In the wake a week where Alton Sterling, Philando Castile, and officers Lorne Ahrens, Michael Krol, Brent Thompson, and Patrick Zamarripa lost their lives, I appreciated post after post on social media again calling for whites to silence themselves and listen to the experiences of African-Americans. The kind of listening that comes from a deep desire to understand is a crucial first step. I want to be that kind of listener.
At the conclusion of those three gut-wrenching days following July 4th, my husband and I watched a movie that reminded me that really listening to those who’ve been dismissed, marginalized or abused will inevitably lead us to places that will upend our secure, comfortable lives. Amen. is an English-language 2002 release directed by Costa-Gavras and now streaming on Netflix.
Amen. highlights the work of S.S. Officer Kurt Gerstein, who was tasked to create a poison that would serve as an anti-typhus fumigant. Gerstein develops Zyklon B, which turned out to be an eerily effective anti-human fumigant, too, becoming the poison of choice used in Hitler’s concentration camp gas chambers. At the same time the inventor realizes that Zyklon B is being used to kill thousands of people every day, his superiors push him to make his poison even more efficient.
Gerstein is horrified as he witnesses the way his invention is being used for mass murder. He comes to believe the only one who can convince the rest of the world about the atrocities taking place in the camps is Pope Pius XII. He finds a way to meet with the Pope and his representatives in order to communicate a bit of the story, only to be rebuffed with a tepid brush-off that reflected the Vatican’s impulse at the time toward institutional self-protection.
But one young Jesuit priest, Riccardo Fontana, really listened to Gerstein’s story. His initial disbelief became sorrow as he began to realize the enormity of what was happening across Europe. As he walks through Rome and sees Jews rounded up and marched toward waiting trains, he is compelled to act. He confronts his superiors with evidence provided him by Gerstein. They aren’t interested in looking at it. At the movie’s climax, Fontana pulls a yellow cloth six-pointed star from his pocket.
As his superiors plead with him to stop this nonsense, he chooses not to listen to them. He can’t un-hear what Gerstein has told him, and what his own eyes are witnessing in the streets. He pins the marker of Jewish identity onto his clerical garb and walks out into the street, where he is arrested and sent to a concentration camp. You know how his story ends.
When Jesus asked his hearers to listen, he was asking for a change of mind and direction from them. This kind of listening always comes with a cost. Though Amen. is a work of fiction, Yad Vashem, the Holocaust Museum in Jerusalem, has cataloged the names of more than 24,000 real-life “Righteous Gentiles” who risked their lives to save Jewish people. Names like Oskar Schindler, Raoul Wallenberg or Corrie ten Boom may be familiar to many, but there were thousands more both named and unknown to all but God who listened to the voices pushed to the margins (then onto waiting cattle cars). They acted in ways that ran counter to their own instincts toward self-preservation as well as to their own cultural norm. May we in the Church commit to listen here and now in this same way. (Amen.)