I Don’t Know What To Say Anymore

My last blog post was three months ago – a relatively innocuous review of an important book I had recently read. Since then, I’ve written lots of partial drafts on scratch paper or notebooks but never finished them, and have thought about more that I never even started. As I read, listen to, or watch the news each day, my frustration (more honestly called outrage) almost motivates me to write, but I don’t. Over the last several years, I’ve written about the political state of affairs in the United States, but now for the most part, I remain silent, only occasionally reacting to something someone else shares on Facebook and rarely commenting. Why? Because I don’t know what to say anymore:

  • I don’t want to offend friends who may see things differently than I do.
  • I don’t want to say something that is based on incomplete information and therefore not wholly true (and consequently be accused of sharing “fake news”). I don’t want to be another of those knee-jerk responders who allow their chains to be pulled by yet another outrage and don’t bother to understand the whole story.
  • I don’t want to contribute to the nastiness that is so prevalent on a platform like Facebook.
  • I have a hard time deciding when something is so important that I have to speak out, especially in this atmosphere when there are so many things happening that go against everything I believe is right.
  • It is difficult to address in one Facebook post or blog entry all the nuances and complexities of a story or situation, so one risks oversimplification or reductionism.
  • I’m tired of all the “what-about-isms,” even though they are sometimes helpful for putting things in perspective. But the whole “both sides” thing, while important to keep in mind, sometimes leads to false equivalencies and leaves people off the hook when they should be shouldering much of the responsibility.
  • I am only too well aware that some of the negative characteristics I want to call out in other people may be in me too, and I don’t want to be guilty of the same kind of hypocrisy I see in others. I also know that I often fall short of the ideals to which I call others.
  • If I wrote something every time I am outraged, it would be difficult to get anything else done.
  • I often feel helpless to do or say anything that will make a difference.

I am also trying (not always successfully) to put into practice in my own life my church’s commitment to being a “third way” church. I published an issue of Shalom! on the subject last fall, so I’ve been thinking a lot about what that means for the way I act in my little corner of the world. As a Christian, I believe that the kingdom of God is more important than any earthly kingdom, and that I am first of all a citizen of God’s kingdom. I don’t want to exclusively identify with either Republicans or Democrats, with one side or another. I want to be a bridge-builder and understand other points of view; I generally think most issues are not clear-cut or easily characterized as either-or; I don’t want to be just another partisan contributing to the extreme polarization of our time; I want to be a peacemaker.

For all these reasons, most of the time it is so much easier, less risky, and more fun to limit my participation on social media to posts about our travels, family birthdays and anniversaries and holidays, our wonderful grandkids, and (more recently) our cute new kitten (see above photo!).

BUT, and it is a huge but: My reluctance to speak out on one of the most important social media platforms often feels cowardly – a classic example of “silence is complicity.” I do not want to appear complicit in so much of the awfulness that happens every day. While situations are often more complex than they initially seem, there is often nonetheless a fundamental wrong at stake. Naming that wrongdoing, based on what I believe in the innermost core of my being, might appear “partisan,” but should that disqualify it? While I often feel like I don’t have anything new to say, I also recognize that because of many years of writing about difficult issues, I’ve developed some credibility that perhaps I should put to use.

Social media (in my case Facebook, since it’s the only platform besides my blog that I use regularly) is under attack with good reason, and we all either have to decide to abandon it or choose our own form of engagement. Some stick with cute babies and kittens, some share humorous or amazing things, others share a wide spectrum of content from other people and organizations, and others bravely and intentionally try to engage in constructive dialogue. My own informal rules of engagement are somewhat eclectic, although I rarely share anything controversial from other sources without adding a little commentary of my own and I rarely respond to controversial posts unless I feel very strongly about the issue. Whether those are good rules is another question, and part of what prompted this essay since I am uncomfortable with how I feel like I’ve allowed myself to be cowed into silence.

So what do I feel strongly about right now? Here’s a partial list:

  • Racism, white supremacy, and xenophobia are wrong, wrong, wrong. We are in a moment in the U. S. where all are being sanctioned, whether explicitly or implicitly, at the highest levels of government, with really nasty results in all kinds of places. All human beings – regardless of race, country or nationality, whether they’re “legal” or “illegal”, political party, religion or ideology, or economic status – deserve to be treated kindly and with dignity and fairness.
  • Lies and dishonesty do not help to establish trust between people. While many politicians stretch the truth (and sometimes blatantly lie), the frequency of lies and misrepresentations from the President is truly mind-boggling and deeply disturbing. Repeating the same thing over and over again does not make it true if it was false to begin with. I hate that I have to rely on a daily basis on fact-checking entities like Politifact.com and FactCheck.org to explain what’s true, half true, or false. I hate that we seem to be living in an Orwellian world where up is down and black is white.
  • “America first” philosophy is fundamentally self-centered and short-sighted. Whether we like it or not, everyone living on planet earth is interdependent and interconnected, and we should be forging alliances with other peoples and nations, not disrupting or ending them.
  • Basic democratic values feel like they are constantly under attack: freedom of the press, the rule of law, the checks and balances and accountability that come with three independent branches of government, etc.
  • If implemented in good faith, the Golden Rule, common to all the world’s major religions in one form or another, could transform our words and actions: treat others as you want to be treated. 

The dilemma: I am deeply troubled by lots of things. I don’t want to be complicit in wrongdoing and injustice by my silence, so I  often feel responsible to say something. But I can’t and shouldn’t respond to everything. How do I choose when to respond, and how do I use the influence I have in forums like this blog and social media to be a force for good? Perhaps others also struggle with this same dilemma. How have you chosen to deal with it?


Protest and Civility

Over the summer, Dale and I attended the Families Belong Together rally and march in Harrisburg. We joined more than 300 people protesting the immigration and family detention policies of the U. S. government. We left early because of the extreme heat, but we’re glad we made the effort to attend. It felt like the right thing to do at that particular moment in the United States.

I don’t often engage in public acts of protest. Even though I opposed the Vietnam War, I never marched or protested against it publicly. I have participated in a few relatively minor protests. Of course, there was my toddler protest when I refused to speak to my father for months, probably because I blamed him for moving us away from a beloved nanny. In college, a friend and I met with the college president to protest the non-contract-renewal of a favorite professor. In the early 1980s, Dale and I expressed our opposition to war by refusing to pay the military portion of our income taxes. Last year, we went to our local U. S. Representative’s town hall (might have been the last in-person one he held), in part to protest his support for repealing the Affordable Care Act. This past March, we went to the local March for Our Lives rally against gun violence. And I have written (and published) thousands of words over the past 40+ years, some of which could be considered a form of protest.

In general, however, big public displays of protest are just not me. It is not natural for me to chant slogans, shout down or boo people, interfere with someone’s dinner in a restaurant, or engage in bullying behavior toward people with whom I disagree. Some of my queasiness with protest, I’ll admit, is related to my dislike of conflict and confrontation, but I also don’t think it’s right to be rude and nasty – even when I believe the causes behind the protest are just and right.

My dilemma is this: how to protest and resist policies and practices I abhor while remaining true to my values. Or as I put it in a piece I wrote last fall, how to “speak truth with words that give grace.”

I am really bothered by the incivility of our national discourse these days. It starts at the top – with a president who name-calls, tosses out petty insults through his Twitter feed and in his campaign-style rallies, and encourages his supporters to treat others the same way – and extends to ordinary individuals, including people all along the political spectrum (conservatives and progressives, Republicans and Democrats). Many people seem to feel like they’ve been given permission to say out loud in public whatever they think, regardless of how petty and mean it is. I cringe when people I like and respect in regular life share memes and stories on social media that are often not only blatantly false (and could be easily fact-checked) but also demeaning and nasty. I want to tell them, “Just stop it. Think before you post. This is not helpful, it’s cruel, it hurts your credibility (especially as a Christian), and I don’t think it’s really who you are.”

On the other hand, I believe it’s important to speak forthrightly, name evil and wrongdoing when we see it, even when it makes people uncomfortable. I want to take a stand for justice, especially for those who are the most vulnerable or marginalized. I understand the arguments in favor of a certain amount of incivility, and I realize that desperate times might call for desperate measures even if they don’t always fit my definition of niceness and civility.

So what are some ways to protest that better fit my personality and my values?

  • Write letters, make phone calls, and send emails to public officials. Be a pest and be direct and passionate, but don’t make personal attacks.
  • Take a stand on social media, but again, no name-calling or personal attacks. Admittedly, I’ve been pretty silent lately, mostly because I am concerned that I can’t say what I believe without inflaming someone I might hope to influence or persuade.
  • Engage in nonviolent resistance and civil disobedience (our tax resistance was an example). Refuse to participate in a system that oppresses or does whatever you think is wrong. Get in the way and gum up the works – but be civil in the process. Explain what you’re doing and why. Be willing to accept the consequences of your behavior, if you’ve broken the law. Civil disobedience not only has a long history in American politics, but it is also biblical: Daniel in the lion’s den; Shadrach, Meshach, and Obednego in the fiery furnace; Jesus picking grain and healing on the Sabbath; Peter and John declaring they would obey God rather than human laws.
  • Take positive action: prayer, volunteer work that helps those affected by the injustices, getting involved in political campaigns and voting and encouraging others to vote to elect candidates who will change unjust laws.
  • Sift through the noise to get the facts and commit to not knowingly spreading false information (and apologize when you do it by mistake).

I know I don’t engage in all of these forms of protest as regularly as I should, but whenever I do, I want to be as truthful and civil as possible.

What If We Applied the Golden Rule?

As if I wasn’t already sad and angry about children being separated from their parents at the border, this viral photo of a Honduran toddler crying while her mother was being searched touched a very personal nerve. The child reminds me of a younger version of my six-year-old granddaughter Selena. Every time I see the photo, I see Selena, and I imagine the anguish I would feel if she or any of my grandchildren were forcibly separated from their parents with no clear indication of when or how (or even if) they will be reunited. (For the story of the photo and John Moore, the photographer, see this article.) (Update, June 22, 2018: The child in this photo was not in fact separated from her mother, but they are both still being detained.*)

Here are just a few of the other things I’ve been pondering as I read about and watch the awfulness that’s happening on our southern border:

The Golden Rule in one form or another is common to all major world religions:

  • Do to others as you would have them do to you (Christianity)
  • Hurt not others in ways that you yourself would find hurtful (Buddhism)
  • This is the sum of duty; do naught unto others what you would not have them do to you (Hinduism)
  • No one of you is a believer until he desires for his brother that which he desires for himself (Islam)
  • What is hateful to you, do not do to your fellowman. This is the entire law; all the rest is commentary (Judaism) (See “The Universality of the Golden Rule in the World Religions.”)

One of the reasons the Old Testament gives for caring for the strangers or aliens living in the land is that the children of Israel were once strangers themselves. The Old Testament and Jesus and Paul in the New Testament all say, “Love your neighbor as yourself” (in fact, Paul says this immediately following the passage in Romans 13 so inappropriately used by Attorney General Sessions). The writer to the Hebrews teaches that we should care for those in prison as if we were in prison with them, and those who are mistreated as if we ourselves were suffering. These are all variations of the Golden Rule: treat others as you want to be treated. What might it look like if we made a good faith effort to apply the Golden Rule to public policy, especially immigration policy?

I am frustrated beyond my ability to articulate by all the lies, obfuscation, disingenuousness, misinformation, and dissembling being propagated and repeated by various officials in the administration, especially the president himself. One of the most egregious is blaming the Democrats when his party is in control of Congress and he could personally reverse the “zero-tolerance” decision that has led to family separation.

Previous administrations struggled with the illegal immigration issue, and in their efforts to stem the flow didn’t always act humanely either.However, it feels to me like the current level of rhetoric against immigrants (even ones who want to come legally) is much greater than before, often preying on people’s fears of “the other.” This recent New York Times article helped me understand what happened before and what is happening now: How Trump Diverged from Other Presidents and Embraced a Policy of Separating Migrant Families.” 

A recent Politifact article also helps to explain the difference between what President Obama did and what is happening now. And here’s another one from NPR: “What We Know: Family Separation and ‘Zero-Tolerance’ at the Border.”

Administration officials have openly described the practice as a deterrent, but what if instead, we addressed the core reasons so many people try to come to the United States? How might the U.S. nonviolently and compassionately help to address some of the root causes of people becoming desperate enough to risk everything, including family separation, to make the journey? We know that many if not most of the countries that undocumented immigrants are fleeing are poor and violent (by the way, I hate the term “illegal alien” because it feels so dehumanizing). As one of the richest and most powerful nations in the world, with a history of welcoming immigrants (“Give me your tired, your poor,/Your huddled masses, yearning to breathe free”), what if the U.S. worked with other nations to create a better and more equitable world instead of alienating other democracies and selfishly proclaiming “America first”? We all live on this planet together and are interconnected more than ever before. What hurts one hurts us all, and what helps one helps us all. A Golden Rule philosophy makes so much more practical and moral sense to me that a zero-sum philosophy where there always have to be winners and losers.

Quite honestly, I don’t have the answer to the immigration issue, but I know that the current family separation practice is not the answer and it is not right. It often feels like this is one of those intractable and hopelessly complex issues to which there is no resolution. I think I understand why so many risk everything to try to come to the U.S., but then I also wonder why so many Americans don’t want them to come, sometimes even if they come in legally acceptable ways? The reasons often given include not wanting to give away (or share) limited resources to people who haven’t worked for them, protecting our jobs, or preventing crime – even though the truth is that most immigrants are hard-working, often do jobs that many Americans don’t want, and commit crimes at a lower rate than the rest of the population. I also suspect that a sizable number of Americans are motivated, perhaps despite themselves, by xenophobia (fear and distrust of that which is foreign or strange). Why, really, is it such a bad thing if more people come seeking the same better life our own ancestors did 50, 100, 200, 300, 400 years ago?

If we assume that the idea of countries with borders is a good thing, and believe that countries have the right and responsibility to control who and how many come in, then what is the best way to control those borders and protect national interests? What can we do that is more in keeping with the Golden Rule than separating families, criminalizing people seeking a better life or fleeing war and violence, and building more literal and figurative walls between us and and the rest of the world? I don’t have good answers, but I know we have to try harder to find ones that reflect our national values and the values of our faith. I am horrified and heartsick by the current situation and believe we must do better.

*Addendum: A clarification in the interest of truth. I learned that the toddler was NOT in fact separated from her mother, even though they are both being detained for crossing the border illegally. Some people seem to be suggesting that the fact that the child was not separated from her mother negates the value and credibility of the photo and condemns anyone who uses it to put a face on the human tragedy happening at the border. I am very happy that this child and her mother are together, but the truth is that 2,000+ children are still separated from their families and who knows how long it will take until they are reunited or IF they ever will be. 

Speaking Truth With Words That Give Grace

A smattering of fall at Laurelville

Earlier this week, I spoke at the Anabaptist Communicators Retreat, held at the Laurelville Mennonite Church Center, located in the beautiful Laurel Highlands of western Pennsylvania. My assignment was to talk about how my faith informs my writing and editorial work. What follows is a slightly adapted version of what I presented.

My early writings in the context of the church were borne out of my desire to communicate the call of Christ to be peacemakers. I grew up in the Brethren in Christ Church, one of the historic peace churches, but it wasn’t until young adulthood that I internalized the peacemaking imperative for Christians and developed what has been a decades-long passion for promoting the practice of peace and justice, particularly in the context of the church. In the earlier days of my writing on peace and justice topics, I was probably somewhat preachy and “polemical” as I tried to persuade others of my own convictions.

Those early writings were freelance and expressed my personal beliefs and opinions, but then I took on various writing and editorial positions in the church that gave me the opportunity to combine passion with profession, and I learned that while there is definitely a place for polemical writing, I could be more effective and likely have greater influence over the long term by making the case with more grace and humility.

Before I was given this assignment, however, I had not thought much in any deliberate way about how my faith informs my writing and editorial work, so it’s been an interesting and helpful exercise. I’ve thought about the variety of venues in which I’ve written and edited for more than 40 years:

  • editor of a monthly missionary prayer calendar (my first “official” church position)
  • editor for Shalom! for 36 years (Shalom! is a quarterly Brethren in Christ publication on peace and justice issues)
  • many years of board and committee work—in my denomination, my home congregation, and Mennonite Central Committee—where I was often called on to write and edit board communication pieces
  • two books (one I wrote and one I edited) and numerous articles and presentations
  • a 23-year career as a communications person associated with the PA Office of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services
  • current editor for the Brethren in Christ Historical Society
  • this personal blog

I list all those not to toot my own horn but rather to illustrate the different genres and contexts in which I’ve worked. Throughout it all, I’ve also worked with and edited many writers, most of whom were gracious to me as their editor, and I’ve navigated the challenges of trying to fairly represent many views in the publications I edit while maintaining my own integrity.

As I thought about that body of work and how my faith convictions have informed the way I write and edit, I kept coming back to three New Testament passages: Luke 6:27-31; Romans 12:14-21; Ephesians 4:25, 29, 31-32

Three imperatives from those passages serve as guidelines for how I try to do my work: 1) treat others as you want them to treat you; 2) if it is possible, live at peace with everyone; and 3) speak truth with words that give grace. I’ve collapsed a couple verses into that third guideline, but it seems in keeping with the intent of the passage, and it expresses well what I strive to do. It’s the basis for the title of this presentation: speaking truth with words that give grace.

Living up to those words is a constant challenge. As I said, much of my writing and editing has been on peace and justice-related issues, where there are often strong differences of opinion and convictions, even and perhaps especially among Christians. This has always been true, but seems particularly pointed right now. We’re living in a world where there is so much that seems unjust and just plain wrong, where lies and distortions of truth are some people’s stock-in-trade, and where religious and political divisions often seem impossible to bridge. It’s hard to speak the truth as one sees it in a way that will not further inflame and divide. It’s hard to extend grace to others who see that truth differently. But I believe more than ever that it’s important to try because it’s part of what it means to be a peacemaker.

How does this actually work itself in my writing and editorial practice?

  1. I consider my audience, recognizing that there will be some who read or hear my words who are not at the same place I am, who disagree with me (perhaps vehemently), and so I temper my words. A real-life example: When I used to write promotional announcements for my congregation’s annual Peace Sunday observance, I always visualized an older gentleman who was very conservative and was not always supportive of all the ways we tried to emphasize the church’s commitment to peacemaking. Thinking about him as I wrote helped me frame the announcement in a way that was most likely to appeal to the compassion that I knew was in him and not bias him and others like him against our Peace Sunday efforts from the get-go.
  2. I often acknowledge my own lack of knowledge or understanding and that I could be wrong. While I have strong beliefs and opinions, I don’t see many things as black and white or either/or. Life usually presents itself to me in much more complex and ambiguous ways—in shades of gray rather than in black and white, as both/and rather than either/or. Even those things about which I have strong opinions are not always clear-cut. In my experience, there are not many genuinely easy answers.
  3. I try to be honest and truthful. I fact-check and use reputable sources. I also try to be honest about my own shortcomings, which are many. While I’m pontificating about this or that topic, I am often brought up short by the realization that the hypocrisy, inconsistency, and self-righteousness I’m attributing to others could perhaps be applied to me. I am constantly humbled by the words of Paul in 1 Corinthians, which in one translation read: “For this reason I have sent to you Timothy, my son whom I love, who is faithful in the Lord. He will remind you of my way of life in Christ Jesus, which agrees with what I teach everywhere in every church.” To paraphrase it personally: Does the way I actually live my life agree with what I write? . . . the answer to which often gives me pause and reminds me that a little humility is a good thing.
  4. I try to be true to myself, and use personal stories to illustrate my point. It’s harder to argue with personal experience. That’s the way I framed an essay called “God Bless the Whole World, No Exception,” that was something of a rebuke of the “America first” mentality.” I told the story of having been integrally connected to three countries from the moment of my birth. I am the daughter of an American mother and a Canadian father, and I was born in Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe). That reality has forever affected the way I view the world. Conversely, I recognize that the personal experience of others also affects the way they view the world.
  5. I try to acknowledge other points of view when I can. This is a particular challenge when those points of view feel like anathema to me, or when they contradict the official position of the church for which I’m writing or editing.
  6. As an editor, I believe in doing my best to maintain the writer’s own voice. Sometimes that probably means that I am not as ruthless an editor as some might think I should be, but it is also a gesture of respect for the right of people to express themselves in the words, phrases, and colloquialisms that are comfortable for them. I don’t like it when editors put words in my “mouth” that I would not say but that express what they think I mean, and so I try not to do that to those whose words I edit.

I confess that many many times over the years I have struggled with “speaking truth.” I hate conflict, and I’m an introvert, so I would just as soon run the other way as confront the conflict. I have remained silent when I should have spoken up (or written something). I have also struggled with the grace part, as I feel anything but full of grace for those whose words and actions I abhor or cannot support. Nevertheless, despite my failures, speaking truth with words that give grace remains a goal for the way I want to approach my writing and editorial life, as well as the rest of my life.

Every Man Dies Alone: Why Resist?

I discovered the 1947 novel Every Man Dies Alone in a conversation about books with a friend on the beach in Cape MayThe novel was written in the aftermath of World War II, by Hans Fallada, the pen name of a German named Rudolf Ditzen with a history of mental illness and substance abuse who spent time in mental institutions, prison, and rehab. He wrote the book in 24 days in September and October 1946, but died before it was published in 1947. In 2009, when the English translation was finally published, the book gained a whole new audience, becoming one of the New York Times “notable books of the year” in 2009.

I’ve read lots of novels set in part during World War II: All the Light We Cannot See, Life after Life, Everyone Brave is Forgiven, Lilac Girls, Moon Tiger, The Girl from the Train, and The Paris Architect are a few relatively recent ones. Each of those novels portrayed some aspect of the war that I didn’t previously know much about. However, it’s been awhile since a novel has made me think and engage in self-examination as much as Every Man Dies Alone, likely because of the times we are in and the questions I ask myself regularly about how to respond to many things that are happening in the world that seem to me to be so very wrong.

Based on a true story, Every Man Dies Alone is about an ordinary German couple, Otto and Anna Quangel, who resist Hitler and the Third Reich. Their act of resistance is carried out in an environment in Berlin where many ordinary citizens believed the hype that Hitler really was ushering in a new era of German greatness (making the awfulness of the war worth it); they willingly spied on and reported neighbors who acted suspiciously. Others became part of the system of oppression as police and members of the Gestapo. Still others were skeptical and privately opposed Hitler, but because they were afraid of the Gestapo, they remained silent or turned in anyone they suspected of acting against the government. Any kind of dissent was treasonous, and people were arrested, imprisoned, and executed for minor offenses.

When their only son is killed in the war, Otto and Anna are “radicalized” and begin their resistance. Otto decides to write postcards against the Hitler regime (“he needs an outlet for his rage”) and drop them surreptitiously in random places throughout Berlin, hoping they will be picked up and read by passersby who will be influenced by their message. The first postcard reads: “Mother! The Fuhrer has murdered my son! The Fuhrer will murder your sons too, he will not stop until he has brought sorrow to every home in the world.”

Anna, angry and sick with grief over the death of her son, initially says the act is too small and won’t do any good, but agrees to participate. Otto convinces her: “They all will read the card, and it will have some effect on them. Even if the only effect is to remind them that there is still resistance out there, that not everyone thinks like the Fuhrer.” Later he reflects again on the possible success of their efforts: “I’d like to be around to see it [Hitler and the Third Reich] all collapse. I would like to experience that. We’ve done our bit to make it happen.” Together, they imagine that their postcards will change minds and create a larger movement of resistance. Ultimately, after more than two years of postcarding Berlin, they are discovered and arrested, brutally interrogated, charged with treason, tried and found guilty in a farce of a trial, and sentenced to death. Otto is executed by beheading, and Anna dies later during an air raid when a bomb falls on the prison.

After his arrest, Otto is devastated when he learns that out of 285 postcards he wrote, only 18 were not turned in to the authorities. He is at first convinced that nothing good was accomplished, that their act of resistance was a complete failure. Eventually, as he languishes in prison, he comes to understand the value of his act of resistance and before he dies attains the kind of serenity that comes from knowing he did what he thought was right.

So what is the point of resisting when the act is so small and/or it stands almost no chance of being effective in the long run? Several conversations in the novel sought to answer that question and resonated with me as I ponder how and whether to resist the many things that are wrong in the world these days and often wallow in feelings of powerlessness and helplessness.

At one point, Otto and Anna’s son’s former fiancee Trudel and her husband Karl consider hiding a Jewish woman in their house. Karl says, “There’s nothing we can do,” to which she responds, “If everyone thought like that, then Hitler would stay in power forever. Someone somewhere has to make a start.” The narrator continues: “She was desperate to do something against Hitler, against the war. In principle, he was too, but it mustn’t carry any risk; he wasn’t willing to run the least danger.” I ask myself: what risks am I willing to take to do what is right?

In prison, Otto shares a cell for a time with a musician, Dr. Reichardt, who was arrested as a communist sympathizer. They talk about what Otto did with the postcards and his belief that his efforts were futile:

Otto: “They didn’t do any good!”

Dr. Reichardt: “Who can say? At least you opposed evil. You weren’t corrupted. You and I and the many locked up here, and many more in other places… – they’re all resisting, today, tomorrow…”

Otto: “Yes, and then they kill us, and what good did our resistance do?”

Dr. R.: “Well, it will have helped us to feel we behaved decently until the end.”

“Decently” seems to be another word for “with moral integrity.”

On another occasion, when another cell-mate sadistically destroys the only photograph Dr. R. has of his wife and children, Otto accuses him of being too soft because he didn’t fight the man. Dr. R. responds: “Do you want me to be like the others? They think they can convert us to their views by physical punishment. But we don’t believe in force. We believe in goodness, love, and justice.” Otto retorts: “But in life you need to be tough sometimes!”

Dr. R. responds: “No, you don’t. And a saying like that is justification for every form of brutality!” An argument for nonviolence if there ever was one.

According to German legal protocols, Otto’s defense lawyer goes through the motions of submitting a request for clemency following his death sentence, despite not having any sympathy for or understanding of what Otto did. The lawyer asks Otto, “What made you do it? Write those postcards. They didn’t accomplish anything, and now they’ll cost you your life.”

Otto replies: “Because I’m stupid. Because I didn’t have any better ideas. Because I thought they would accomplish something, as you put it.”

Lawyer: “And don’t you regret it? Aren’t you sorry to lose your life over a stupid stunt like that?”

Otto: “At least I stayed decent. I didn’t participate.” Again, that word “decent.”

Often the meaning of the title of a novel is not immediately obvious, and so when I read, I keep my eyes open for something that will explain it. In this case, the title seems to come from a conversation Otto has with Dr. Reichardt who says, “It would have been a hundred times better if we’d had someone who could have told us. Such and such is what we have to do; our plan is this and this. But if there had been such a man in Germany, then Hitler would never have come to power in 1933. As it was, we all acted alone, we were caught alone, and every one of us will have to die alone. But that doesn’t mean we are alone, or that our deaths will be in vain. Nothing in this world is done in vain, and since we are fighting for justice against brutality, we are bound to prevail in the end.”

I need that encouragement and challenge right now, when I feel helpless against a barrage of what I believe are unjust, mean-spirited, self-centered, short-sighted, hypocritical, and racially-charged attitudes, actions, and policies. I want to stay decent and act with integrity, and to be able to believe that in the end decency, goodness, love, and justice will prevail.


*Disclaimer: The book, clocking in at more than 500 pages, is much more complex with many more characters than this summary and analysis would indicate. It’s a gripping story, with lots of suspense – in short a good read!