Guest column Jonathan Klate: Being ready: From Auschwitz to Montgomery to the present

  • Dr. Martin Luther King, flanked by Hosea Williams, left, and the Rev. Bernard Lafayette, in Atlanta in January 1968. AP

Published: 2/20/2020 1:35:34 PM
Modified: 2/20/2020 1:35:24 PM

In recent months I have journeyed to the Nazi death camp at Auschwitz, and also to the sites of the civil rights struggles in the American cities of Selma, Montgomery, and Birmingham, Alabama.

What happened in these places dwells within the collective psyche of the world, whether turned toward and opened to or ignored, and is a fearful, traumatic, impelling force of so much of the divisiveness in our suffering world today.

To understand what is going on now we must bring this dark history into the healing possibility within our own riven hearts, because, much like personal formative trauma, it is organizing our thinking and behavior right now whether we choose to know and see it or not.

Among my contemplations on these pilgrimages has been the notion of spiritual readiness.

In spite of the ferocious brutality that confronted prisoners at Auschwitz, where over a million souls, mostly Jews and also Roma, gays, political dissidents and others were murdered, some few did manage to escape. A deterrent to escape was awareness that 10 fellow prisoners from the barracks of the escapee would be killed.

Father Maximilian Kolbe was a Polish Franciscan friar and Nazi resister imprisoned at Auschwitz. Someone escaped and 10 were selected to die. One of those chosen, Franciszek Gajowniczek, cried out, “My wife! My children!” Kolbe volunteered to take his place and the SS guards complied and threw him into an underground cell to perish slowly and horribly with the others.

On daily inspections of the dungeon, they observed Fr. Kolbe singing to the others and praying with them. After two weeks, barely surviving after having consoling his fellow doomed cellmates unto death, they murdered him by injection to the heart. Mr. Gajowniczek lived until 1995.

Fr. Kolbe was ready.

The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was a 27-year-old pastor at the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery in 1955 when he was persuaded to accept the position of leader of the struggle then unfolding in Alabama’s capitol.

Rosa Parks recalled that, “The advantage of having Dr. King as president was that he was so new to Montgomery and to civil rights work that he hadn’t been there long enough to make any strong friends or enemies.”

Indeed, he had recently assumed his pulpit at the church with no possible anticipation of what was to become his singular destiny of moral, civil and political leadership. But when the time came, he was ready to proceed with preternatural wisdom, courage and dignity, as though all we came to know he was destined for had been fore ordained.

He of course could have had no idea he had been preparing himself for such leadership that would lead to axis-shifting changes in our country and our consciousness. And he could have had scant confidence that he was prepared to be the giant of a man we all came to know. And yet, as history has shown, he was ready.

Readiness. A caterpillar is ready to cooperate with nature and transform into a butterfly. Such is the organic unfolding of life’s mysteries of maturation. But we human beings have the capacity to consciously participate in our evolution, to prepare ourselves to live according to our potential for righteous action, even though we cannot know what life may call us out to do or when such a call may come.

These are perilous times. Our very being is woven into the fabric of a rapidly deteriorating environmental matrix. All but the pretense of ethics has been drained from most of our governmental institutions. Authoritarianism is burgeoning here and around the world.

The notion of fact and truth even in regard to peer-reviewed research is subject to propagandistic corruption in the service of the power needs of sociopathic manipulators. Weapons of indiscriminate mass annihilation are proliferating around an increasingly hostile world.

The collective wealth of humanity is being sucked into the bloated coffers of a tiny cadre of oligarchs. The burgeoning global population may have already expanded beyond planetary capacity. And our malignantly narcissistic president has consolidated power in a political system that continues to function under the pretense that it is a democracy, but that systematically obstructs the translation of the meeting of authentic human needs into policy and program.

The struggles for human dignity, for environmental remediation, for justice, for peace, for our very collective sanity are likely to intensify in coming years. We may not know what form these will assume, and few of us have grand and momentous destinies like Kolbe or King that will inspire generations.

Yet a moment may come when we have the opportunity, with particular creative generosity or great sacrifice, to make simple and heroic choices.

When John Lewis’ moment came he was ready. Bayard Rustin, Fannie Lou Hamer, Viola Liuzzo and Greta Thunberg were all ready. You may add others to this list of the righteous.

At the advent of World War II, poet W.H. Auden prophetically warned, “We most love one another or die.”

Such is our choice. How many of us are ready? What are we doing now to prepare for just what we cannot know?

I write not to offer or provoke any answers, but merely to encourage contemplation and bearing witness to this question in ominous times.

Jonathan Klate lives in Amherst and writes about spirituality, ideology, and the relationship between these two.

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