While visiting congregations in Germany, my partner Christie and I stumbled upon a surprising memorial. We were walking around a medieval cathedral in Braunschweig and on the ground lay a stone marking the spot where a memorial briefly stood. The stone read: “Here stood from 1 September 1994 until 1 January 1995 a memorial to military deserters. After twice being vandalized, it was on New Year’s Day stolen altogether.” It was the first time I had ever seen a memorial for a memorial, and I realized how difficult it is to remember unpopular ideas sometimes.
Not only is a monument to deserters rare (I had never heard of one before!), and not only was this monument attacked three times in four months, but the entire monument was stolen altogether! Who steals a whole monument? Someone who desperately wants us not to remember – someone who wants us to forget. Without the memory of those who went before us, we are more likely to just go with the crowd, obey orders, buy into popular ideas, and not question the powers and principalities of this world.
As Christians, we cannot afford to forget.
At every turn – from the television to history books to parades on holidays to international politics – war and violence are lifted up and praised as the ultimate good, the ultimate sacrifice, the ultimate service one can do for one’s country or family or community.
But where are the stories of those who refused to fight? Where are the stories of those who were so horrified by war that they chose not to follow the crowd? Where are memorials to their sacrifices, their courage, their vision? Where are the histories of the deserters, stories of their bravery, songs about their commitment, recognition for their service to humankind? In a world governed by governments that rely on the projection of power – either economic or military – we rarely hear the stories of those who resist the drums of war. They are erased from our collective memory – no mention in history books, no discussion in current policy, no news headlines, no memorials. We are not allowed to remember them or their sacrifice.
The ironic thing is, that is the same thing the Roman Empire thought it was doing by crucifying Jesus – making him a common criminal, anonymous, unremarkable, erased from our collective memory. I can only begin to imagine what it must have been like for the first few generations after Jesus died – the government refused to acknowledge Jesus’ sacrifice, let alone his resurrection, following a resister – let alone worshipping him – must have seemed close to treason. And then, just as now in many of our governments, treason toward the state comes with deadly consequences.
The absence of the Braunschweig memorial echoes the symbolism of the cross: a negative symbol redeemed. The cross and the missing monument at first seem to declare defeat and negation, but the cross was adopted by the early Christians as the very sign of Jesus’ victory and love for the world. The cross symbolizes both Jesus’ victory and our awareness of the brutality and power that Jesus was up against. Placing a memorial to the stolen memorial in Braunschweig is a sign of the refusal to forget – and also a sign of awareness of the powerful reactionary forces of patriotism, militarism, and violence. We know what we’re up against in our countries – just as Jesus and Paul knew what they were up against under Rome.
We worship a God and man that declares that all people are of inestimable worth, and that since we are all equally loved by God we should love each other just as dearly – regardless of citizenship, race, or language. Jesus died because he resisted the social, political and economic machine of oppression in his country and culture – a machine that declared some people more important or more holy than others. Jesus defied the expectations of his culture, his nation, even his own followers, and bravely and actively loved people that the crowds around him saw as unloveable.
Surely, those who deserted from the German army (or any army) in World War II (or any war) did so for many reasons. But it seems reasonable that most of them (if not all of them) felt that what their nation and culture and crowds were saying and doing was wrong. No one is of less worth than another – everyone is equally loved by God, and ought to be loved by those who follow God.
War and imperialism and greed and a thousand other vices are fed by the idea that “we” are better than “them.” Both the deserters and Jesus confessed with their lives that that idea is not true. But disagreeing with this idea is sometimes a very difficult, unpopular, dangerous statement to make.
It is easier for us to stand strong if we remember that we are not alone in resisting the urge to elevate ourselves above others – others have gone before us: Jesus and Paul, Peter and Mary, and the almost-forgotten wartime deserters. Stand as a living memorial to the missing memorial; live and love as a living sacrifice; be a symbol of Christ and the cross in the world.
(A version of this article will be published in the June editions of the church magazines in Germany and the Netherlands.)