Tuesday, 21 April 2009

No War is Holy

Taking the train from Frankfurt to Mainz last Friday (2004), I was alternately impressed and depressed by the lead story on the 9/11 Commission's recommendation that the West contrive more positive ways of dealing with an Islam on the march. Impressed because I'm convinced 99&44/100ths of our problems in that sector derive from our abysmal ignorance of those believers. Depressed by the unlikelihood that the smugly ignorant American would make significantly fresh initiatives in that direction.

Well, the German Catholics have. In their Diocesan museum, the Catholic city of Mainz, with its liberal Cardinal Karl Lehmann, has mounted a stunning exhibition so popular that it has been extended two more months, through September 29th, called "No War Is Holy", an outright declaration that the Catholic Church was on the wrong ethical side of those several Crusades.

Did you know that Barbarossa began the Crusade in the Cathedral in Mainz? I didn't. And if there was oil in the Iraq picture, then landless minor dukes were seeking to get more land, in the Holy Land! The fortunes and misfortunes of one such German aspiring landowner are traced.

And it's a populist exhibition. (You can try on chain mail to see how it was to fight in those good old days.) No problem with English speakers. A smaller version of the substantial scholarly catalog (29 euros) can be had by mail for 7 euros. The whole enterprise is an astonishment.

Since living in Germany for the past five years, as a so-called "fallen away" Catholic, I've been silently cheering the discretely discreet maneuvers Lehmann, as head of the German Catholic Bishops Conference, has been making to counter the right wing tendencies of Cardinal Ratzinger formerly of Munich, now the virtual if not virtuous Pope. Lehmann, God Bless Him, is holding more than his own. And this real Pope John Paull II pleas to the Muslim world for forgiveness could forecast a New Dawn.

The day before in Berlin, I learned that Marc Chagall had finished his artistic career with a sequence of stained glass windows. And that the height of this achievement was at St. Stephan's in Mainz. So my German artist friend and I started a little pilgrimage in search of the church. It was not easy. The medieval street plan had more dead ends to navigate than I'd ever before encountered. I was reminded of T.S.Eliot's figure in "Prufrock" of streets with insidious intent! It began to dawn on us that many other visitors strange to Mainz were having the same problem! We pooled our ignorances, and ultimately found the Chagall windows. They were conversation stopping. Brilliant in their blue and white simplicities. And our neighbors in this passage prayed at the end like true pilgrims.

Then began the ultimate irony. We had passed an open air restaurant on our flight from the Diocesan Museum where they made their own beer. As we sat down at a long table we noticed about twenty other young men loudly carousing. Slowly it dawned on us that they formed a company that had just flown in from Iraq that very morning. When I told them, in a friendly gesture, that I had been a seventeen year sailor in World War in 1944, they started reeling off their grandfathers' military credits. At first they were hostile to us. But this biographizing eased their tightness.

The first thing I noticed was that the few dead drunk soldiers were what we called "crackers" back in 1944, i.e., poor white Southerners. The second thing I noticed was the percentage of blacks was about twice what one would expect in a normal population. Even more interesting was that this cadre of sober blacks were comforting their drunken mates, even cleaning up after one who had soiled himself in the john, another who kindly and competently extricated a white comrade who had fallen in a clump of bushes. Finally, it was clear from their instant verbal autobiographies that they uniformly came from small, poor towns (West Virginia, South Carolina, Texas, Arkansas).

Finally, they were uniformly and deeply pissed at the Iraqis who had been trying to kill them, one and all, for the last year. 19,20,22,25. Just kids really. Caught up in a terrible debacle. It remains to be seen if the Christian compassion of Cardinal Lehmann and his German parishioners can convince other Christians at the monstrousness, unChristianlike behavior of Catholics vis a vis Islam for the last millennium. Better later than never. Kein Krieg ist heilig.

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