“And one day, too late, your principles, if you were ever sensible of them, all rush in upon you. The burden of self-deception has grown too heavy, and some minor incident, in my case my little boy, hardly more than a baby, saying ‘Jewish swine,’ collapses it all at once, and you see that everything, everything, has changed and changed completely under your nose.”
Milton Mayer – “They Thought They Were Free”
Yesterday was Easter Sunday. Our church was packed to overflowing, due in in large part, I think, to the cultural habit of Americans to give the Almighty “his due” a couple of times a year.
It’s Monday and I’m staring out at the Mulberry tree outside my office window. I find myself contemplating the lessons of our recent trip. I’m still determined not to let mission creep rob me of what I’ve learned. It’s difficult. I’m as prone to cultural habits as any American.
It’s odd. I visited a lot of Christian churches while I was in Israel, from the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher to the Church of the Multiplication. But I didn’t find most of them that meaningful. Maybe I should have, and I’m sure a lot of my fellow Christians could fault me for my lack of insight or vision. I’m not going to mount much of a defense.
Of all the Christian sites I enjoyed the Church of the Multiplication most. It’s a very simple building, erected on the shores of the Sea of Galilee to commemorate Jesus’s miracle feeding of the 5,000. It didn’t take long to tour the interior. When we were done Amos gathered our group together and handed out plastic trash bags and told us that one of the really important outworkings of his Jewish faith was “mending the world.” For a half an hour he got us involved in that work. We walked along the shore, picking up trash that had more than likely been deposited there by other Christian tourists. Thinking back on it, it seems like such a small gesture. I’m sure other Christian tourists will come and carelessly dump more trash at the “holy site,” making our half hour seem to be a futile effort. But Amos’s message still resonates with me – “Mend the world!”
I’ve been home for ten days now. I’m no longer sleep-deprived and I’ve re-adjusted to an American diet. But I’ve come back sensing that I’m caught in an existential trap. America is going one way and I find myself muttering under my breath, “Dammit, let me off, I want no part of what’s going on here.” Peggy Noonan, in an April 21st op-ed expressed what I’m feeling. She describes an America that sends its young men and women around the world to bring the benefits of liberty to the uncivilized, yet finds itself falling apart at its cultural seams. We’re obsessed with Snooki and she and her friends are obsessed with sex. We’ve got five year olds toting guns to school. We’ve got people smacking each other around at McDonald’s, kiddie porn, and “Real Housewives” insulting one another. And, it’s all brought to you by Viagra.
Third world foreigners must look at this and think, “How empty and meaningless.”
As much as I feel I want to get off, I realize I can’t. It’s all spinning too fast.
Amos taught us that our task in life must be “mending the world.” It’s a lesson he’s learned well. His world is no less chaotic than ours. He has enemies surrounding him, bent on his death and the death of his wife and children. Yet, he works for peace in the midst of the chaos around him. How does he do it?
At Yad Vashem he spent a few minutes talking about how well engineered the Holocaust was. Once the ball got rolling, the extermination that followed was a masterpiece of efficiency. There was competitive bidding for the ovens and the best prices for Zyklon-B. There were numerical standards for how many Jews could or should be exterminated on a daily basis. As Amos described the meticulousness of the details I gave thought to Milton Mayer’s powerful words about self-deception. I found a quiet place and broke down, thinking back to my days as a process engineer and the formulas I used every day to increase operational productivity. The number of people required equals work divided by rate divided by span. Some German engineer used the same formula to advance the Final Solution.
Self-deception is a very powerful weapon. We Americans often labor under the burden of fixing everyone else in the world. I can’t help but wonder how much better things might be if we spent more time fixing ourselves before we attempt to civilize the rest of the world.