, you can’t believe it. Your face lights up as you realise: they really are for you and for your friends. A woman in your group, who hasn’t been able to hear or speak since birth, rushes to this woman, throws her arms around her neck…and cries.
A box full of love. A beautiful hug. Small things are big things. We can be hope.
‘The international arms trade is in direct opposition to efforts to protect and pursue the health of our world and its inhabitants.’ (MedAct)
When Jesus Christ was born, if he had been given the projected world armaments spend for this year alone – I have to sit down as I write this: he could have spent US$ 2,708,578 every… single… day... from then until now. And, whilst on the topic of Jesus, a good friend has a satirical sticker across the rear windscreen of her campervan that reads, ‘Who would Jesus bomb?’ The simple answer is, ‘Nobody’. He was far too concerned with bringing good news to the poor, vulnerable and oppressed. Bottom line: weapons didn’t feature on his bottom line.
Yet here today we see world leaders striding confidently onto stages, adorned with flags and symbols, making elegant speeches and pointing accusing fingers at one another across starkly-divided world maps. Everyone is firmly committed to the, ‘I’m OK, You’re Not OK’ creed and absolutely convinced by the rightness of their own cause. The platform rhetoric is powerful, existential, and ramps up the ante. It’s a dangerous zero-sum, do-or-die game in which we could all – quite literally – obliterate the world in a quest to, allegedly, save the world.
Meanwhile, I see children in the Philippines this week who live in dire poverty, sleeping in rags on hard ground. There are countless millions across the world living like this, with barely enough to survive let alone thrive. Scraps of food and no access to safe water, sanitation, healthcare or education. US$ 2,708,578. So, Jesus again – ‘Reach out to your enemies.’ We could try this: ‘We’ve all made a real mess of this. We’re partly to blame and we’re sorry for the part we played in how we got here. We want to work with you to co-create a very different future.'
Everything is at stake.
‘The purpose of life is not to be happy. It is to be useful, to be honourable, to be compassionate, to have it make some difference. That’s what it is to live and to have lived well.’ (Ralph Waldo Emerson)
Life is hard-edged for the poor.
The last person who reached out to this marginalised community was stabbed. That was an unhappy ending to a hope-filled good intention. Not deterred by this, a Filipina saw the unseen, the unloved, the people considered criminal, unworthy and unlovable. She was warned to stay away from this mixed group of families who eek out a living among the dead, and the dangerous gangs who wouldn’t hesitate to end her life. Nevertheless, she heard Jesus' call so she went.
Not long afterwards, she stepped off public transport near this place only to witness, beside her, a woman shot dead in a hail of bullets. She learned later that the woman was killed by drug dealers, concerned she might disclose their identities to the authorities. Scared yet persevering, this Filipina has persisted in reaching out in love, building friendships, ‘sacred encounters’, as she calls them, and providing food and simple mattresses for those in greatest need.
I ask her why she does it. ‘I want to show them the living Jesus walking among them, the Jesus who loves them and cares for them. I want them to know that they matter to God.’ I’m humbled, challenged and inspired (from a safe distance) by her courage and self-sacrificing love. I keep reflecting on Bob Hunter’s (founder of Greenpeace) radical stance: ‘Put your body where your mouth is.’ That’s what Jesus did – the Incarnate divine – and that’s what she’s doing now.
‘The final frontier may be human relationships, one person to another.’ (Buzz Aldrin)
I met recently with small groups of asylum seekers and refugees from the Middle East and Central Asia. All commented on how grateful they are for the practical help they have received from the host countries in which they have settled in Europe – housing, health, education etc. and money for food, lighting, heating, water, clothing etc. Without such basic necessities, they could not have survived.
That said, their sense of isolation, so far away from home, family and friends etc, can be very painful to endure. Sometimes, having escaped persecution, conflict or war, they may feel anxious or reluctant to connect with people from their own countries of origin, in their host countries, because they may be from ‘the other side’. It’s hard to trust if trust has been absent, damaged or betrayed.
I ask what they need, what they hope for, what would be life-giving, more than just bearable. Their answer is simple and clear: human relationship, friendship, laughter, to be listened to, to feel heard and understood. Sometimes they lack confidence to reach out. They may fear rejection, feel insecure about their limited local language or worry about a risk of cross-cultural misunderstandings.
Host countries may risk focusing so much on strategy, policy and task that they lose sight of relationship. I’m inspired by Pete in the UK and Margitta in Germany. They are followers of Jesus. Whenever we encounter people who are asylum seekers or refugees, Pete and Margitta are welcomed with huge smiles. They see and treat people, warmly, as real people. Love is transformational.
‘Poverty is a very complicated issue, but feeding a child isn’t.’ (Jeff Bridges)
A little girl runs around excitedly while her parents wait patiently in a queue. She – I don’t know her name – pauses from time to time, crouches down and writes words or draws flags and hearts on the ground with blue and yellow chalks. She runs off again, full of energy and laughter, and her parents call to her to not stray too far.
This is the opening of a new food bank hall in South Germany for asylum seekers, refugees and other people in need. I’m struck by the passion and organisation of the volunteers and by the generosity of 30+ shops that provide food weekly for some 200 families. Not stale food past its sell-by date. Freshly baked bread, vegetables etc.
My tiny role, shifting empty food containers, gives me a chance to witness this event from the inside. The workers embody Jesus’ call to support and care for people who are poor and most vulnerable and it inspires me to see their love in action. The little girl skips across the car park now. Her parents look happy as they head off home.
‘Start where you are. Use what you have. Do what you can.’ (Arthur Ashe)
My first political act, with a capital P, was at the age of 14. I wrote to my MP (Member of Parliament) during the General Election that year to express my concern about the UK’s practice of retaining records that meant completed voting slips could be traced back to specific voters. It struck me as a profoundly anti-democratic practice, since a secret ballot was an important way of safeguarding freedom of political expression. My MP wrote back to explain that the practice was designed to track allegiance to extremist, anti-democratic far-right groups. That didn’t reassure me. Didn’t that mean we were adopting similarly anti-democratic practices too? He didn't respond.
My next political act, this time with a small P, was to stand up in a Trade Union meeting, aged 19, in a packed town hall, and to challenge its politburo-style leadership. I was immediately shot down in flames by the enraged Union leader which, in spite of my trembling hands and voice as I spoke, simply confirmed my view that the Union had become thoroughly corrupt. It spurred me on to organise an organisation-wide petition aimed at reforming the Union by calling for a return to its political-ideological roots and values and to ensure greater fairness. I was confronted by apocalyptic warnings, by words like ‘you are playing with fire’, yet pressed on with the petition nonetheless.
By age 22, my vision had turned international. I campaigned against the unspeakably violent actions of oppressive right-wing regimes in Central America that murdered the poor and vulnerable for daring to speak out. I was perplexed by the passivity or tacit collusion of those in power in the UK, US and beyond. Why weren’t we learning from history, from the sociopathic savagery of the Nazi regime through to the sick brutality of Vietnam? Why weren’t we more principled, more angry, more determined to stand up for what is right? I burned myself out with powerless passion. Yet learning to love would prove to be a harder challenge. The corruption I saw out there is also here in me.
‘You are a sign of God, the proof of his living love.’ (Mother Teresa)
As we walked to the local shops, the sky was foreboding grey, the ground was wet with muddy snow and the air felt freezing cold. We passed by various people on route, trudging with heavy bags and looking faintingly-tired in the fading half-light. Each time we approached someone, the petite Filipina walking beside me sprang spontaneously into a wild, animated greeting with wide open arms and a beaming smile: ‘Good evening!’, ‘Merry Christmas!!’ The strangers looked up with astonishment, surprise. Then they would smile (some laugh), greet her back and look happier and more energised.
I laughed too. ‘What made you do that?!’ It feels unusual in this UK culture to speak to those we don’t know, and especially with such vibrantly-extroverted enthusiasm. She commented, ‘They looked weary and alone. I wanted to do something small to brighten their day.’ It brightened my day too. This woman shines Jesus. She models Mother Teresa’s invitation to do small things with great love. I found myself looking forward to being outside with her, to witnessing her acts of kindness and their deep, detonating impact. She made the winter dark seem lighter and the bitter cold feel warmer.
When have you witnessed, experienced or done small things with great love?
[See also: Seen and unseen; A radical heart; Candles]
‘The people living in darkness have seen a great Light; on those living in the land of the shadow of death, a Light has dawned.’ (Matthew 4:16, the Bible)
‘Death is a thick black wall, against which every soul is hurled and shattered.’ I don’t now remember who said that, but I do remember my philosophy lecturer quoting it when we studied existentialism. These are very dark words indeed and have, for me, a deeply foreboding and chilling feel to them. I sat down and avidly wrote an essay in response, doing my best to present what, I believed, were convincing rational arguments to counter such a nihilistic and hope-less outlook.
When I got my paper back, the mark was nowhere near as high as I had hoped for or expected. The lecturer had commented simply yet profoundly that an existentialist writer would have absolutely no interest in my reasoning. It’s not about objectivity or logic. It’s about how it is and feels to be in the world; a phenomenological cry of angst in the face of fragile, fathomless, futility. It was as if, in my attempt to offer ‘correct’ thinking, I had totally missed the point. It never was about thinking.
As the years have passed by, I too have known that angst, at a times an almost irresistible magnetic-like pull towards my own death. Sometimes, it has felt like half-clinging on weakly to avoid being pulled over the edge. In the face of unbearable and irreparable heartbreak, suicide can feel like a least-painful solution. Tom Walker’s moving song, Leave a Light On has deep emotional resonance here. Jesus is my life-saving Light. ‘At the end of the day, it’s either God or death.’ (James Wallace).
Whatever Advent means to you, Light shines in darkness. Hold onto hope.
'The optimism of the action is better than the pessimism of the thought.' (Greenpeace)
Resilience is a common buzz word today, partly in response to the complex mental health challenges that individuals and communities face in a brittle, anxious, non-linear and incomprehensible (BANI) world. Who would have imagined 3 years ago, for instance, that Covid19 would strike or that Russia would invade Ukraine, with all the ramifications this has precipitated in our personal and collective lives? It can feel like too much time spent on the back foot, reacting to pressures that may appear from anywhere, without warning, from left field – rather than creating the positive future we hope for.
A psychological, social and political risk is that people and societies develop a ‘Whatever’ attitude, an apathetic ‘What’s the point?’ mentality. After all, what is the point of investing our time, effort and other resources into something that could all get blown away again in a brief moment? A good friend worked in Liberia with a community that was trying to recover from the effects of a bloody civil war. They started to build schools, hospitals and other infrastructure and, just as things were beginning to look hopeful, a violent, armed militia swept through the area and burned everything to the ground.
This can feel like an apocalyptic game of snakes and ladders. Take one step forward and, all of a sudden, back to square one again. A close friend in the Philippines befriended people in a very poor makeshift community, surviving at the side of a busy road in boxes and under tarpaulins. She worked hard to improve the quality of their lives, to ensure that they felt and experienced authentic love, care and support, and it started to have a dramatic human impact. Faces brightened and hopes were lifted. Then, out of nowhere, government trucks appeared and bulldozed that whole place to the ground.
It could be tempting to give up. One coping mechanism is to focus on living just one moment, one day, at a time because, after all, 'Who can know what tomorrow will bring?' This may engender an element of peaceful acceptance, akin to that through mindfulness. It can also morph into a form of passive, deterministic fatalism: ‘We can’t change anything, so why try?’ Martin Luther King's response stands in stark contrast who, in the face of setbacks, advocated, ‘We’ve got to give ourselves to this struggle until the end. Nothing would more tragic than to stop at this point. We’ve got to see it through.’
Psychologically, both approaches could be regarded as survival strategies, as personal and social defences against anxiety. In a way, they are adaptive responses: ways of thinking, being and behaving that seek to create a greater sense of agency and control in the face of painful powerlessness. In the former case, a level of control is gained, paradoxically, through choosing to relinquish control. It's a letting-go rather than a clinging-on. In the latter, a fight-response (albeit a faith-fuelled, non-violent fight in the case of MLK), control is sought by changing the conditions that deprive of control.
Each constitutes it's own way of responding to an external reality – and it’s out there as well as in here that the real and tangible challenges of resilience and transformation persist. The social, political and economic needs of the poorest, most vulnerable and oppressed people in the world don’t exist or disappear, depending simply on how we or they may perceive or feel about them. MLK’s call to action was radical: ‘We need to develop a kind of dangerous unselfishness. It’s no longer a question of what will happen to us if we get involved. It’s what will happen to them (and us) if we don’t?’
[See also: Resilient; When disaster strikes; Clash of realities]
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