Usually we have a hard time admitting our failures, which is natural, I suppose. Too often many of us have not been shown how to fail without thinking of ourselves as failures. However, this huge difference in meaning is essential to learn and to teach the next generation, as we face some of the most challenging environmental and economic crises in the history of humankind. For if we can’t separate failing from “being failures,” then we won’t risk, we won’t try the never-before-imagined, we won’t be able to transcend the systems of thought which got us into the crises in the first place.
This Sunday at Parables: All Abilities Inclusion Worship we will be reflecting on the beatitude, “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.” Of course, biblical meekness is not about being shy or timid, it’s about knowing when to stand up and speak truth to power, without allowing your resources to make you arrogant—or complacent.
Martin Niemoller was a Protestant pastor during WWII in Germany. At first he supported Hitler (I recently learned at the Holocaust Memorial Center in Farmington Hills, MI), but then later became an outspoken critic of Hitler’s policies. He spent the last seven years of the war in a concentration camp, a substantial portion in solitary confinement. He is most famous perhaps for his poem which I first copied from the granite of a disturbingly beautiful statue at Trinity Lutheran Seminary in Bexley, OH during my stay there in the summer of 2014.
First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Socialist.
Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.
This man actively held prejudices against Jewish people for committing “deicide” when they killed Jesus. Sadly, this isn’t the first time the Bible has been used to justify the ill-treatment of others based on short-sighted interpretation, which often includes attempts at creating the kin(g)dom of God using domination and exclusion. After Niemoller realized his failure in seeing Hitler for the dictator that he turned out to be, he did a “one-eighty” and helped to found The Confessing Church Movement in Germany, along with people like Dietrich Bonhoeffer.
While remaining a complicated and controversial figure for the rest of his life, (see his story at the Washington DC Holocaust Museum’s website https://www.ushmm.org/wlc/en/article.php?ModuleId=10007391), this was a person who emulated the meekness inherent in the Christness of the world. He continued to remain a staunch nationalist but had the humility to see some of where he had been mistaken, and used his influence where he could to do what was right. I can’t imagine how awkward a time that must have been for him to realign his position as such a public figure, and yet he did. Makes me think a bit of our friend, St. Paul, former Jesus-hater turned prolific church founder in the first century.
I wonder if some of Niemoller’s and St. Paul’s meekness was found through the gift of finally recognizing their own genuine short-sightedness as persons; each of us is a pilgrim on a spiritual trek, and that means there will inherently be places we fall flat on our faces no matter how hard we try to be good. Suffering through their own failures to see with the eyes and heart of Jesus, perhaps they were finally able to see the world more broadly and with more compassionate justice. I know the gift of failure has done that for me.
It takes true strength to use our power with wisdom and care in the face of conflict, and to not become aggressive, not give up, nor bully in passively aggressive ways in our attempt for control.
May we be blessed with the desire for God’s help to see our failures as not defining us—but rather creating a defining moment for us to see God’s greatness revealed in humanity—in the “stuff of earth”—once again.