I like reading websites full of weird facts, stories, and research. This week I fell down the internet rabbit hole of the Smithsonian Magazine online. I read about the Herero Genocide. Never heard of it? Me either until now. But it was where Germany perfected genocide, and tested out the methods used in the Holocaust.
The same arguments of social Darwinism and cleansing the world of inferior ethnicities appear in period debates about the Herero and the Jews, Rroma, and gays. The same methods of collecting into death camps and using the captives for labor, their bodies for experiments, and their bodies for profit occur. Indeed – when you look at the names of people involved in the Herero Genocide… those same names appear in the Holocaust.
So who are the Herero? They are a cattle herding people in West Africa. They joined with their neighbors in the early 1900s to try to expel the Imperial Germans who were raping their women and girls, stealing their cattle, and taking their land. The Germans debated what to do about the Herero problem, and their general decided the issue the decree,
“Any Herero found inside the German frontier, with or without a gun or cattle, will be executed. I shall spare neither women nor children. I shall give the order to drive them away and fire on them. Such are my words to the Herero people.”
Their neighbors the Nama and the Herero themselves had their wells poisoned. People were driven into deserts. People were fed to sharks. Those that were captured were turned into labor slaves, or “comfort” slaves, or used as human guinea pigs in the name of medicine and science.
Why were these articles coming across my screen this week? Because the grandchildren of the few Herero who survived approached the American Museum of Natural History in New York and asked for hundreds of bodies. The largest collection of bones the museum owns are the bodies of the Herero who were sold for science and curiosity after the victims were murdered. The bones had been cleaned of flesh and muscle a hundred years ago with glass shards given to the still-living captives in the camps. They had to cut apart, desiccate, and then sell their loved ones away. These grandchildren came to ask for the bodies so the Herero story could be told, and funerals finally held. The museum and the Herero are in talks now about how best to tell the story and honor the dead.
You and I, everyone, we like to say we’re an advanced society.
The Herero, and later the Jews and Rroma and others, were considered ‘lesser’ societies. Backwards. “Sh*thole” societies, if you listen to some American leaders.
But it is our advanced society that has perfected mass murder. And recently perfected it.
Rev. Fred Craddock uncomfortably writes that “not believing in demons has hardly eradicated evil in our world.”
Evil is real. Evil is happening. Genocide is STILL happening today. What I described? Change the dates and the names, and it is happening in Dafur this very moment and 250,000 have died. It is happening in Syria, and Ethiopia, in the Congo and in Burma. ((genocidewatch.org))
We don’t really believe in demons much. When we read Jesus expelled a demon from the man in the crowd, we think ‘well, they thought it was a demon. But it really was just mental illness.’ Or Epilepsy. Or some other thing. Demon possession isn’t real.
Demon possession doesn’t need to be real. Evil is real. Evil is happening. And evil doesn’t care if we believe in it or not.
In Jesus’ encounter, we see what evil does. “People who suffer the effects of being occupied or “possessed” by demons lose their ability to control their movements and their voices; either they are immobilized or compelled to move destructively” ((Rev. Dr. Cynthia Briggs Kittredge))
The Herero were possessed by demons. Demons who were driving them into deserts, death camps, and slavery. Demons who stole their movements and their voices.
The soldiers who listened to their leaders were possessed by demons. They were immobilized, and thought they had no other choice than to follow orders. They were scared to speak up, scared to look weak, scared to lose their own lives.
The leaders were possessed by demons. They dreamed of money and cattle and land. They feared the natives. They were compelled to move destructively.
Evil has a way of being ‘the norm’ and that is when we get possessed – taken over – and lose our freedom and agency. Sometimes we give this up willingly. It is easier to say you did wrong because everyone else was doing it. Sometimes freedom and agency is stolen from us. And sometimes we don’t even realize we’re captives.
My voice is stolen when others speak at me, instead of listening. Who listens to you? Right now, plenty in my local and national government are speaking to the world for me, but it is not my message – a Christian message of love, tolerance, forgiveness and welcome. My voice is stolen and I am possessed.
Immobilized. Are we immobilized? We feel powerless, feel unable to really change things. Feel tired. Feel helpless. Feel as through there is too much pain in the world for us to actually do anything… we’re demon possessed.
The norm is evil. The norm is we’re compelled to be destructive. To ourselves – harming our health, our communities, our peace. Destructive. To others. Harming the balance of the world, and damaging the world whether we do nothing or we act. Compelled to destroy just by being.
Consider the lights here – we have clean electric energy, but it is only clean for us because down on the Ohio River are people living in the shadow of a coal plant, breathing its smoke, and taking the toxins for us.
We are captives to demons. Captive to evil systems.
When Jesus appears in the synagogue, it is a normal worship day like any other. People are there to hear the hope that their present world doesn’t have to be this way.
Jesus appears in as normal of a place as if he were to walk into Saint Michael’s right now. And those in the crowd were just like us here today – gathered in hope, in prayer, and carrying on the love and knowledge of God.
We’re caretakers. Safe guarding a treasure for generation to generation. We share with all our Christian, Jewish, and Muslim siblings the knowledge that God has revealed God’s self to us, and the way the world is — with present evil – with entrapping systems that bring us to violence after violence – this is not how things HAVE to be.
Today, just as that time 2000 years ago, we’re gathering in hope, while aware so much destruction has occurred and is occurring. But we have hope. We have love. We have knowledge God is working with us and will not let the divine dream die.
Whenever I think about hope, and Jesus, I like the image of a new sprout from the root of Jesse. The idea is that the tree, the lineage, of King David (Jesse’s son) has been cut down by the ancient Romans. But God will cause a new tree to grow out of the roots, out of a cousin or distant relative. It’s why the New Testament spends a lot of time tracing Jesus’ genealogy. Those are his roots back to Jesse to fulfill the prophecy.
You may picture a grand oak or maple.
I picture in my head a hybrid poplar. Okay, not any hybrid poplar but THE hybrid poplar named The 4th of July Tree. Picture a mulberry with poplar leaves and you’ve got the look of this tree. This little foot long stick was planted on year on the 4th of July, and by the 4th the following year, it was now two feet large. The third year it was up to my shoulders. The fifth year it now spread about nine feet high and wide. Year five it was a story large, and year six two stories large. In six short years it went from a foot to taller than the farm house. In six short years its roots went from its hole fifty feet away from the house to coming up through the house toilet. We cleared out the roots, but year seven… once again they appeared in the toilet bowl.
You know what we had to do. The 4th of July tree had to go.
So my family cut it down. We stacked the wood so it would season and chopped the base of the tree to the ground so we could mow over it.
One week later, there was a strange patch of grass. I went out to look and found that the stump had grown eight little six-inch trees. My dad said – don’t worry – when I mow, they’ll be cut down. Sometimes trees have a little bit of energy stored up in their roots, and they come back after the main trunk is cut.
So he mowed.
And mowed all summer.
And every week the tree came back from its roots.
This really befuddled all of us. How much energy did this tree store up in its roots? How long could it keep living without leaves and sunlight?
In fall, we went to split wood. But the woodpile was missing. In its place was a little woods of hybrid poplars. Each and every log had not just shot up on BOTH ends with new branches, but had also placed ROOTS. Long roots grew all over the seasoned wood and tall new trees shaded the green wood.
Dad decided it was time to gasoline burn all this hybrid poplar.
The pyre over the stump burned all day long as we split wood and tossed the bad into the blaze. Inside the hybrid poplar logs and stump roasted.
And the following week they all sprouted up from the ashes. The following spring, new hybrid poplars appeared in the grass everywhere a branch had fallen from mowing down the tree over and over and over again.
How much energy did this tree have?! It’s been twenty years and my mother is still finding bits of this tree growing.
When I think about the root of Jesse, I think about this tree. God’s has way more energy than we can even begin to fathom. Horrible things happen – genocides, murders, possessions of evil of all kinds big and small. We mess up. We hurt ourselves. We hurt each other. We hack and chop and burn and poison the life of the world… and yet… the tree comes back.
The ancient people in the synagogue were waiting for the tree to grow again. Jesus said — it is growing now!
We modern people in the church are waiting for the tree to grow again. And Jesus tells us – it is growing now!
It is always growing.
We are the caretakers of this knowledge. It’s our job to guard it, and pass it with love to the next generation. It’s our job to look evil in the face and say ‘not today! Not ever!’ We’re to speak with the authority gifted to us to “heal the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives and freedom to the prisoners” When is the year of the Lord’s favor? Now. Immediately.
Paul reminds us not to get puffed up with what we know, because there is always more we don’t know. Maybe demons are real. Maybe there are many gods and many lords. There is much we don’t know… what we do know is love. And love knows us.
And love — God– wants the world to know it is loved.
And that God can raise up new beginnings even out of stones, cut down trees, and desolated people.