I first read the story in a book that had been sitting on my parents’ coffee table. I idly flipped through the book’s pages, until one small story stopped me. It was a story from the days of the Holocaust. Just a short two or three paragraphs – but its meaning was profound and has stuck with me.
The story told of a little church in Germany that sat very near some railroad tracks. As time went on, the worshipers there realized that the train that went by every Sunday morning was full of people – Jewish people. And the Christians in this church knew very well where they were headed as they heard their cries from the cattle cars. But instead of doing something, this congregation simply sang their hymns louder than the cries of those on their way to a concentration camp. They sang louder, and went about their everyday lives, drowning out the cries of those in dire need. They said to themselves, “If we just sing a little louder, we won’t hear their cries.”
Sing a Little Louder?
If you are on this blog, my guess is you are also on social media, and you are also then at least semi-aware of what’s going on in the world. You are more than likely seeing the posts throwing around this term – this term– again! – “concentration camps”. Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez first called them this term, and we very quickly reached the point where people are debating whether or not to call them that. Could it really be all that bad if that’s not what they are? people seem to be asking. (Sing a little louder.)
They are dangerous. They came here illegally. They’re different. They’re diseased. They don’t know English. They’re of a different religion. They’re poor. They can’t be trusted. They’re not like us.
You know who else that sounds like?
That sounds a lot like our ancestors.
Going further back, I think of someone closer to home, someone who chose to not ever “sing a little louder” other than in praise and hope and petition – Levi Coffin, and his wife Catherine. The Coffins lived in my home state of Indiana, and ran what has come to be known as the Grand Central Station of the Underground Railroad. Their house surely saw its fair share of ragged people, sick, illegal, even dangerous. But what is one of Levi Coffin’s most well-known sayings? He said, “The dictates of humanity came in opposition to the law of the land, and we ignored the law.”
“The Dictates of Humanity”
Does it matter whether or not you call them concentration camps? That really all depends if your response is allowing you to “sing a little louder”. If they’re not, if we can brush them aside, then we can sing. We can go about our daily lives, our same-old, same-old routines, ignoring the pleas of anyone who would petition our help.
Levi Coffin happened to be a Christian, a Quaker, like those German Christians in the church. But the Coffins’ belief in God spurred them to help those despite the danger and backlash they would surely face.
Countless people across time have faced danger and backlash in their pursuit to help others in dire need – people from all beliefs and backgrounds – because we all answer to the dictates of humanity. And any time one of our brothers or sisters in humanity is mistreated, deprived, abused, neglected, dying, in the name of the law, we have a choice:
We either follow the law of the land, or we we follow the dictates of humanity.
Quiet Your Singing!
Every day I see lovely posts on social media from my friends and family about their children, their families, their jobs, their travels, their outings to the park. I’m not saying to stop posting these things. Don’t stop doing things you enjoy. Enjoy your day out at the park with your kids. But don’t let these posts and these activities become “singing a little louder” – drowning out the cries of those in dire need.
Jonathan Kozol, a teacher and an author who wrote about injustices in the American school system in the 1980s and 90s, even went so far as to say, “We are not living in an ordinary time, but in an hour of intense and unrelenting pain for so many human beings. It is not good enough to favor justice in high literacy flourish and to feel compassion for the victims of the very system that sustain our privileged position. We must be able to disown and disavow that privileged position. If we cannot we are not ethical men and women, and do not lead lives worth living.”
What are you doing for others?
Okay, of course, we all lead lives worth living. All of us. Every. Single. One. Of. Us. But, as Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “Life’s most persistent and urgent question is, ‘What are you doing for others?'”
Are you living solely, or mainly, for yourself — or are you asking of yourself that persistent and urgent question every day?
What are you doing for others?
If we’re going to argue among ourselves whether or not certain people deserve to live their lives they way we wish ourselves and our families to live, we are not asking that question. We are not following the dictates of humanity. We’re just “singing a little louder” to a god we’ve created in our own image.
We have a lot to learn from history. Many of our ancestors fled from persecution, and many of our ancestors perpetrated that persecution. Let us be the ones to turn the tide. May we have the faith of Yocheved, and the faith of Corrie Ten Boom. May we have the faith of Levi and Catherine Coffin. And may we always be asking first what we can do for others… and to never, ever, “sing a little louder” for any other reason than to spread the news of hope and justice to all.