January 26: “What’s Philosophy Got to Do with It?” with Rev. Kendyl Gibbons
Click here to start at the sermon.
So, here’s the first thing. Ideas matter. Values are ideas, and values can make you do stuff that gets you killed. They can end up making you kill people, too, which is perhaps worse. “Tomorrow belongs to me” is an idea; in the end, a lethal idea. Ideas are not negligible because they are intangible; they are the stuff of history.
Spoiler alert for those who are going to the play this afternoon: Sophie Scholl dies. Along with her brother and the other members of the Society of the White Rose. At the age of 21, a student at the University of Munich, in February of 1943; executed by the authority of Hitler’s third reich. Sophie Scholl goes to the guillotine in the high flower of her youthful idealism, for the sake of ideas.
But you knew that. If you have been paying attention at our high school graduation ceremonies, you know that I give to our rising young adults a white rose, and a copy of Sophie Scholl’s biography, and an invitation to discover the principles that will be worthy of their sacrifice. The sacrifice of ease and comfort, of time and energy, of social approval and financial gain – we all must find the ideals that will test us with their cost, or lose all integrity in trivial self-indulgence. The sacrifice of life itself, if it comes to that. It has been all too easy, over the course of most of my ministry, to hear this message as hyperbole, a page out of history long gone. It has been easy to suppose that there is no occasion for life itself to be at stake in the moral commitments to which we give our loyalty these days. We might concede that there is always a risk, if you take a stand for some public issue of justice, that some crazy person with a gun will take you out, like Martin Luther King. Theoretically, it could happen. But the odds for any given college freshman or 20 year old activist were so low we didn’t seriously calculate them.
How about now?
How hard is it to imagine, if this administration continues in power, camps for dissident youth, where they take away your cell phones, and won’t let lawyers in? Where you are only one fanatical, screaming judge away from a bullet or a lethal injection? That’s what Sophie, and her brother Hans, and their friend Christoph Probst faced; judge Roland Freisler, head of the “People’s Court” especially established to adjudicate political affiliation crimes, one of the architects of the program to exterminate Jews as the “final solution;” enraged by any hint of disloyalty to his regime. How hard would we have to look, to find his equivalent in America’s federal judiciary today?
It may not seem all that daring, what Hans and Sophie and their friends did; in these days of instantaneous posting on the internet, the idea of surreptitiously running off copies of flyers and carrying them around to University buildings for students and others to find may feel quaint. It was work, and all the elements were tricky. They had to buy paper, and ink, and stamps for mailing, in small quantities at random shops to avoid arousing suspicion. They had to do the copying at night, to hide from curious eyes. They had to support their activities with money that they begged from their friends and family, without indicating what they meant to do with it. In addition to mailing the documents, they would take the train to other university towns away from Munich, like travelers on holiday with a suitcase, that in reality was packed full with leaflets. By doing this they hoped both to inspire other students to follow their example, and to create the impression that the Society of the White Rose was a wide-spread organization, with extensive popular support. In point of fact, they did succeed in starting satellite resistance groups in Hamburg and Berlin.
Throughout the spring and summer of 1942, the White Rose authored and distributed four different flyers, documenting war crimes by the German military, the persecution and murder of Jews, and the truth about heavy losses to Russian troops. Most of the men in the group were forced to serve tours in the army; as a medical student, Hans Scholl was sent to treat wounded soldiers, and had first-hand knowledge of conditions at the front. Along with pointing out lies being told by the government, all the pamphlets called upon the conscience of ordinary German people, and urged them to participate in passive resistance and sabotage in order to hasten the defeat of Nazi forces.
Sophie’s perspective was greatly influenced by her philosophy teacher, Kurt Huber. In his lectures on Immanuel Kant, Huber argued that Kant was a great moralist who believed that all human beings had the ability to reason, and ought to have the freedom to exercise this ability. Reason, not accepting the orders of authority, was the basis of morality. “In his own time Kant had opposed all forms of unthinking obedience, repeatedly claiming that independent, rational thought was the basis of all good conduct.” There are those who will tell you that Kant’s work makes for dry, abstract reading. In 1942 Munich, Sophie Scholl didn’t think so.
The fifth flyer appeared in January of 1943, distributed simultaneously in widely separated cities including Stuttgart, Vienna, Ulm, Frankfurt, Linz, Salzburg and Augsburg as well as Munich. This suggested to authorities that an organization of considerable size was at work, one with capable leadership and considerable resources, and they began to pay closer attention. The leaflet ended with a vision for Germany after the defeat of the Nazis and the end of the war: “Imperialistic designs for power, regardless from which side they come, must be neutralized for all time… All centralized power, like that exercised by the Prussian state in Germany and in Europe, must be eliminated… The working class must be liberated from its degraded conditions of slavery… Freedom of speech, freedom of religion, the protection of individual citizens from the arbitrary will of criminal regimes of violence – these will be the bases of the New Europe.”
Immediately following the Reich’s acknowledgement of the German defeat at Leningrad, the students issued a sixth flyer, as well as painting graffiti on university neighborhood walls saying, “Down with Hitler” and “Freedom.” On February 18, Sophie and Hans brought a new printing of 1,300 copies of leaflet six to the University lecture halls in Munich, and Sophie was spotted dropping a handful from a second floor balcony to the courtyard below by a janitor, who quickly reported this to the Gestapo and sealed the building. The two of them were arrested, together with one of their co-authors, interrogated, tried, convicted, and executed within four days. In all, seven members of the group were eventually executed for their participation in the work of the White Rose. 23 others were accused or arrested; some were tried and sentenced to prison, others in the confusion of the war’s ending, were never formally brought to trial. All were released after the Allied victory, and the story of the White Rose society was widely reported in Europe and the United States. My own suspicion is that there were other members of the network, especially in other cities, that the Munich students successfully shielded throughout their interrogations; we probably do not know, even today, all those who contributed to the conspiracy of the White Rose.
It would be reassuring to say that the Society of the White Rose was successful in their efforts to rouse the conscience of the German people to bring down the Nazis, but I honestly think it was more the Russian winter and Hitler’s own insanity that did that. Where they did succeed was in refusing to be made helpless accomplices to evil. Sophie and Hans and their friends were well aware of both the danger and the futility of what they were doing. The men, perhaps, could reason that the odds of their dying in battle increased with each step toward Germany’s defeat; they might as well sell their lives for taking some kind of positive action. Sophie and the other girls had no such logic; theirs was the risk of pure moral conviction and personal solidarity.
I tell this story to the young people graduating from our religious education program because I remember from my own experience at that age how pragmatic and compromising all the adult advice I received at the time appeared to me. There was no challenging initiation ritual, no vision quest, nothing to test my convictions or prove my capacity for devotion. Those who loved me thought only to protect my well-being, not to risk nurturing my ideals. I ached for the opportunity to do something daunting, courageous, meaningful. I had heard the history of the second world war, but I did not know about Sophie Scholl in those days; I think she might have meant a lot to me.
These are the questions that philosophy is intended to help us ask, and answer:
What is the source of your values?
What should you do when you are afraid?
What obligations come with your privilege?
What is worth living, or dying, for?
Truth, is one of the traditional answers, along with justice, freedom, and reason; self-knowledge, compassion, and community. They don’t change that much, really, over the centuries, those basic ideas. We are forever having to figure out what they mean in the new contexts of history, forever rediscovering what happens when you let go of them through indolence or greed. Philosophy forever begins in tragedy and suffering, and ends at the throne of integrity, without ever a shortcut.
When a young person of intelligence and conviction starts learning about the answers to those questions, tyrants beware. For a certain percentage of them, anyway, no bribes will tempt them, and no threats will silence them. Integrity will be their lodestar, and they will find their integrity in resistance, no matter how trivial or impossible it may seem.
If I were a praying person, I would pray for three things:
I would pray that the memory of Sophia Magdalena Scholl and her co-conspirators might live in our hearts, handed from generation to generation like a talisman of great fortune; a treasure to help our children as they step forth and lift their voices to challenge the evils of their own day.
I would pray that here in this place, the young people for whose spiritual well-being we are responsible may learn the same courage and integrity that created the Society of the White Rose, and spurred its members to speak out in the name of human dignity and decency, even at so great a cost. I would pray that whenever we see truth-telling grow so costly as that, we all might realize that something has gone very wrong in the world, and needs all of us to resist, and to set it right.
Finally, I would pray that the spirit that was in Sophie walk among us today, inspiring us, no matter how hopeless we sometimes feel, to stay strong, to speak truth to power, to dare to name tyranny and evil when we find them in our own midst.
You may think that this is a sermon about history, in honor of Holocaust Remembrance Day tomorrow, and you would be right of course. But history is not just the past, that we study and remember. It is also the days that we live, yesterday and tomorrow; the legacy that we leave for those who will wonder at us, at our courage or our complicity in the example of the story we are telling the world even now. This is the challenge posed so urgently by Representative Adam Schiff’s closing argument at the impeachment trial last Thursday, when he said,
“Colonel Vindman said, “Here, right matters.” Well, let me tell you something, if right doesn’t matter, it doesn’t matter how good the Constitution is. It doesn’t matter how brilliant the framers were. Doesn’t matter how good or bad our advocacy in this trial is. Doesn’t matter how well written the Oath of Impartiality is. If right doesn’t matter, we’re lost.
If the truth doesn’t matter, we’re lost. Framers couldn’t protect us from ourselves, if right and truth don’t matter. But here, right is supposed to matter. It’s what’s made us the greatest nation on earth. No constitution can protect us, if right doesn’t matter anymore. And you know you can’t trust this President to do what’s right for this country. You can trust he will do what’s right for Donald Trump. He’ll do it now. He’s done it before. He’ll do it for the next several months. He’ll do it in the election if he’s allowed to. This is why if you find him guilty, you must find that he should be removed. Because right matters. Because right matters and the truth matters. Otherwise, we are lost.”
In the end, that is the premise of the White Rose – that right matters, and truth matters, and we are not, at least not all of us, lost.
My friends, dearly beloved church, I can make no promises that things may not get worse in this nation before they get better; we may find truth on the scaffold and wrong on the throne again; it has happened before now. Integrity may become more costly than this generation ever imagined. But this I do promise you: until the day the earth folds in upon itself – perhaps even beyond the final sigh of our own species – there will be white roses. There will be the ideals and the questions of the human spirit, and the answer to that summoning and to all our seeking will never be anything other than integrity. Not wealth, not power, not deceit, not the momentary credulity of the masses or the whims of tyrants. Only freedom, justice, and reason; only compassion and community and self-awareness; only truth, no matter how persecuted and forsaken.
Always above the generations the lonely prophets will rise,
With truth flaring as the daystar within their glowing eyes;
And we shall behold that radiant token of faith above all fear, like Sophie’s;
Evil and injustice and falsehood shall be lost in the growing light of truth,
And morning, and the sweet promise of the white rose, shall appear.