To anyone who regularly or even semi-regularly reads this blog - I'm sorry it's been so long since I last posted. My inspiration seems to have dried up a bit recently, plus I've been on holiday in Germany for 2 weeks and only got back 4 days ago.
Whilst in Germany though, I visited Dachau concentration camp, and thought this might be an interesting subject for a blog entry. It sounds like a rather depressing subject I have to admit, but although I did find the visit very moving, I (surprisingly perhaps) didn't find it a depressing experience and would recommend it to anyone who has the opportunity to make a similar visit.
Dachau was the first of the Nazi concentration camps and served as a model for most of the others. It wasn't an extermination centre in the same way as some of the others (e.g. Auschwitz), but over 25,000 people died there nevertheless, due to the terrible conditions and treatment. Many prisoners were tortured, used for medical experiments, or murdered by the prison guards. After the war, the camp was used as a prison for SS officers awaiting trial, then as a refugee camp and eventually it ended up as a memorial site primarily due to the efforts of ex-prisoners.
We were taken on a tour of the camp and told various stories about the kind of welcome inmates used to receive when they arrived, the conditions in the camp and also its eventual liberation by the invading American army. Parts of this tour were very moving and I found myself on the verge of tears a couple of times while trying to imagine what some of these people must have been through. I cried a bit later on as well, after looking around the exhibition.
Despite the pain and the horror of what happened here though, the overwhelming feeling I came away with was one of hope, but tempered by the reality of suffering and the depths to which humanity can sink. For those who lived through Dachau - or any of the other concentration camps - and for those close to them or to those who didn't survive, these are defining experiences that have shaped their whole lives, but nevertheless - and partly due to their efforts - hope has still been able to come out of these appalling tragedies.
One of the things that has always impressed me about Germany as a nation - and Dachau epitomises this - has been its willingness - it's determination even - to face up to and come to terms with its past. Terrible things were done in Germany by Germans and many other Germans, for various reasons, did not prevent this from taking place. There were all sorts of reasons why this happened and I'm not sure any of us are in a position to judge how we would have behaved under similar circumstances (see the Stanford prison experiment as an example of how easily "ordinary" people can be influenced to do terrible things), but Germany hasn't tried to sweep any of this under the carpet. The attitude is that yes, this did happen. It was terrible and it's painful now to remember, but let's face up to it, learn from it and move on! In this way the past can be redeemed, and is being. Instead of breeding bitterness and resentment which leads to more and more problems, it has become a seed of hope and healing as the sins of a nation are confessed, acknowledged and dealt with.
To me it seems significant that the Dachau site now includes a significant, explicitly spiritual presence. The site contains Jewish and Catholic monuments in honour of those from both faiths who were incarcerated and/or died here. There is also an Orthodox Christian chapel, a Protestant chapel and a convent of Carmelite nuns. The Carmelites' aim is, "to make this place, where there has been so much horror in the past, into a place of offering and prayer, and to establish here a living symbol of hope."
Spirituality goes right to the heart of mankind's search for meaning and the presence of suffering often brings these kinds of questions more sharply into focus. They are not questions that can be satisfied by simple, logical answers - they require us to reach out to something deeper, something beyond ourselves and the feeble limitations of our daily lives.
According to the Christian story, this something is a someone - a God who loves us in spite of all the suffering that we experience and inflict on one another. For whatever reason, suffering is part of the world order that we currently inhabit, but the Bible holds out the promise that it will not always be like this. According to the Christian story, God has not kept Himself aloof from suffering but has participated in it fully - as Jesus - by being tortured and executed on a cross. Jesus did not respond with bitterness to those who treated Him in this fashion, instead he prayed, "Father forgive them, for they don't know what they are doing". His followers - at least those who have taken His message seriously - have always tried to continue in this tradition.
The Bible also teaches that Jesus' death was not the end - and that out of His suffering, and His resurrection, has come hope for all of us! On the cross, Jesus stared evil in the face, suffered its full effects, yet remained steadfast in love for His creation. Because of this He overcame, was resurrected and now extends reconciliation and forgiveness to all those who come to Him. He knows what you've been through - and also what you are capable of! - and He alone is now fully able to heal, forgive and restore.