The expertly driven black cab wound its way through the historic streets and back alleys of Belfast City. When passing the famous Peace Wall, he stopped the cab so we could add our signatures to the many which adorned its colorful facade. Our conversation with the driver, Tommy, was intense and focused on the historic divide between Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland. After passing an abandoned jail, he told us that it was in that place of horror where he first learned to think for himself. “I almost killed a Catholic in a street fight when I was a teenager,” he said. “While I was rotting in jail I realized that I had no good reason to hate Catholics. Jail changed me.” He went on, “So I decided that if I ever got out of that rat hole, I would stop hating once and for all.” His last declaration was shared with the pride of a man who knew he had chosen well. “The orange vest, which symbolizes ethnic pride of an Irish Protestant, has been handed down over the years in my family. My Dad gave me his first orange vest, but I won’t be passing it on to my son. He will never wear something that symbolizes hate.”
I’ve been thinking about Tommy lately. The brutal Hamas terrorist attacks on innocent Jewish civilians followed by the loss of innocent Palestinian lives due to the Jewish response to those attacks brought those intense conversations from my few days in Northern Ireland back to mind. The Troubles, as the 30 year Northern Ireland conflict was known, were marked by sniper attacks, roadblocks, street fighting, bombings, and internment without trial. During that period, 3,500 people were killed and more than 30,000 injured. Sound familiar? Does it feel like the world is any closer to recognizing the intrinsic value of every human person, regardless of ethnicity? Sadly, not to me. So what can we do in the face of all this evil?
In her book Soul of a Lion, Alice von Hildebrand shares the life story of an unknown hero, her husband Dietrich von Hildebrand, during one of the darkest periods in human history. Von Hildebrand’s willingness to stand up loudly to a growing force of evil in Europe during Hitler’s rise to power sheds light on how we too can use our gifts to speak out when wickedness and evil infiltrate the world.
Dietrich von Hildebrand – brilliant philosopher and writer, university professor and devout Catholic convert – chose to speak out against evil when he saw it. In 1921 he was placed on the Nazi blacklist for his public statements against the Nazi party and its despicable racist message. During the following twenty three years, he never stopped speaking by warning people of the dangers of the Nazi movement. In 1933, this courageous stance forced a departure from his German homeland, leaving his family, his career and everything he knew and loved behind. Since he could only write freely outside the Third Reich, Von Hildebrand fled to Austria where he began writing an anti-Nazi newspaper to share the vicious truth of Hitler’s National Socialism and anti-semitism government. When asked if it saddened him to leave his homeland, he cried out, “Better to be a beggar in freedom, than to be forced into compromises against my conscience.”
The heroic examples of both Tommy in Northern Ireland and Von Hildebrand in Germany serve as a roadmap for those looking for a way forward in these days of war and hate. Von Hildebrand’s strength came from his deep faith in God which guided all of his brave decisions. In the face of growing evil in his world, he lived the great commandment and invited others to do the same, “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” (John 13:34)
It was love for his family and country that inspired Tommy to stop the cycle of hatred by declining to pass on the orange vest to his son. Likewise, it was love for his country and every person it it (all ethnicities) which inspired Von Hildebrand to stand up against the demonic forces of evil which intended to destroy the world. We too are invited to decide how to respond to the evil and hatred in our own society. Do we remain indifferent, stuck in our own bias or spew racist messages? Or do we choose to listen, offer mercy and love one another, no matter a person’s background, as Jesus encourages us in John’s gospel? It is only through love that peace will be achieved. No matter where you find yourself in the coming weeks perhaps we might remember to shed our ‘orange vests’ of prejudice, judgment, and indifference and replace them with the unconditional love and mercy of God. Our fellow citizens of this world deserve it.