Thursday, May 19, 2016

A Church Right Next Door To Dachau

Dachau Concentration Camp
I recently heard Jason Gerlach, associate pastor of Community Mennonite Church, tell a group of us about the wake-up call he had that led him to become a volunteer jail chaplain.

He was in his church office overlooking the Rockingham-Harrisonburg Regional Jail while reading an essay by Duncan Forrester, "The Church and the Concentration Camp: Some Reflections on Moral Community". *

In that piece, Forrester noted that less than 100 yards from the perimeter fence around Dachau concentration camp, the first of its kind established by the Nazis in 1933, was a small eighteenth-century Christian church. Forrester immediately wondered what might have been going on inside that church as Dachau gradually became an ever more horrific death camp, eventually housing up to 5000 Jews, German priests, gypsies, gays, Jehovah's Witnesses and others seen as undesirable or who refused to support Hitler's regime.

Forrester writes:

     Some things are almost certain. The Bible would have been read, Sunday by Sunday, or day by day. There would, at least from time to time, have been preaching, expounding and application of the message of Scripture. Bread would have been broken in the Lord's Supper, the Eucharist, the Mass, with the people receiving the Body and Blood of the Lord. From time to time children and even adults would have been received into the household of faith in baptism. God's praise would have been sung and prayers offered for the Church and the world. All the ordinary central activities of a congregation of God's people within a hundred yards of of Dachau concentration camp. And through the wire all the comings and goings of congregation and of concentration camp visible to one another, paraded before one another.

What was most impactful in this essay for Jason was that there was no record to be found anywhere of that church, or of any other in the area, ever raising its voice in protest. How could most Christians in Germany, one of the most Christianized nations in Europe, either silently or overtly support Hitler's scheme to gain absolute power and to rid the Reich of non-Ayrans?

I'm in no way suggesting that our jails and prisons are just like German death camps. To say that would be to seriously minimize the horror of the Holocaust.

Yet we do need to recognize elements that are similar. In spite of the lip service given to making incarceration a time of rehabilitation, most of our inmates experience it primarily as a time of humiliation and punishment. In her book, "Burning Down The House, author Nell Bernstein writes, "Prison dehumanizes, not as a side effect, but as a central function. ...every aspect of institutional life conspires to diminish a young person's sense of herself/himself as someone who matters."

The ongoing negative effects of incarceration on individuals, families and communities are both costly and devastating, as recently pointed out in a report issued by the Brennan Center. It finds that longer prison sentences have little deterrent impact, and that in fact each additional sanction year causes an average increase in future recidivism of 4 to 7 percentage points. In addition, they point out:

• Having a criminal record makes it more difficult to find employment. Recent job application experiments find that applicants with criminal records were 50 percent less likely to receive an interview request or job offer, relative to identical applicants with no criminal record, and these disparities were larger for Black applicants. The formerly incarcerated earn 10 to 40 percent less than similar workers without a history of incarceration.

• The probability that a family is in poverty increases by nearly 40 percent while a father is incarcerated.

• Because incarceration secludes individuals from their families and communities, it decreases the likelihood of marriage and increases the likelihood of divorce.

Whenever and in whatever way fellow human beings are demeaned, deprived of their dignity and liberty and cut off from the opportunity to live productive and responsible lives, the church must raise its voice and extend its hand to help restore justice and shalom.


* published in "Faithfulness and Fortitude--In Conversation With The Theological Ethics of Stanley Hauerwas", edited by Mark Thiessen Nation and Samuel Wells.

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