Letter to the Editor: “Je Suis Charlie”

January 9, 2015

Submitted by Rev. John Gibbons

First Parish's Wayside Pulpit at the corner of Bedford Common
First Parish’s Wayside Pulpit at the corner of Bedford Common


In my sermon last Sunday, I neglected to tell of one of my more memorable experiences last month in Berlin.  It’s relevant to yesterday’s horrors in Paris.

On a walking tour of Berlin, I visited the Opera Square – Bebelplatz – bordered by Humboldt University, the State Opera, and St. Ludwig’s Cathedral.  In 1933, this square was the site of one of the most notorious of Nazi book-burnings.

PBS describes it:

On May 10, 1933, university students in 34 university towns across Germany burned over 25,000 books. The works of Jewish authors like Albert Einstein and Sigmund Freud went up in flames alongside blacklisted American authors such as Ernest Hemingway and Helen Keller, while students gave the Nazi salute. In Berlin 40,000 people gathered to hear German Minister of Public Enlightenment and Propaganda Joseph Goebbels give a speech in Berlin’s Opera Square. He declared “the era of extreme Jewish intellectualism is now at an end. … The future German man will not just be a man of books, but a man of character. It is to this end that we want to educate you. … And thus you do well in this midnight hour to commit to the flames the evil spirit of the past.” Radio stations broadcast the Berlin speeches, songs, and ceremonial incantations to countless German listeners. Widespread newspaper coverage called the “Action against the Un-German Spirit” a success. The Nazi war on “un-German” individual expression had begun.

Today, in the Opera Square there is an art installation, a memorial to the book burnings.  It is a large glass window, flush to the ground in the center of the square.  When you peer down into it, underground, you see rows and rows of…empty library shelves.  Emptiness.  Book-burnings, it says, leads to emptiness.

Seeing this memorial was one of my most moving experiences in Berlin.

The suppression of art, academics, literature, and satire – even that which may be offensive to some – is an offense to the human spirit.  It was Heinrich Heine who said, “Where they burn books, they will also burn people.”

Ours is a faith tradition that for centuries has affirmed the manifold expressions of the unfettered human spirit.

Again, with pens, paper, pencils and pixels, we stand with those who affirm freedom.

Je suis Charlie!

And, recalling Ahmed Merabet,  a Muslim police officer also killed, we say as well, Je suis Ahmed!

– john

Editor’s Note: Rev. John Gibbons is the Senior Minister at First Parish, Unitarian Universalist, on Bedford Common. For an additional perspective, Rev. Gibbons pointed to today’s column by David Brooks in the New York Times, “I am Not Charlie Hebdo”

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Veronique Meyer
January 10, 2015 9:58 am

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