I met someone in Germany last week who had an interesting story to tell. You’ll hear many stories over in the East because it’s a place that’s seen a lot of upheaval in the recent past. But as with most things, it’s not easy to put them away into neat little boxes.
This man, who just turned 60, risked his and his family’s future, and maybe even their lives, by taking an active part in church-backed protests against the political system of the GDR in 1989. What began as discussion groups in one church slowly gathered momentum as more and more churches opened their gates and metaphorical arms to those who couldn’t, and wouldn’t, accept the repressive system of their homeland. For the most part, they weren’t particularly well organised nor did they share the exact same goals. Some wanted out by applying for a permit to emigrate. Some wanted to stay but change the system. Some, I imagine, were simply good Christians no longer able to close their eyes to the injustices and cruelties they witnessed. Whether they agreed on the particulars or not, they all had one thing in common: They were being spied on by the authorities. More than 25 years later, people are still applying for access to their files. There are millions of pages of reports and observations. There was a spy in every club or housing association, at every workplace and every gathering. People were being pressured to report on their friends and neighbours, and if you weren’t, you probably had someone spying on you instead. This man knew all this, of course, and because he’d spent his life in that country, and because he is an intelligent person, he had no illusions about being able to escape subtle (or not-so-subtle) questioning and official interviews. He went to the meetings nevertheless, he made and distributed leaflets and posters, and he speaks with the highest admiration of those who had the spine to not cooperate with the authorities. He left almost all his belongings when he was finally allowed to emigrate, and he never looked back. Once he arrived in West Germany, he had to start rebuilding his career, and he did well. He’s a successful, well-off man with everything going for him. A success story.
But there’s always a “but.” This man, once an immigrant himself, arriving in a foreign country with three children and nothing more than a bag each, now speaks out against immigration and foreigners by supporting the Pegida movement and its political ilk. He has a sharp mind and a strong voice, and he uses it to argue his point mercilessly. Play devil’s advocate and say that the immigrants he wants out of “his” country are simply too different, too unfamiliar, not much like the would-be-migrants he used to associate with, but here’s the thing: Even back in 1989, he wasn’t sympathetic to those unlike him. He’s got nothing but contempt for religious do-gooders and those preaching harmony and understanding in the face of real-life politics. He’s a Christian, of course, just not the soppy, hippy kind of Christian. Bring in another religion, and his understanding ends. Stereotypes of the worst kind take its place. I don’t see how someone with a sharp intellect can really believe those stereotypes to be true, so I’m guessing he’s so used to arguing his truth that he thinks he can get away with anything said with enough conviction.
So there you have it: A good man, someone who bravely stood up against a repressive system with integrity and conviction, has turned into the worst kind of hypocrite 25 years on. He’s not a bad man, of course. Maybe he just wasn’t all good to begin with? Could he just as well have used his talents for bad things in a different system, had the world put him in a more privileged position as a young man? Or maybe he’s all talk, and he’d never be anything but decent and helpful when coming face to face with a stranger? Who knows, maybe 99% of those marching against the unknown enemy would find their humanity in a crisis situation and let go of the hatred.
People are difficult. Not only are they all different from each other, they’re also made up from a million different pieces. Faced with different situations, there is no guessing how they might react. There’s no good and bad, just a whole lot of in-between. And that’s amazing, of course, but it also makes liking someone unconditionally really quite hard. It also makes us wonder about ourselves, our strengths and our faults, and how much room we have for improvement. Maybe we’re all just talk, or maybe we’re not talking loudly enough. Maybe we should just listen to ourselves more often and think about what we hear. It may not be enough, but you’ve got to start somewhere.