I gave this talk at The Abbey Church, Victoria BC, Canada on February 26th 2018 in association with my work being shown in the exhibition History as Personal Memory.
My father and mother fell in love well after the Second World War yet their marriage never emerged from its shadow. My German born father had fought on the Eastern Front and in Normandy, and my Dutch mother had suffered with her first young family during the occupation of Holland. Wanting to leave the memory of war behind and start afresh they traveled with me as a baby and my older siblings to Australia. Not long after two other little girls were born. Like many immigrant parents their goal was to concentrate on the future, but for my family, the past broke into our new life in the form of my father’s battlefield flashbacks. As a girl I was deeply frightened, and I developed a form of traumatic amnesia which lifted only ten years ago.
Because he suffered from PTSD and brain damage from a career in boxing, my father could not hide the darkness of his history – there was no outer façade of silence as so many children of WW2 veterans describe. I learnt about brutality through the violence my father visited upon my family. I learned about cruelty and agony when I saw it in his face and heard it in his voice. I learned about hopelessness, confusion, defeat, and loss. I learnt about being suicidal; about the guilt of killing. I came to know about war through seeing it in the eyes of my father. I could not tell you at the time that that is what I saw, but because I loved my dad, I learned about the power of compassion while at the same time facing fear.
Because we loved him as little children we could not judge him, we had no historical context for his suffering and even with all that was fearful about my father, he could not hide his goodness from his little girls. He was the sort of man who would pick wild flowers for his wife on mother’s day, and tickle his daughters with feathers, and made sure they were safe and warm. He hated injustice and cowardice. He worked hard at his job and at home, turning our ¼ acre into a vegetable garden, making his own black smith forge and tools. He held fragile pigeons in his hands and calmed nervous horses and made the most extraordinary wrought iron sculptures out of hammer and anvil and fire. I knew very early on that both goodness and evil live within one human being.
Through my dad I learnt the truth of Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s words: “If only it were all so simple! If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?”
In my father I saw the suffering of someone trying to destroy his own heart. He died in a mental hospital when I was 13, after years of alcoholism, smoking and numerous suicide attempts. His legacy to me was to make me immune to the idea that humans can be separated into the categories of good or evil.
Most of us can live oblivious to evil within us because we have not faced the right circumstances to bring it forth, and many of us believe that we are good people even though Jesus says no-one is good – yet it is so easy to be conscious of the evil in the world done by others. But what I have become aware of in seeking to understand my father’s story is how much of the evil done in the world is done in the name of good. I have come to believe that our emphasis on “being good” or “fighting for the good” is deeply mistaken.
I see how in scripture, at every turn, those who we regard as heroes of faith are shown to fail in goodness. It is as though our heroes of scripture were chosen deliberately to thwart the idea that human goodness is what we can rely on. I believe the story of the fall is not about how evil brings death into the world but rather how the division between good and evil brings death to the world. And when we look at war, is that not what we see? People who believe themselves to be on the side of good killing other human beings whom they believe to be evil? And yet the “other side” do not consider themselves as evil at all. As the nine year old I work with says: no-one goes to war believing they are the bad guys.
Falling into the knowledge of Good and Evil was the first incidence of what we know today as polarization. When a society becomes polarized it no longer regards the other side’s point of view on anything. And pretty soon each side decides the other is evil. We have seen that already in the ‘States. The next step – and this is why I am so concerned for our world right now- is that those who believe themselves to be good decide they need to fight and destroy those they regard as evil.
Polarisation…declaring other human beings evil does not bring out the good in us, it brings out the evil in us. When we become convinced of being good, when we become convinced of our own superiority we become blind to our own evil. In the name of purifying the world, tens of millions of civilians were murdered in the Holocaust; in the name of fighting evil more civilians were killed by the Allied bombing campaigns than they lost men in all of the war. In the name of civilisation, over a 100 thousand First Nations children were ripped from their parents and imprisoned in residential schools; in the name of keeping a country safe, refugees are imprisoned by Australia in what is called – in a total amnesia of history- the Pacific Solution.
In seeking to understand the horror of WW2 and the Holocaust I have come to think as terribly, tragically true what one of the most influential theologians of the twentieth century, Reinhold Niebuhr tells us: “Ultimately evil is done not so much by evil people, but by good people who do not know themselves and who do not probe deeply.”
When we look at the description of the fruits of the spirit in Galatians we see that the place goodness is meant to take is in concert with other qualities: love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. I believe that it is the operation of good at the neglect of the other fruits of the spirit that causes goodness to turn into its opposite – taking my cue from Augustine, who tells us that evil is not the absence of good but the distortion of it.
What are we to rely on if we do not trust in goodness? Does that mean we are to leave the evil that we humans do unleashed in the world, unaddressed for fear of doing evil ourselves? The reality is that we cannot destroy evil or rid ourselves of it completely because it lives within us as human beings. And yet human beings are deeply loved by God. All of us, everyone. And therein is the answer. Even though God is good, goodness is not the solution to evil, love is.
Love does not seek to destroy evil, it seeks to redeem it. Love seeks to heal the division that came into the world in the Garden of Eden by holding the duality of our human heart in tenderness, understanding and forgiveness, not by cutting away half of our heart or half of human beings. God knows we have been torn in two, God knows we need to be redeemed. Through the Spirit, God’s love seeps into the cracks of our world to heal the evil we do to ourselves and to each other.
In my current work on show now at the Slide Room Gallery it is this theme of love as an antidote to oppression that preoccupies me. In my work I have made roses that shine and hold both dark and light together even as they break through darkness and resist it. The roses stand in as portraits of those in Germany who acted in resistance to the Nazi Regime. We have this idea that few resisted the Nazis, yet in reality per capita, more were imprisoned and executed in Germany for resisting the Nazis than those who were executed or imprisoned for more famously resisting the Nazis in France.
The description of love from Corinthians that is read at weddings was not written for bright eyed newlyweds, but by one who was a former oppressor and torturer and killer writing to people who would face oppression, torture and death. As this passage calls us to patience, to forgiveness, to love of truth, to hope and to faith, it gives us the keys to strengthen our hearts every day, so that come what may, we might endure.
As I research the German resistance I am discovering that there were those who believed in love being the antidote to the violence of their times. It is these people we need to learn from if we are at all to find an answer to resisting the oppression of our own time. How does love work, how is it that love provided the strength to resist what we acknowledge as one of the most brutal regimes in history? What are their stories? Where did Germans find courage to resist even as they knew there was no-one to rescue them and they would lose their lives? How can it be that Arvid Harnack‘s last words proclaimed “I believe in the power of love.”
I don’t have time in this talk to share their stories with you, but I would like to end with words by Harro Schulze-Boysen written just before his own execution- words that ring in sympathy with the Gospel reading today. (John 12: 23-26)
‘….Such important things are at stake today all over the world that one extinguished life does not matter very much. . . .
“Even if we should die, we know this: the seed bears fruit. If heads roll, then the spirit nevertheless forces the state.
“Believe with me in the just time that lets everything ripen.”