By Alexander H. “Sandy” Webb II
Could this be Buchenwald? The cobblestone access road was lush and green. The sky was blue, with a beautiful view of the valley below. Could this be the place where more than 240,000 Jews, Gypsies, and other perceived enemies of the Third Reich once lived in slavery? “If these trees could talk,” Elie Wiesel said five years ago, drawing on his experience as a survivor of Buchenwald’s horrors (quoted in remarks by President Obama, June 5, 2009).
In fact, the grounds were eerily quiet. I journeyed alone for more than an hour, trying to hear the voices of inmates amid the ruins. What did they want me to know? I heard nothing until arriving at the site where Dietrich Bonhoeffer was held before his martyrdom at Flossenbürg. His voice rang clearly in my ear: Grace must never be cheap.
In The Cost of Discipleship (1937), Bonhoeffer distinguishes cheap from costly grace. The former requires nothing of us, but “comes as a word of forgiveness to the broken spirit and the contrite heart.” The latter, however, “is costly because it costs a man his life, and it is grace because it gives a man the only true life.”
I met other martyrs that day. In the bunker — a solitary confinement wing where disobedient inmates were tortured — hung photographs of inmates who had died there. Two were dressed as I was, in black shirts and white clerical collars. These pastors were sent to the bunker for refusing to stop offering words of hope to their fellow inmates. They died in the posture of Christ — chained to the wall with arms outstretched. They died in the spirit of Christ, shining with a light so bright that even the 20th century’s greatest darkness could not overcome it.
Whence comes the strength of the martyrs? The martyrs’ convictions seem superhuman, but they were normal people whose circumstances led them to a point beyond which their spirits could not go.
I may never reach such a crossroad, but I have much to learn from the men whose spirits I met at Buchenwald: halfhearted devotion is insufficient. God demands that which we are least willing to surrender — privilege, control, and our very lives.
As I walked up the hill and out of the camp for the last time, my heart was full of rage and my spirit moved to vengeance. How radical it must have seemed in 1948 when Secretary of State George Marshall proposed the redevelopment of Europe, rather than its annihilation.
Can God forgive the ones who tortured and enslaved so many others, who crucified clergy for proclaiming words of hope? Though my heart has no room to forgive the perpetrators of such horrific evil, the heart of God is different in kind. These misguided, deluded, anti-Semitic soldiers were and are God’s creatures, and the forgiveness of my sins is inexorably linked to the forgiveness of theirs. All sin is borne by the one who had no sin, who sets the high standard of discipleship.
What wondrous love it is that calls us out of the City of Man, that entirely human land where offense is repaid with vengeance, into the City of God, where the laws of love and forgiveness reign. Wondrous love shows mercy in the face of instinctual hate and fear.
Later that evening, in the comfort and safety of our hotel dining room, I reflected with our pilgrims on the problem of evil, in the light of Revelation 21.
After all warfare and violence has ended, a New Jerusalem will descend from the sky, crushing the whole of this sin-riddled world. In that New Jerusalem, God says: “Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away. … I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end” (vv. 4, 6). Evil may win the battle, but God wins the war.
You do not tour a Konzentrationslager. You behold its evil and struggle to place your hope in the incarnation of love.
Peace now reigns at this site of genocide, as a monument to the cost of discipleship and a call to courageous people to oppose horror. The lush life encircling the Buchenwald Memorial signals ultimate victory. Evil is real, but love will prevail.
The Rev. Alexander H. “Sandy” Webb II is priest-in-charge of Church of the Holy Communion in Memphis.