Sermon by the Rev. Dr. Brooks Schramm
Sept. 16, 2011
Grace to you…
On a dreary Sunday afternoon six weeks ago this weekend, my wife Kirsi, my friend Nelson, and I stood on the slope of a large hill just outside the German city of Weimar, a hill called die Ettersberg. This was the third trip to this hillside for Kirsi and me, and the second for Nelson. The hillside was formerly a beautiful, even idyllic place. In fact it was the favored “getaway” for Weimar’s most famous resident, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, and his rather impressive list of romantic-interests. The stump of the giant oak tree under which Goethe used to hold court is still there.
But the hillside is no longer a beautiful, idyllic place. It’s now a memorial. Memorials are of different kinds. This one is a memorial to a human shithole. From 1937-1945 the hillside of the Ettersberg was known by a different name, KZ Buchenwald (Concentration Camp Buchenwald). Of all of the major concentration camps run by the SS, Buchenwald was perhaps the strangest. A wide assortment of people were forced into this place: Poles, various southern Slavs, political prisoners, communists, German dissidents, Roma and Sinti gypsies, Elie Wiesel (who lived to tell about it), Dietrich Bonhoeffer (who was removed from the camp just days before liberation and shipped off to Flossenbürg), and at the bottom of the barrel homosexuals and Jews. These last two categories of people, homosexuals and Jews, were distinguished from all the other wretched inmates in that they were the only two categories to which the guards were allowed to do anything they wanted, at any time, without asking for permission.
Buchenwald was not an extermination camp. It was a humiliation, de-humanization camp. That was its mission. Its express mission. To humiliate and to dehumanize, on a massive scale. Its mission statement was inscribed in iron on the main gate to the camp. Three words. Not the three-word joke known from Auschwitz, Theresienstadt, and Sachsenhausen: “Arbeit macht frei” (“work will set you free”). At Buchenwald the three words were: “Jedem das seine” (“To each his own”; or perhaps better translated, “You get what you’ve got coming to you”).
Just outside of the main gate at Buchenwald stood the two-story commander’s quarters, where the first commander of the camp, Karl Koch, lived with his beloved wife, Ilse. Karl was fond of collecting the shrunken heads of deceased inmates, a peculiar specialty of the medical and scientific staff at the camp. And Ilse, affectionately known by the inmates as, “Die Hexe von Buchenwald” (“the witch of Buchenwald”), was fond of lampshades made of human inmate skin, preferably Jewish. Of the approximately 250,000 human beings who passed through the gates of Buchenwald between 1937 and 1945, approximately 60,000 died.
Things like Buchenwald don’t “just-happen.” They don’t materialize out of thin air. Things like Buchenwald require much forethought, much energy, and much ingenuity. And in the case of Nazism and its truest believers, the SS, it requires a totalizing nihilistic philosophy.
A year before Buchenwald’s grand opening, in 1936, Joseph Goebbels (the propaganda minister for Adolf Hitler and the Reich) addressed a huge gathering of German teen-agers at a Nazi Party rally. His words to them, delivered with great earnestness and a well-timed mixture of his typical smirks and stern glares, were about as plain as they could possibly be. He said to these teenagers:
You, the youngest generation, must get over your fear of death. You must conquer your fear of death.
And in its place you must learn to reverence death.
And what did he mean by, “You must learn to reverence death”? He meant quite simply: “You must learn to worship death.”
Very close to the heart of the totalizing nihilistic philosophy that was Nazism was worship. The worship of death. And there is nothing really that leads more inexorably to the humiliation and the de-humanization of other human beings than does the worship of death. The worship of death is not the only form of evil, of wickedness. But it is evil, it is wicked. And it has inexorable evil consequences.
Nazism was not, is not, its only expression. When you see organized willful degradation, when you see organized willful humiliation, when you see organized willful de-humanization, the willful, prideful murder of innocents, the worship of death is always close at hand.
And what do we worship? Or whom? Is it not the God of life? Is it not the God who thrills at the thriving of life, of life in its fullness? Is it not the God who thrills when we love, when we are kind, when we are compassionate, when we are merciful, when we defend the innocent?
What do we worship? Or whom? Is it not the God who abhors the forces that work against the thriving of life, of life in its fullness? Is it not the God who abhors the forces of death?
The Psalmist today is clear about whom he worships. “O LORD, in the morning you hear my voice; in the morning I plead my case to you, and watch. For you are not a God who delights in wickedness; evil will not sojourn with you. The boastful will not stand before your eyes; you hate all evildoers. You destroy those who speak lies; the LORD abhors the bloodthirsty and the deceitful.”
Let us not, ever, underestimate the significance of our worship. Let us not, ever, underestimate the significance of the songs that we sing. We sing songs of life to the God of life. We sing with vigor, we sing with joy, and we also sing with agony for the victims of evil and wickedness, both past and present. Songs of life to the God of life, the God with whom evil and wickedness cannot dwell.