From a message at Durham Friends Meeting, September 15, 2019
I recently had occasion to read again about a very unusual episode in the history of Friends. It’s a story told in Elizabeth Gray Vining’s biography of Rufus Jones.
November 9 & 10, 1938: that was Kristalnacht, or the Night of the Broken Glass. All over Germany people broke into Jewish homes, stores and synagogues wreaking destruction and terror, and carrying many Jews off towards Concentration camps. It seemed spontaneous but we now know it was a well-planned attack that helped the Nazis take yet greater control.
In the wake of that horrible night, three Quakers resolved to make a visit to Germany. Rufus Jones, Robert Yarnall and George Walton hatched a plan to travel to Germany, to speak to the highest ranking official in Germany to whom they could gain access, and to ask to be allowed to intercede. The statement they eventually delivered in person to German officials stated they wanted “to inquire in the most friendly manner whether there is anything we can do to promote life and human welfare and to relieve suffering.”
They hoped to meet with Heinrich Himmler, the head of the SS and someone we now remember as a chief architect of the Holocaust. They didn’t succeed in seeing Himmler, but they did meet with two very high-ranking members of the SS. They made their presentation, the two men they met with left the room and went to speak with someone in higher authority, perhaps Himmler himself. Jones and Yarnall and Walton sat in silent worship — holding the German authorities in the Light.
In the end, they did receive permission for some Quaker relief work to go forward in the days before the Second World War broke out, and for some additional Jews to be allowed to leave Germany to safety. But of course, they didn’t stop the Holocaust.
In his journal, Rufus Jones described to officials with whom they met as “Hard-faced, iron-natured men.” He didn’t think they were ‘good guys.’ They didn’t have any illusions about the character of the men they would meet. Still, it’s hard to say what Jones and Yarnall and Walton expected. But in her biography, Elizabeth Gray Vining said that “Rufus Jones to the end of his days believed there had been a softening and a moment of vision.”
A good deal of history looks back on this episode as an instance of profound naiveté. A foolish gesture, one perhaps even bordering on treason.
But weren’t they holding the SS officers in the Light? Weren’t they trying to lift up the way of love and peace, trying to lift it above the way of violence and death? Whatever they expected, wasn’t it worth the effort? I guess I think so.
Reading about this desperate mission to the SS leave me wondering why we mostly “hold in the Light” those we most care about, our friends and family. Certainly, we should hold our dear ones in the Light. But shouldn’t we also “hold in the Light” those who trouble us most: those who seem most wrong-headed or dangerous? Do we believe they are beyond God’s reach, beyond God’s love? I guess I don’t think so.
As we settle into waiting worship, I invite each of us to call to mind people we think are as bad as people can be, and hold them in the light, believing that the Light, the love, can reach them too.
The full message can be found on Riverview Friend