“So when you run make sure you run, to something and not away from, ’cause lies don’t need an aeroplane to chase you anywhere.” –The Avett Brothers, Weight of Lies
People are, for the most part, not down on quitting things. Quitting is not OK. Unless you are a Flight Attendant who has been reasonably worn down by rude customers over a long period of time, and then you declare your independence with a witty speech over the loud speaker, steal a beer, and then make your getaway on the inflatable emergency slide…we don’t like quitters. We tend to think it’s cool when someone with a dead end job quits said job, thereby declaring freedom and taking life by the horns and riding to a brighter, happier future. But we also think badly of the unemployed, so unless the guy who escapes the gas station dictatorship goes on to invent something that becomes essential to our understanding of the universe (or True Love), then we would rather that loser remain an unhappy but productive member of society.
I quit my German Language Class today. I have mixed feelings about it. On the one hand, it had to be done. On the other hand, I’ve been told to not quit things. Especially school. It’s good to work hard, it’s good to struggle, it’s good to learn from failure. And that’s true, and I think I have effectively done all those things: hard work, struggle, failure. CHECK! But none of that is why I quit. I had to quit for no other reason than I learned as much from that course as I was going to, despite the fact that it goes on for another 4 weeks. But I don’t want to go with the simple answer. I’m not satisfied with the simple changing of the seasons as the reason for death and rebirth. Let’s go deeper:
Isaiah 58:1-9a, (9b-12)
Shout out, do not hold back!
Lift up your voice like a trumpet!
Announce to my people their rebellion,
to the house of Jacob their sins.
Yet day after day they seek me
and delight to know my ways,
as if they were a nation that practiced righteousness
and did not forsake the ordinance of their God;
they ask of me righteous judgments,
they delight to draw near to God.
“Why do we fast, but you do not see?
Why humble ourselves, but you do not notice?”
Look, you serve your own interest on your fast-day,
and oppress all your workers.
Look, you fast only to quarrel and to fight
and to strike with a wicked fist.
Such fasting as you do today
will not make your voice heard on high.
Is such the fast that I choose,
a day to humble oneself?
Is it to bow down the head like a bulrush,
and to lie in sackcloth and ashes?
Will you call this a fast,
a day acceptable to the Lord?
Imagine, if you will, a community of people who are suffering. They are looking around at invasion, devastation, their world turned upside down. These are good people. These are people who have followed “the rules.” They are fasting, they are willingly denying themselves food to display their desire to be closer to God…and yet, they are not being rewarded properly. Warum? That is German for “Why?”
The prophet Isaiah offers a deep and challenging response, “Look, you serve your own interest on your fast-day, and oppress all your workers. Look, you fast only to quarrel and to fight and to strike with a wicked fist. Such fasting as you do today will not make your voice heard on high.” This is the diagnosis, that the religious act of the people is actually the problem; because they don’t do it for God, they do it so they can say, “See, look how much I love God.” Isaiah points out, “You don’t do it for God, you do it for yourselves, so that you can compete for the title of God’s Favorite.” That’s the diagnosis.
What’s the cure? As Isaiah says, taking on the voice of God:
Is not this the fast that I choose:
to loose the bonds of injustice,
to undo the thongs of the yoke,
to let the oppressed go free,
and to break every yoke?
Is it not to share your bread with the hungry,
and bring the homeless poor into your house;
when you see the naked, to cover them,
and not to hide yourself from your own kin?
Then your light shall break forth like the dawn,
and your healing shall spring up quickly;
your vindicator shall go before you,
the glory of the Lord shall be your rearguard.
Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer;
you shall cry for help, and he will say, Here I am.
If you remove the yoke from among you,
the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil,
if you offer your food to the hungry
and satisfy the needs of the afflicted,
then your light shall rise in the darkness
and your gloom be like the noonday.
The Lord will guide you continually,
and satisfy your needs in parched places,
and make your bones strong;
and you shall be like a watered garden,
like a spring of water,
whose waters never fail.
Your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt;
you shall raise up the foundations of many generations;
you shall be called the repairer of the breach,
the restorer of streets to live in.
Yeah, you go ahead and quit eating for awhile. Starve yourselves for a few weeks. Go ahead. Have a nice time. You know what would make me happier? If you QUIT OPPRESSING OTHER PEOPLE! Quit that! That is the fast that would please the LORD! Quit being mean and terrible to each other. Quit denying other people life and freedom so that you might live more comfortably. Quit THAT for A DAY! Please! If you do this one thing, Isaiah says, if you just quit ignoring the most needy among you, then not only can you eat all you want, but God will always guide you, always feed and water you, “your gloom,” I LOVE this, “your gloom will be like noon day.”
Quit worrying about your piety, quit worrying about your social status so that you also quit ignoring and oppressing others, and life is yours.
So two weeks ago we had this big test in German class. Up to that point, this class had single-handedly made it possible for me to be a semi-functional member of German society. My wonderful teachers provided excellent insights to German culture, and their fast-paced and effective teaching style helped me learn all kinds of concepts and words that made it possible for me to get through my first semester at the KiHo (which ended yesterday, btw) with a little bit of learning. And then we came up on this big test, which, for weeks, we were told was extremely important. And it was “sehr wichtig” to do well on this test because then there’s ANOTHER big test coming up in March. Also, I thought that if I didn’t pass this test, then I would be removed from the class (now I’m not so sure that was either a) something to worry about, or b) true). I thought it was some sort of mid-semester culling. So I studied hard, and I spent even MORE time with the resources and tools, wanting to master the small slice of German I had been exposed to so far. That’s when it occurred to me: Wow, we haven’t really learned a lot of the language. We’ve covered the 4 cases, basic sentence structure, and lots of different verbs, but…I still can’t tell simple stories to my friends. Also, no one talks the way I’m learning to talk…except Tante Anna-Liza. And she’s in her 80’s.
Then I took the test. We were all nervous about this test. We even had a study group. You can tell when a class is stressed out about a test because they will form a study group. As far as I can tell from my experience with study groups–which now span high school, college, grad school, 2 continents, and students from at least 5 different cultures–they are the academic equivalent of Fantasy Football, because it’s a gathering of like-minded people that accomplishes NOTHING, but you feel better afterwards because you know you’re not alone. All this anxiety, all my hard work, all the parties and fun things I skipped…and as it turns out, I didn’t need to know much German to get through this test. I mainly needed to know how to take a test. Which, I never was before, but among the many things I have learned since high school is, apparently, how to be logical. Technically, the whole thing was testing our knowledge of German, in that the whole thing was written in German; but you were allowed to ask the teachers to explain the words you didn’t understand. So even if, for some reason, you were able to be in the country for five months or more without learning to read simple words or understand simple stories, the teacher was willing to help you out. And then the last part was specifically about grammar. The only way to get through that part was to know the difference between masculine, feminine, or neutral nouns and recognize the nominative, accusative, dative, or genetive cases. That’s some strait up, hard core German! But it was a tiny section of the test. The rest? The rest was all logic–assemble this story in order, which of these sentences fit together, again, things that you can do with a basic vocabulary and minimum common sense. Everybody passed. No one was culled. And then the next day, we immediately began preparing for the next test.
And that’s when I quit.
The truth is, I should have quit before Christmas. Since coming back from the holidays, we weren’t really learning new concepts. We were focused on tiny details that are easy enough to pick up on your own with a little attention and practice, but they got a LOT of class time because, that’s right, you needed these little details to understand the test. So we would spend, I’m not kidding, four hours going over very minute details. And then we would have two to three hours of homework to prepare us for the next day’s lesson. So for the last 4 weeks, I have devoted most of my time (at least 40 hours a week) to learning very little, working very hard, and missing out on a whole lot. And my reasoning for doing this was, I think, similar to the reason why ancient Israelites were probably shocked and confused by Isaiah’s words; because when we don’t have a vision for our lives, when we have nothing to run to, we just follow the crowd. If the crowd is working hard and putting up with the class, then I might as well too because I don’t know what else to do. If the crowd is fasting and ignoring the poor, then I will too because I don’t know what else to do. Quitting gets us nothing, being part of the flock has all kinds of benefits including friends, and the ability to blame something other than yourself for all the opportunities you’re letting pass by. Why take responsibility for your life and your actions, when all you have to do is keep your head down and fall in line?
A couple weeks ago I traveled to Berlin to see an exhibit at the German Historical Museum called “Hitler und die Deutschen: Volksgemeinschaft und Verbrechen” or “Hitler and the Germans: Nation and Crime.” The entire exhibit was focused on reaching a better understanding of the relationship between Hitler and the people who believed in him. Growing up in the Southwest Conference United Church of Christ, an annual trip to the Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles became one of my early entryways into the path towards love and justice. The museum has a large Holocaust exhibit, and we would go through there every year, a group of 40-50 teenagers, and learn about the horrors and devastation that the Nazi regime wreaked upon European Jews. It wasn’t until I heard about this exhibit in Berlin, however, that I realized this museum failed to teach us something important. It taught us about the violence and suffering that the Jewish people went through, for no reason other than hatred and bigotry; it taught us that Hitler was democratically elected to power, a cautionary tale that tells us sometimes we invite the Big Bad into our house and give him the seat of honor; and it taught us that the systematic oppression and elimination of people is not a thing of the past, but rather something that can/does happen in our modern world. All of these things are important. But they always fail to address the major question that this exhibit in Berlin wrestles with: Why did the German people allow such a thing to happen? Yes, we understand that Hitler was elected, we understand that he was charismatic, we understand that people hated Jews anyway, but how was this allowed to happen? Was it all secret? Were people that hateful? Were people so apathetic that it didn’t even occur to them to stand up for the suffering of others? These are all plausible reasons that I have heard or thought myself over the years. But after visiting this exhibit, I realize, they all fall short. The real reason the Nazi regime looked and acted the way it did is remarkably simple: Everybody thought they were right.
Obviously not “everybody” thought they were right. There were always dissenters, there were always outsiders and free-thinkers who said, “Maybe this isn’t a good idea.” Actually, in the early days of the Nazi party, MOST German people thought that. The Nazi party was a radical, minority party, comprised primarily of angry working class people. Over 50% of the party was lower class, only a small percentage was of the educated aristocracy. The Nazis gained popularity and power as quickly as they did because, under Hitler’s leadership, they tapped into the anger that was boiling inside the poor and working class citizens–many of whom were out of work due to the atrocious post-WWI economy–and they mobilized it. And it wasn’t just a party of ideas, they weren’t just leading angry people into the street to protest and vote and have rallies. The Nazis offered more direct means for winning public debate: they literally beat their opponents into submission. Even before it was a legitimate political power, the Nazi party was known for its tendency towards violence, and its members were known to openly take their enemies to the streets and beat them with sticks and whatever else was handy. So it was this interesting dynamic of promise and results right from the beginning. On the one hand, in Hitler, the people were given a leader who could articulate a specific vision for Germany that promised a brighter future (read: jobs. It really was that simple, people were out of work, Hitler had ideas about how to get them back to work. It really is “the economy, stupid.”), and at the same time, the people were given ACTUAL power, not just hanging their hopes and dreams on a promised future, but given the ability to feel powerful and in control of their own destinies today (read: encouraged to beat the snot out of anyone who disagreed with them).
I saw a poster in the museum; it was a charcoal drawing of a group of desperate and downtrodden German citizens, and in English, the text is: Our last hope: Hitler. It wasn’t until this exhibit that I could actually appreciate what really happened in the Nazi time. Hitler wasn’t just a maniac who abused his power and coerced his way into a position where he could fulfill some ultimate fantasy of German superiority…he was also the beloved hero who showed a nation that their best days could still be ahead. Just listen to that language, “our last hope,” and you start to get a better picture of who this person was, and how he was seen by the German people. It’s like if Luke Skywalker, after blowing up the Deathstar, had gone back to Tatooine and run for political office. He was a leader you could believe in, not just because he was a charismatic speaker, but because he got results. It started with bullying dissenters in the street, but later on, he really did give people jobs, new roads, the promise of future technologies and luxuries–like radio, automobiles, highways, airplanes–and up to the later years of World War II, that is how it worked; it was the proverbial carrot and stick over and over again. Hitler would deliver on his promises, the Germans got their carrot of work, progress, happiness; and the cost of making good on these promises was the suppression and elimination of everyone who could not fit into that hoped for future; it was the stick of violence and oppression. Everyone knew the score, and no one cared because it was better to hope. Quitting was not on anyone’s mind.
I don’t know if I’m doing an effective job of articulating how this exhibit shifted my view of this time in Germany’s history, but I will say this: I have a new and deeper appreciation for those who dissented, those who opposed the Nazi world view. Because it wasn’t a simple matter of sticking up for the oppressed and marginalized (as if that’s simple to begin with), and it really wasn’t about people refusing to give in to what they knew was clearly wrong. People who opposed the Nazis and worked towards their demise–Dietrich Bonhoeffer, people of faith, people of no faith, soldiers within the Nazi regime, journalists, educators, housewives, and so many people we will never know about–weren’t just brave enough to risk their lives in the name of justice. They were willing to Quit. Any hopes and dreams they had for their future, or that of their nation, they threw those out the window. They didn’t just put themselves at risk, but everyone and everything they held dear. They quit the society they found themselves in, they quit the political culture around them, they quit their identity as “good Germans,” they quit their lives…but that wasn’t the same as giving up. They quit…and then the real work began.
We don’t like quitters. We are suspicious of people who walk away and walk out. We worry about their moral aptitude and their ability to “see things through.” And when WE are the quitters, we are very sensitive to these judgments. We know we can’t remain in the group, but we don’t want to be seen as “quitters,” or “traitors.” And I think this is because we so often see people running FROM something instead of running TO something. Quitting is not the same as Giving Up…but most of the time we feel like that’s what it is.
In Isaiah’s time, anyone who quit conforming to the Holiness Codes that informed how the society was structured were shunned from society. When Isaiah says that fasting is useless unless Israel fasts from its systems of oppression, he is not just talking about the act of fasting, he is talking about the societal norms that say, “Good people fast during these times, and if you don’t do this then you are not a good person, and if you are not a good person then you go sit over there, and whoever sits over there doesn’t deserve food ever.” It’s not quite that simple, but you get what I’m saying; the act of fasting was not meant to bring people closer to God as much as it was to identify the acceptable in society from the unacceptable. Quitting that system…walking away from that culture in order to free the oppressed and feed the hungry…that meant walking out on everything.
Standing against Hitler wasn’t just a matter of “doing what is right.” It was quitting your job, your security, your culture, your nation, your identity, your future…in order to do the right thing. Wh
Quitting my German class was difficult. And it shouldn’t have been. It should have been this simple: I’m not getting what I need from this class, I’m out. But instead I played into this whole thing of “well, what will people think, and maybe this hard work is good for me, and the discipline is good, and how many things are you going to quit in your life anyway, are you ever going to see anything through to the end, just suck it up and do what you need to do, there’s only a few weeks left, what other options do you have anyway?” Ugh. And that’s all just to justify my involvement in a class that means nothing to my present situation or future goals. I so badly want to avoid being seen as a quitter that I justify my participation in a system from which I gain NOTHING.
So is there any reason to think that I will quit participating in systems of oppression and injustice from which I benefit greatly? I am a strait, white, American male in the 21st Century. The entire world is set up to benefit me and make my life easier by excluding, dehumanizing, and persecuting everyone else. What am I willing to give up…when am I willing to quit…in order to sound out like a trumpet and speak of rebellion?