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**Please take special note that when speaking of European Christian antisemitism, I am not speaking in a wholesale, or monolithic way about a diverse religion like Christianity, with a range of different viewpoints, different cultures that are members of this religion, etc. I am fully aware that the vast majority of abolitionists themselves in late eighteenth into the nineteenth century were Christians themselves. And many Germans, Christians or of other ideological/religious persuasions, helped defy the laws of the Nazi regime, to help Jews and other minorities escape from concentration camps and the country of Germany itself.Antisemitism stems from our most base selves, and that tends to mess things up, when it comes to what things we latch onto within our respective religious, or ideological, traditions.**
Helen Lundström Erwin, talented writer of the recently published historical fiction book James’ Journey responsibly chronicles the moral journey of one Southern man to develop a sharp, moral conviction about the inherent evil of slavery, which is completely antithetical to attitudes widely held, consciously or subconsciously, by many Southerners at the time before,during (and arguably long after) the Civil War.
I have not forgotten the deeper, universal message of Helen Lundstrom Erwin’s historical fiction novel James Journey. This specific blog post will detail how the abolitionist legacy,one of trying to remain tremendously moral within an amoral society, was something that seemed to inspirit those few German individuals, while in the midst of World War II, and the tragic Holocaust, bravely endeavored to help Jews, escaping from Germany, who were either evading capture/arrest, or more difficult escape from the camp itself. In essence, this brave minority of Germans really were really abolitionists at heart, those courage, restive moral spirits that have no rest, until their fellow members of humanity receive the dignity and respect that all human beings are deserving of receiving.
An uncomfortable truth to come to grips with is the fact that the majority religion of many Germans during the Holocaust, which was Christianity, much like the majority of churches in the South prior to the Civil War, never openly repudiated, or disavowed, publicly the type of terribly regressive human rights laws that were enacted during the time during, and really a few years, prior to the start of World War II,and the subsequent rise of power for Hitler and his Nazi Regime. The sobering truth we must realize, which I think author and former priest James Carroll articulately points out in his brilliant, exhaustive nonfiction book, Constantine’s Sword, is the fact that antisemitism, much like the fervent racist attitudes of fair number of Christians/citizens in the South prior to the civil war (and still held/preserved to some extent, but in much more ‘inconspicuous,’ subconscious ways) was very much endemic to European Christians for a large scope of Christianity’s history. This is not a popular point to make; it is so unpopular that you tend to face sharp criticism for even uttering the words.
But Christianity’s history of antisemitism, to a large extent, is quite truthfully one that was disturbingly steeped in anti-Semitic attitudes. Of course, the issue in of itself is fairly complicated, as we are discussing human beings, and there are many factors behind antisemitism beyond just religious differences. Much of it was equally as politically- motivated/culturally-motivated, even more-so than religion. All these factors tend to get subsumed altogether in one grand scheme, and sometimes certain political climates cause those more base vices, or feelings towards groups to really sometimes consciously, or unconsciously, sublimate themselves into our actions, and words, on a daily basis. For many reasons,the Crusades were never really just about recapturing the “Holy Land” for helping the Jews develop their own country, but really more for granting European Christians that land, akin to the way the Romans took over, though the argument could be made that medieval Christians would actually have been more hostile to the Jewish population, much more so than the Romans. I think it is safe to assume that the medieval Christians had a strong theological framework, or a misconstruction of ‘mythos’ that tended to neuter Jesus of any of his Jewish qualities, and make him quintessentially a European Christian. Therefore, it was easier as a result to effectively cast the Jews at the time of the Crucifixion, as those having collective blame of bringing Jesus Christ to his eventual execution. This was enough, upon hearing the story read once more within church during the time of Easter, to rouse some of the medieval Christians to go after their Jewish neighbors, by effectively taking part in gruesome pogroms, or blood libels. You can read about these in many books. I highly recommend either James Carrol’s Constantine’s Sword, or Karen Armstrong’s Holy Wars: The Crusades and their Effect on Today’s World, which in particular dauntingly, though effectively, bridges a rather extensive thesis that connects the history of the crusades to the Holocaust, even towards modern-day terrorism and perpetual warfare in the Middle East. It is a fascinating, often underrated book because Karen Armstrong is one of those fairly disinterested observers of the history of religion, she can see things from almost an agnostic viewpoint, and her often very objective analysis of events and resulting analysis, again angers people because sometimes logical truths are very uncomfortable truths. I don’t think either of these works just simply indict the whole of Christianity for what happens (because fascist politics at the time of WWII was an even bigger contribution to the Holocaust than anything by far). I am very careful about choosing writers that see things in a nuanced way, so they definitely carefully look at the political environment of a particular region that contributes to religion sometimes being misused for wrongful purposes.
And the uncomfortable truth, hardly detailed too much in our history books, is that the untrammeled trend of Christian-perpetuated antisemitism for many centuries, long repressed in the shadow-self unconscious, was more of a cause behind the Holocaust, and Hitler’s ascent to power, more-so than Hitler himself. Even though, both and economic problems, greatly contributed to inciting the influence of our “shadow selves.” The uninterrupted, non-examined antisemitism of Europe at the time made Hitler’s more insane ramblings palatable to the people, among great vexation and fear about the economic trials their country faced. Any corrupt leader can try to ascend the ladder of power, but it is really the population at large and their unscrupulous subconscious biases or prejudices that lets those corrupt, egregious forms of extremist evil take control-really take the reigns of power. I am always deeply uncomfortable with the radicalized type of mindless, blubbering, gloating,extremism ,where an entire minority group of people is spoken about in the most dehumanizing of ways. We’re seeing this extremism right now in our own political arena, perhaps it’s more disguised, but I would safely say that a certain Paul Rand’s statement last night about religious liberty/LGBT groups, mirrors a deeply internalized, almost mutinous resentment of the LGBT community in the psyche of the conservative Tea Party base. I would say that these statements are influenced by political influences, which tend to make these groups myopically fixate on those things in their religious beliefs that give their pet hatreds support. This kind of subconscious, prejudiced “shadow self-” our “hyde” hiding within our prim/proper Jekyll selves- could be the rampant racism that brought about the absolute horrific slave trade, and the years,upon years of the marginalization of the Jewish community in Europe, culminating in the monstrous holocaust. What precipitates these horrific events is our own deep ignorance of our “shadow selves,” when we repress and bury our “shadow selves,” it tends to fester deeply, unconsciously subsuming all our prejudicial feelings, and other things, and silently, sneakily sublimating in the form of often frighteningly reflexive support for morally-corrupt leaders like Hitler, or even just blind support for the the continuing trend of slavery within the American South, during the early nineteenth century.
Truth bearers, abolitionists, are often much-maligned sensitive, pacifistic (at heart) souls, individuals emboldened by a much deeper reservoir of deeper magic that can discern the potential for edification, find stridency of heart and soul, and exhume “enlightenment,” and healing within the polarized alchemical blend of polar “moral good,” and “amoral apathy” that stirs and rages at our hearts. This is what impelled individual Christians, or just courageous individuals beyond any of these nominal labels to mine deeper, and find the inner strength to do courageous feats like helping the Jews to escape from Germany, at a time where those that helped the Jews escape from either the concentration camps, or Germany itself, risked being executed themselves, and those they helped rescue to also face the same brutal fate. Many of the abolitionists during the time before the Civil War, who helped the slaves escape (like James within James’ Journey) didn’t face death, per-se, but they nonetheless faced social exclusion and extreme stigmatization within the South; this stark exclusion and estrangement led to having a tainted reputation in the South. Often, abolitionists faced stiff penalties like jail-time, and burdensome penalties. In some ways, their struggle may not seem ostensibly dangerous, as say the German ‘abolitionists’ that helped the Jews escape, because they face death. But perhaps there are things worse than death? Isn’t the further torture and conscious torment that the slaves must face, when they’ve been recaptured, almost much worse than death? Regardless of such semantics, being an abolitionist, an individual in the face of incredible odds of group-influenced adversity, is a terribly hard task. When we fail to speak from the heart or criticize the status quo/or the establishment, we are giving into to that same exact mentality that made it very easy for the prejudices and unrepressed biases of the shadow self emerge. That is why it is of utmost importance to always keep examining the soul, like James of James Journey, faced with the difficult task of being an abolitionist in the South, or that of a German Christian, or preacher, priest (many Catholic priests and Christian “abolitionists” during WWII were forced into the concentration camps as well) who doesn’t agree with the way that their scripture has been perverted to villify an entire cultural group of people.
The best way not to let our shadow selves win is retaining lucidity and activeness of the mind and soul of moral integrity. This is a universal theme, regardless of one’s nominal religious identity, for sometimes religions (as organizations, or political forces) can be easily employed to empower our viscious shadow selves, like that of the dissolute racist theology that condoned slavery in the south, or the neglect that many European Christians showed in the face of the extreme marginalization/systematic dehumanization of their Jewish neighbors during, and long before, the Holocaust. We cannot ever forget the voices of the marginalized during the history…otherwise, we create stories that irresponsibly ‘romanticize’ the darkest bits of history.
In many ways the underpinning theme of James’ Journey is that the abolitionist self, and how we should take the core values of the abolitionist (a self that transcends group identity for the sake of moral good) to heart, and that my endless fascination with the abolitionist struggle, the very interesting struggle of those that defied Nazi law to help the Jews and others escape from both Germany, or the terrible concentration. Or, even those abolitionist that risked social exclusion/estrangement, or imprisonment for the sake of helping whole groups of people escape the viscous cycle of slavery. All these things were caused by people, inattentive to the strong influence of their “shadow selves” over their actions; we can fight this everyday by reading and critical thinking in such a way that defies the demoralizing patterns of the “shadow self” way of thinking. We should elucidate our amoral selves by not letting the tragedy of the past be cheaply romanticized, or forgotten, but recalled in such a way that it empowers our abolitionist selves, to work in accordance with the deepest moral impulses of our hearts and souls. This is not an exhortation for censorship, nothing of the like, it’s merely a caution to always be careful when writing certain things from history, in a way that elucidates some new revelation or insight about a certain part of history. It’s best not to downplay, or
So even as readers, we should be abolitionists, discerning the truth beyond the lies. And that is why I am so happy to provide this one last post, for an incredible historical fiction novel, entitled James’ Journey, that has such a deep message that should resonate with all of us, in all areas of our lives! It is a book about the importance for all people to remain prudent, thoughtful, during all times. That is the core message of real spirituality of any kind, it’s the ability to remain steadfast in our moral convictions, even during times of extreme, extenuating circumstances of social and political pressure. The many abolitionists that helped slaves escape, along with the Germans that helped the Jews escape were those invisible heroes, who committed acts of great humanity/empathy/self-sacrifice because just the thought of their neighbor’s suffering made it impossible for them to live in peace. And many of these people were religious or otherwise, for abolitionists exist everywhere, we all have the propensity for great acts of moral courage and empathy.
If you are interested in delving more into the pertinent issues raised in Helen Lundstrom Erwin’s engrossing historical fiction novel about a brave abolitionist James’ Journey, be sure to check out the first post from my week-long blog tour of the book, and the many subsequent posts from that week!