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I’m ten years old. It’s summer vacation. We are visiting my grandparents in hot and sticky Iowa. Air conditioning is still rudimentary so almost every evening three generations gather around the dining room table for root beer floats.

My dad, a young pastor, and his father, who owns a hardware store on Main Street, begin a conversation that pulls me in. Local boys — Christian, church-going, young men — are resisting the military draft for service in Vietnam. They aren’t exactly seeking Conscientious-Objector status, nor are they burning their draft cards or fleeing to Canada. The details don’t really matter. They are looking to their church for support, security, and guidance.

My dad expresses admiration for them, their stance, and their bold imagination in seeking the church’s assistance. My grandfather, a church Elder, a World War I veteran of the battle of Des Moines is less impressed, dubious.

The conversation grows more intense, which only serves to hold my young attention. Probably realizing it is going nowhere, my dad says something like, “Well, the Bible says to love them, even to love our enemies.”

“Nope!” says grandpa emphatically. He slams his coffee cup down for emphasis. “Not going to love them.” He gets up from the table and storms into the kitchen.

I’m stunned and silent.

Never have I seen my grandfather so angry and adamant. Never have I seen father and son disagree so loudly or publicly. But most of all — never heard grandpa so unflinchingly deny or disparage the Gospel.

He didn’t intend to sound like he was contradicting Jesus. We all say things we regret when we’re angry. But to a young kid — me — it was staggering. To me, grandpa was a paragon of Christianity, a dedicated follower and lover of Jesus. How could he say such a thing?

*****

Last fall, a group from our church traveled to Kansas City to see a museum exhibit, “Auschwitz — Not Long Ago. Not Far Away.” All sorts of displays, facts, and artifacts were beyond heartrending.

The image that haunts me most was a photo taken years before Auschwitz, at one of Hitler’s famed outdoor rallies, the staged and stirring Nazi extravaganzas. In the foreground of the photo was a woman, Her face was distorted by ecstasy, joy, frenzy, and disbelief at being so close to Adolf Hitler.

She was no jackbooted sadist. I’d guess in her 40s, probably a mother. She was dressed nicely, respectably. I would bet she was a good neighbor — eager to loan you two eggs or a cup of flour. Glad to commiserate with you about how exhausting young children can be. Her garden was well-tended. Her home, neat. Perhaps she taught Sunday school, or certainly was a regular attendee at her church. Yet Adolf Hitler made her crazed with glee.

*****

I live in a town — really, a region — full of Christians. They are good, kind, and nice folk. I say that honestly, without guile or irony. They can be generous, considerate, and supportive. I believe most — or at least many — would do pretty well on some sort of biblical knowledge survey. They could explain, and they definitely hold dear the prime tenets of the Christian faith. They are committed followers of Jesus.

A secular friend in town, proud of her sophistication, needed to rely on the townspeople during a health scare. They provided her with rides and meals, listening ears and shoulders to cry on. At first my friend was waiting to pounce, to point out their hypocrisy. She expected to feel them shaming and condemning her, for them to give her a guilt-inducing, arm-twisting spiel about accepting Jesus Christ as her savior and Lord. It never came. She had to admit they were incredibly loving and generous.

I am, however, continually shocked, saddened, and confused by the ways my neighbors’ menacing social views can coexist alongside their genuine love for Jesus. Deep distrust of the outsider. Not so latent racism. Obsessed with sexual mores. Hatefully hostile toward LGBTQ+ people. Insular. Guarded. Recently they are especially enraged, bellicose, and witch-hunting. All inspired by their Christian faith.

Now they are going after the public library, teachers and school board members, the swimming pool, the city council, the community theater group. Trying to tear down these small, local, trusted, life-giving institutions that make our town liveable and bustling. Fueled by half-truths and false witness. Accusing. Dividing. Spewing fear and distrust. “Leaders” informed by nasty, propagandistic websites and political aspirations. And all sorts of good people, hard workers in our community, left trashed and bashed by this horrific agenda.

Of course, I am hardly the first person to notice this apparent disconnect between the way of Jesus and the ways of these people. And while I am so tired of the cliche “both-sides-ism,” I realize it isn’t only small-town, midwestern Christians who can be angry, hypocritical, and un-Christlike. Maybe it is because I see it and hear it so up-close, it just continues to dig at me. Maybe it’s because I feel so outnumbered. And maybe because it seems to be getting worse, not better.

Let me be clear. I am not at all suggesting that my grandpa or my townspeople are Nazis. I’m wrestling with something more grassroots, truly face-to-face. How can people I know, many that I respect, be this way?

*****

I wonder about the German woman in the photo from that Hitler rally. Did she survive the war? If so, what sort of consequences and crises did she suffer — loss of a husband, her children, her home? I wonder how she felt when the Nazi atrocities came to light? What do her grandchildren or great-grandchildren know and think about her now?

I wonder how my grandfather would feel about the impression that his outburst, now more than 50 years ago, made on me?

I wonder about many of the Christians around me. Will seeing “up close and personal” the destruction of people they know and local institutions right around them, calm them or energize them? I’m afraid I know. Will we ever be able to reconcile, to understand one another?

I wonder what I don’t understand about so many people in my town? What revelations await me? I wonder what regrets I will have someday in the future about my efforts to live faithfully today?

What to do? I try to keep being who I am, living as I believe Jesus would have me, and not responding in kind. I know many of them wonder as much about me as I wonder about them. But the walls keep getting higher, the divides deeper, and the social groupings narrower. I still have a flickering hope that at least on the small, local scale, cooler heads will prevail, that so many of the Christians around me are decent people, not haters.

Save us from the time of trial and deliver us from evil.

Steve Mathonnet-VanderWell

Steve Mathonnet-VanderWell and his wife, Sophie, are the pastors at the Second Reformed Church in Pella, Iowa. Steve has served on numerous Reformed Church commissions and task forces, and also edited the journal Perspectives for many years. Before coming to Iowa, he lived and served as a pastor in upstate New York. Sophie and he have two adult children. He holds a Ph.D. from Boston College in theological ethics.

14 Comments

  • Daniel Meeter says:

    It is grievous and heartbreaking. And draining.

  • Tom Boogaart says:

    A flickering hope. I have been trying to broaden my lens recently and see beyond the moment. I have been reading the biographies of Ulysses Grant, all the Roosevelts, Harry Truman, Churchill, and esp. Piers Brendon account of fascism in the 1930s, The Dark Valley. I was hoping that broadening lens would allay some of the fears I have about our present state of affairs. What it showed me is that the democratic experiment is always imperfect (all “men” are created equal?) and always vulnerable to leaders obsessed with power in all its forms. My brother-in-law who has lived his life and raised his family in Germany said to me recently that he feels that like the people of Germany we will have to go through the “Dark Valley” before we come out on the other side of a renewed commitment to democratic principles. A flickering hope.

  • Steve, this hits very personally and heartbreakingly. Thank you — your processing and sorting helps my own.

  • Daniel DeVries says:

    I share in your wonderings Steve. Thank you.

  • Jack Ridl says:

    So heartbreaking, soul-frightening, Steve. And written with beautiful understanding of so many of us.
    Ever lost and grateful,
    Jack

  • Karen Saubert says:

    Oh my. I’ve had these same thoughts about my beloved hometown simmering in the back of my mind, but had not faced them so directly. It grieves me.

  • Rodney Haveman says:

    Steve,
    Thanks. One possible answer, such as there can even be one answer, comes from the book, “The Sum of Us” by Heather McGee. It is about racism but the insights within it might have a wider reach. The basic thesis is that when we feel threatened, we will tear down the things that bless us so we don’t have to share them with others. I don’t think this fits completely, but I think it rhymes with the wonders that you offer. Unfortunately, the book is too partisan, otherwise I might consider using it in a book study at our church. Just a thought.
    By the way, the impulse is just as present in “good white liberals” so it’s not necessarily a conservative/liberal thing. It might be a human thing.

  • David Hoekema says:

    Some wisdom from singer-songwriter Susan Werner’s delightful album “Gospel Truth,” which she calls “possibly the first agnostic gospel album,” in the song “Our Father (New Revised Edition):
    “Thy Kingdom come in every nation,
    Thy will be done in everything we do!
    Lord, lead us not into temptation
    But deliver us from those who think they’re You.”

  • David Stravers says:

    Does Jesus deliver us from the sins that we are not even aware of? Do we resort to legalism and/or racism because those are shortcuts to a morality that avoids confronting truths that make us uncomfortable?

  • As usual I am always inspired by your writings. I had to read this one three times before responding. Thank you and may your General Synod be blessed.

  • Harold Fynaardt says:

    I certainly don’t regularly read the RJ blog, & happened on your grievance here against Pella Christians quite by accident, pastor. Being just in the next county over, I’ve heard the commotion concerning, incredibly, those “menacing social views” which so exercise you here. Really, your description of some of your neighbors–who may work for big companies Pella Corp. & Vermeer– is wide off the mark. Let’s let a website, “Protectmyinnocence.org,” founded to announce their “insular” & “bellicose” concerns, speak for them: “Numerous books containing pornographic images, sexually explicit instruction, and pedophilia have been deemed necessary in the Pella Public Library. These books are intended for ages 12-18 or “Young Adults,” & accessible to any library patron. Protect My Innocence is continuing to fight for library policy change “solely” on the grounds that this material is not suitable for adolescents.” Why, the very evil of your protesting Pella neighbors, right, pastor?

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