One afternoon in middle school P.A.S.S class, we wrote programs to create computer graphics on our state of the art Apple IIe. I had recently seen an interesting shape and I incorporated into my program. We gathered around the computer and took turns displaying our programs. I was rather proud of my geometric patterns, but the teacher was less so. She found my picture troubling. I didn’t understand why until much later.
“Oh.”, she said as she peered at the screen, “Is that what you meant to do?”
“Yes,” I answered.
“You meant it to look like that?”
Her brow furrowed and she never answered the question. I could tell she was upset, but I wasn’t sure exactly why. I understood that my picture was the cause, of course, but I didn’t know why it was the cause. My inability to understand sprang from a less than thorough understanding of history and a complete lack of knowledge about the power of symbols.
When I think back on that day, I cringe. It’s clear now what a bad idea my plan to even write that graphic program was. While everyone else had flowers, spaceships, and landscapes, my picture consisted of a blue background, a few patterns, and that symbol I had recently seen and remembered. When I ran my program, a red swastika dominated the screen. A very bad idea indeed.
Once I learned the issue, I was mortified. I still feel shame that I used such a symbol even unknowingly. I can’t rationalize by pointing to it’s original meaning or that it still represents something quite different in other parts of the world. Once I learned what it meant here (and in most of the western world), I knew just how bad an idea it was.
Unfortunately, I’m not the only one who has bad ideas.
Years later I fell on the other side of such an equation. It was during a late night devotional at what one of my friends always called “church camp.” We did something that night that I’ll wager several teenagers have done at such devotionals. We took pieces of paper handed to us and wrote down our sins. After we wrote them, we walked up to a wooden cross and nailed them there. It was the third or fourth time I had been in a devotional like this, but I still paid attention as the adult leading spoke of the symbolism of us nailing our papers to that cross. It truly was powerful and symbolic and I thought deeply about tis meaning. We started a familiar song and then things got weird.
Another counselor walked over to the cross carrying what looked like a gas can. As he neared the cross I thought, surely he’s not going to douse it, is he? He did. As he splashed the contents of the can on the cross the unmistakable smell of diesel fumes filled the summer night air. I looked around and saw confusion on several of my fellow campers’ faces. Then a match was lit and things got really weird.
As the flames licked up the soaked wood, I grew more uneasy. This wasn’t right at all. The bits of paper burned quickly and floated away as ash. The flames engulfed the wood and I found myself in the presence of something I thought I’d never witness with my own eyes. There before me was a burning cross.
Much like my teacher years before, I wanted to ask, “Did you mean for that to happen?” I remained silent. I wanted to get up and walk away, but I was a rule-follower and I stayed put. I looked around and saw mostly confusion, but, quite disturbingly, I saw at least two campers whose eyes danced with glee in the light of the flickering flames.
I thought of my computer graphic. At least I could make the argument (however flimsy) that I was in seventh grade didn’t know what a swastika meant and that it also meant something else. This seemed different. To my knowledge, a burning cross has never meant anything else outside of hate.
I knew the people in charge and thought they were against discrimination. I knew they accepted others and that this was just a misstep, a bad idea that never should have lit up the night. Surely there was an explanation.
There was. According to people involved in the planning, they wanted a memorable devotional and never really thought through the implications of the symbol. They definitely nailed the memorable part.
My seventh grade swastika on the screen and that burning cross were both very bad ideas. But there is a worse idea. Silence.
My teacher never told my why I shouldn’t have used a swastika. Why didn’t she stop me and show me my error. Why didn’t she explain that some things should not be forgotten or taken lightly. I’m sure she rationalized that I didn’t mean anything by it (and in my case, she was right of course), so now instruction was necessary. But even at a young age I would have argued that instruction was more than necessary, it was vital.
That night at “church camp” I should have stood and said, “No. I will not be a part of this no matter what you mean by it.” If anyone questioned me, I should have explained that some things should not be forgotten.
Bad ideas surround us. Most of them are not of the magnitude of these two examples, but they swirl about us nonetheless. We convince ourselves it’s not that important when our friends become a little too close with someone they are not married to. We laugh at the joke that ridicules someone a little different than the rest of us. We ignore petty prejudices. We write off cruelty. We give in to the worst idea of all and remain silent.
I argue that now, more than ever, it is vital that we refuse to remain silent. That we cast off relentless complacency and say, “No more!”
No more will I allow a child to hunger while I have more than enough. No more will I allow my own hang ups to influence those around me. No more will I allow someone who simply thinks differently than me to be dehumanized. No more will I question people’s motive based solely on their political party. No more will I be silent.
Who’s with me?