“Thick Darkness”: An Epiphany Meditation on Teaching WWII

If it weren’t for the fact that the wind chill is nearing fifty below Fahrenheit here in the Twin Cities and Bethel has joined other colleges and schools in closing for the day, this afternoon I would be kicking off my new course on the history of World War II. Since today is also the Christian festival of Epiphany, I would have started class with this meditation on Isaiah 60:1-6, one of the lectionary texts for the day.

Arise, shine; for your light has come,
     and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you.
 For darkness shall cover the earth,
     and thick darkness the peoples;
 but the Lord will arise upon you,
     and his glory will appear over you. (Isa 60:1-2, NRSV)
He Qi, Adoration of the Magi
He Qi, “The Adoration of the Magi” – Creative Commons (Vanderbilt Divinity Library)

In the gospel text for Epiphany, we hear the familiar story of the three wise men who come “from the East” to Bethlehem. They pay homage to Jesus with two gifts prophesied in our text from Isaiah (60:6): the gold that marks him as king of the Jews and the frankincense that suggests that his kingdom is not of this world.

But also, with myrrh, a tree resin used to slow the decay of corpses in a climate warmer than our own. To a child who will one day be crowned with a crown of thorns, they bring the aroma of death.

It’s a smell we should get used to in this course. By the time we’re done, human beings will have died in numbers never experienced before or since, and in every conceivable way.

Soldiers will be killed by bullets and shrapnel, bayonets and bare hands. People will freeze to death in Stalingrad and burn to death in Dresden. In Hiroshima and Nagasaki they’ll be vaporized — or years later die of leukemia. Men in concentration and POW camps will shit themselves to death from dysentery. Women will be raped to death. Children will perish of hunger, stomachs bloated and eyes pleading. Jews will gasp for their last breath and be crammed into ovens.

More than sixty million people died in World War II — 27,000 per day — and most of them held no weapon.

Make no mistake: World War II is not a “good” war. Never have so many suffered so much in so few years.

And this all happened more than nineteen centuries after the death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth. Jews like his parents had been waiting a thousand years for the return of a king like David. Christians have been waiting nearly twice as long for the return of their King.

So what do we do with this prophecy from Isaiah?

Arise. Shine.

Victims of the siege of Leningrad, 1942
Victims of the siege of Leningrad, 1942 – Creative Commons (RIA Novosti)

God gives these commands to a people who lamented (a few verses earlier) that “…justice is far from us, and righteousness does not reach us; we wait for light, and lo! there is darkness;  and for brightness, but we walk in gloom” (Isa 59:9). How easily the people of World War II could have said such things. Could we blame the starving people of Leningrad or Bengal, or the inmates of Auschwitz and Treblinka if they snarled back, “Arise? Shine? We’re still waiting for light, and lo! there’s still darkness”?

One of my favorite bloggers is Ta-Nehesi Coates, who recently finished reading a couple of landmark histories of WWII and its aftermath and came away a confirmed atheist:

I don’t have any gospel of my own…. I don’t believe the arc of the universe bends towards justice. I don’t even believe in an arc. I believe in chaos. I believe powerful people who think they can make Utopia out of chaos should be watched closely. I don’t know that it all ends badly. But I think it probably does.

I’m also not a cynic. I think that those of us who reject divinity, who understand that there is no order, there is no arc, that we are night travelers on a great tundra, that stars can’t guide us, will understand that the only work that will matter, will be the work done by us. Or perhaps not. Maybe the very myths I decry are necessary for that work. I don’t know. But history is a brawny refutation for that [sic] religion brings morality.

Now, I do believe that God exists, announces good news in the person of Jesus Christ, and is bending the universe towards justice. There is a star guiding us, like the Magi, as we travel at night.

But if one danger in studying WWII is to see nothing but darkness covering the earth (“thick darkness”), another is to see light whenever and wherever we want to see it.

The light shines in this course, but only dimly, in flickering moments of mercy and self-sacrifice.

So as we study the history of World War II, please beware the temptation to see light where it’s not there. Don’t mistake the kings of earth for the King of Heaven. Don’t celebrate justice without peace or peace without justice. And never, never think yourself to be more righteous than the people over whose lives, now closed, you are given the power of historical judgment.


3 thoughts on ““Thick Darkness”: An Epiphany Meditation on Teaching WWII

  1. I expect you will differentiate treatment of POWs: the death rates (this is from the Wikipedia entry on the book Other Losses, but the source is something else) are stated as this:
    Percentage of POWs that Died
    Russian POWs held by Germans 57.5%
    German POWs held by Russians 35.8%
    American POWs held by Japanese 33.0%
    German POWs held by Eastern Europeans 32.9%
    British POWs held by Japanese 24.8%
    British POWs held by Germans 3.5%
    German POWs held by French 2.58%
    German POWs held by Americans 0.15%
    German POWs held by British 0.03%

    1. I probably won’t spend much time on POWs, Rich (though I’ll certainly suggest that topic for the group project), but I will try to pull out the differences between the way the war was fought in the Pacific/East Asia, Russia/Eastern Europe (and places like Yugoslavia and Greece), and western Europe.

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