Morning Thanks

Garrison Keillor once said we'd all be better off if we all started the day by giving thanks for just one thing. I'll try.

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Morning Thanks--forgiveness

Even though really important people claim that The Tin Drum, which took home a Nobel Prize for Gunter Grass, is one of the finest works of 20th century world literature, I've not read it. I wish that weren't so, but it's not likely I will read it any more, no matter how wildly imaginative. 

In fact, the only piece of work I ever read of Gunter Grass was a very short story--in German!--that was an assignment a thousand years ago in my second-year German class (remember when we all took German?). Translation was, for once, sort of fun, something a foreign language class wasn't when the approach was rote memorization 24/7, and me one of the world's worst memorize-ers.

So I don't know Gunter Grass or his work, despite my Ph.D., in English, despite teaching lit for forty years, despite being surrounded this morning and every morning by books. What I know of him is his name, his Nobel prize, and the incredible scandal of his 2006 confession that he--Germany's most prophetic voice--was a member of the SS during WWII. He was among Hitler's most loyal beasts, a fact he'd tried for most of his life to keep buried. 

Coming clean just about ruined him, as well it should have. To say that confession soured his reputation is understatement. It was as if Solzhenitsyn confessed to going undercover for Stalin, or Martin Luther King, Jr., admitted being a stoolie for J.Edgar Hoover. Grass's confession--which he made willingly, by the way--made The Tin Drum sound forever tin-ny.

With that confession his freedom to say what he would about German life was forever compromised. What that meant was that suddenly there were things he couldn't say. 

Twenty years ago this year, I published a book with that title, Things We Couldn't Say, the story of the war-time experiences of a Dutch Resistance fighter named Diet Eman. It was my title, not the publisher's, and I've still got the sticky note I stuck into the manuscript pages when I thought of it. It was true of Ms. Eman and her fiance, Hein Sietsma, who died in Dachau--there was, in occupied Holland, so much they couldn't say, even to each other, even among friends and intimates. You didn't want to say some things because you didn't want loved ones to know those things because you wanted, like nothing else, to protect them--and if they knew, and if they were arrested they would be tortured, and. . .

When the Allies got to the bunker where Hitler's body was found, a bullet in his head, the tables turned. Now--and for generations--it would be the Germans who were muted by the things they couldn't say, people like Gunter Grass, author of one of the 20th century's most enduring classics.

Case in point? Just three years ago, he published a poem, an argument in stanzas, that attacked Israel for threatening to annihilate Iran's nuclear program.

Why do I say only now,
Aged and with my last ink,
That the nuclear power of Israel endangers
The already fragile world peace?
Because it must be said. . .

But he'd lost his ability to speak. His being part of the Nazi SS compromised his prophetic voice. There were simply things he couldn't say. Gunter Grass, SS Waffen, had no voice when it came to criticizing Jewish politics. As right as he might be, he lost his ability to say it.

Gunter Grass died Monday, at age 87. His own life, as celebrated as it was, as comprised as it became, is a reminder that sometimes our histories defeat our witness. It's impossible, really, for Anglos to tell Native people to clean up reservation life. There are things some people can't say to others. Evangelical Christians simply can't say some things to LGBT folks. There's just too much ugly history. 

Every obituary written about Gunter Grass this week will tell the story of his SS confession. Every obit will detail the effect his Nazi past had on his life's work. He will go to his grave with a asterisk in the wicked shape of a swastika. 

We can forgive him--we've got that much of our heavenly father's image in us. God has given us the ability to forgive. 

But none of us can forget. That's beyond our power. That level of forgiveness is something stupendous, isn't it? That forgiveness is only divine.  

This morning--every morning--I'm thankful for forgiveness.

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