Stories from Vienna and Jerusalem
I was taking in an exhibit at a museum in Vienna. It told the story of Austrian teenage girl in the early 1930s. She saw a gathering on a Viennese street: lots of yelling inside a small throng. She wanted to see the action, but she was too short. So she kind of pushed her way into the crowd to get a good look.
She saw a few older men on their hands and knees, brushing the street with toothbrushes. They were being admonished by a few younger uniformed men standing over them, forcing the older men to clean the street. One of the older men looked the girl’s way. He was her family’s doctor. He had known her since she was a baby and had attended to medical needs of her family. He was Jewish.
The humiliation only went on for few minutes more. The young men marched away from the crowd. The older men got up. They and the rest of the crowd went back to whatever they were doing before. The episode was over.
The younger men were members of a militia group known as the Nazi Brownshirts. They had a uniform to distinguish themselves from the crowd. But they were mostly Nazi supporters who had not risen too high in the formal party. The brownshirt uniform became their political expression.
As I was reading this story, I think I understood what was happening. The brownshirts had already established themselves as “local tough guys” across Germany, Prussia, and Austria. The Austrian state had proven unwilling to prosecute them, just letting “boys be boys.” And the brownshirts weren’t doing any real harm (just yet). Part of this tough image was also about tracking anyone down who publicly challenged them — and paying them a little visit when not so many people were around.
It’s not hard to understand that the brownshirts were testing the limits of society’s tolerance for abuse. And it’s not hard to understand they were playing a role to numb a population for greater abuse later. As history tells us, the brownshirts were quite instrumental in silencing the political opposition to Nazis.
I wondered at how I would have handled this situation. I would like to have thought that I would have done the right thing and got in the face of the brownshirts for their inhumanity on this Viennese street. Or maybe I would have sought a police officer. But my internal analysis was not good to my character. It’s too easy to say “this is only a minor offense”, or “they will stop when they grow up,” or “someone else will challenge them later,” or “I don’t want to be their next target.” I’m not sure what I would have done: only when I am actually confronted with the situation will I know for sure.
The New Testament gives us a similar lesson, but it’s a lesson we are likely not to get from the pulpit.
When Jesus entered Jerusalem, he was regarded as a hero for the common people. They were hoping their new messiah would take on the Roman occupiers and Jewish aristocrats, who were the oppressors in that society. The authorities put Jesus on trial. Of all those people who welcomed Jesus into Jerusalem a week before, nearly all of them, at best, only watched the trial and punishment from the sideline.
Far too many of today’s Christians believe they would have jeered the Roman soldiers, Pontius Pilate, and the Pharisees, taken the 39 lashes, carried the cross, conducted mass protest, and even charged the soldiers to free Jesus. And yet how many people in that crowd did any of that? Jesus could count his true friends on one hand on that fateful Friday.
This Biblical story says that when most of us are faced with challenging a wrongly acting authority — which will have immediate negative consequences on us — we will hesitate to do the right thing. In fact, most of us will, statistically speaking, will either be too scared or too cowed to do the right thing. To assume that we will rise to the occasion is a sign of our arrogance.
The spectators on the streets of Vienna and the spectators at the crucifixion of Jesus are showing a dark side of human nature. And maybe understanding that nature is the tool we need to help us pass the test.