I’m writing this on August 14, having just presided at Mass commemorating St. Maximilian Kolbe, a Franciscan priest who was killed by the Nazis at Auschwitz in 1941. You may remember that the previous weekend was the time of the neo-Nazi march and murderous terrorist attack in Charlottesville, VA. The liturgy sometimes throws out odd juxtapositions for us to think about.
One of the readings for St. Maximilian’s Mass had this line: “Everyone who hates his brother is a murderer.” [I Jn 3;15] The writer’s language is exaggerated, but he sees clearly that the fabric in our minds that separates thoughts from actions is fragile – just as is the fabric of civil society that separates reasoned, even vigorous, debate from attacks on the fabric of society itself.
In the early twentieth century Germany was widely acknowledged to be the cultural and artistic, scientific and literary, capital of the world. By the early 1940s it was engaged in the systematic mass-murder of parts of its population. I doubt anyone could have predicted that the solid citizens of the 1920s could become the concentration-camp guards of the 1940s.
Our Catholic tradition is clear-sighted about our capacity to be seduced by evil. (If you’re old enough to remember the older version of the Mass you may remember the “prayers after Mass” which included one to St. Michael, asking for his protection against “the malice and snares of the enemy, who prowls through the world seeking the ruin of souls.” No pussyfooting language there.)
There are, of course, countless evils in our society – our nation’s abortion policy, the sale of weapons abroad, our unwillingness to provide adequate medical care for the poor, and more – but none of these in itself threatens the fabric of understanding and forbearance by which we live with one another. What appeared that Saturday in Charlottesville did and does. And it is the role of leaders in society – in the churches, in businesses, in the media, and most especially in government – to draw clear lines about what society will accept. (Note that “what society will accept” and “what is legal” are different: peaceful marches by neo-Nazi groups are within the law and should be allowed; but the ideas themselves should be condemned in clear and unequivocal terms.) (Any violence or intimidation by anyone, on the so-called “right” or so-called “left,” should be equally unacceptable.)
The upholding of cultural standards must be done on every level. The president has his role to play (which, in this case, he has sadly failed to do). I have a role also; and so do you. Few of us will have a public role; but we each determine, by our daily choices, what is acceptable and what is not in our circle of friends and neighbors. Charlottesville should make it clear that racist and ethnic slurs and “jokes” must, going forward, be challenged – every time. Continuing use of them must put a person outside the circle of friends. Discussion and debate on policy is fine; but it should be considered and backed by evidence, not “talking points” from social media; and comments directed to individuals, rather than toward their ideas, are off-limits. (Theological note: Jesus says – Matthew 5:22 – that anyone who says, “You fool!” to someone risks going to hell for it. Look it up.)
The fabric of civil society is more fragile than we might imagine, and should not be taken for granted. We can “get away” with uncivil behavior when things are tranquil for the majority; but if a major shock comes, we will need every thread of that fabric to prevent violence. We choose, every day, to strengthen that fabric of civility by our everyday words and actions, or we weaken it. We might pray for St. Maximilian’s intercession that it hold us together for the years to come. Until next week, peace.
 “Neo-Nazi” is deliberate and accurate. Choose to march with flags showing swastikas, even if it’s not your particular subgroup, and you’ve identified your allegiance.