Repressed dignity and the "Liberation Complex"

I took vacation days before the Thanksgiving break to enjoy an entire week of vacation. Enjoyment for me includes reading big and difficult books. This week I read the final installment of Rick Atkinson's World War 2 trilogy, The Guns at Last Light. In light of this week's riots in Ferguson, Missouri after the grand jury conclusion, this observation of Atkinson's struck me.

Liberated prisoners from German work/prison/extermination camps were asked to "'Keep disclipline ...Let your behavior be a credit to your national honor.'"
Instead, starvation, revenge, indiscipline, and chaos often created what Allied officers called a "liberation complex." SHAEF had presumed refugees "would be tractable, grateful, and powerless after their domination from two to five years as the objects of German slave policies." As an Army assessment concluded, "They were none of these things...newly liberated persons looted, robbed, murdered, and in some cases destroyed their own shelter." Freed laborers plundered houses in the Ruhr, burning furniture for cook fires and discarding slave rags to dress in business suits, pajamas, and evening clothes ransacked from German wardrobes. p.599
Domination by their German oppressors did not extinguish their spirits, but capped them, either to die with their bodies or to explode upon their liberation. This liberation complex manifested even more drastically when the Americans reached Dachau.
Other prisoners cornered kapos and suspected informers, clubbing them with shovels. Howling inmates pursued remaining Waffen-SS troops, some of whom were masquerading in prison garb. "They tore the Germans apart by hand," a soldier reported. Rabbi Eichhorn, who arrived at Dachau that afternoon, wrote, "We stood aside and watched while there guards were beaten to death, beaten so badly that their bodies were ripped open... We watched with less feeling than if a dog were being beaten." Inmates desecrated dead and dying Germans with sticks and rocks, crushing skulls and severing fingers. One guard's "body was strewn all over the place," a witness reported, arms out of sockets." p. 612
I believe most, if not all, of my friends on Facebook can sympathize with the response of these liberated prisoners, yet several cannot see how the same "Liberation Complex" is in play in Ferguson, Missouri.

Martin Luther King, Jr. also wrote of this in his "Letter from a Birmingham Jail," 1963. Every paragraph in this letter is a facet of a majestic jewel. If only every reader of this blog would read King's letter in its entirety. I offer one paragraph here with a few pertinent highlights.
Oppressed people cannot remain oppressed forever. The yearning for freedom eventually manifests itself, and that is what has happened to the American Negro. Something within has reminded him of his birthright of freedom, and something without has reminded him that it can be gained. Consciously or unconsciously, he has been caught up by the Zeitgeist, and with his black brothers of Africa and his brown and yellow brothers of Asia, South America and the Caribbean, the United States Negro is moving with a sense of great urgency toward the promised land of racial justice. If one recognizes this vital urge that has engulfed the Negro community, one should readily understand why public demonstrations are taking place. The Negro has many pent up resentments and latent frustrations, and he must release them. So let him march; let him make prayer pilgrimages to the city hall; let him go on freedom rides -and try to understand why he must do so. If his repressed emotions are not released in nonviolent ways, they will seek expression through violence; this is not a threat but a fact of history. So I have not said to my people: "Get rid of your discontent." Rather, I have tried to say that this normal and healthy discontent can be channeled into the creative outlet of nonviolent direct action. And now this approach is being termed extremist. But though I was initially disappointed at being categorized as an extremist, as I continued to think about the matter I gradually gained a measure of satisfaction from the label. Was not Jesus an extremist for love: "Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you." Was not Amos an extremist for justice: "Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever flowing stream." Was not Paul an extremist for the Christian gospel: "I bear in my body the marks of the Lord Jesus." Was not Martin Luther an extremist: "Here I stand; I cannot do otherwise, so help me God." And John Bunyan: "I will stay in jail to the end of my days before I make a butchery of my conscience." And Abraham Lincoln: "This nation cannot survive half slave and half free." And Thomas Jefferson: "We hold these truths to be self evident, that all men are created equal . . ." So the question is not whether we will be extremists, but what kind of extremists we will be. Will we be extremists for hate or for love? Will we be extremists for the preservation of injustice or for the extension of justice? In that dramatic scene on Calvary's hill three men were crucified. We must never forget that all three were crucified for the same crime--the crime of extremism. Two were extremists for immorality, and thus fell below their environment. The other, Jesus Christ, was an extremist for love, truth and goodness, and thereby rose above his environment. Perhaps the South, the nation and the world are in dire need of creative extremists.

Some of my Facebook friends tell me this mess in Ferguson is not about racism. I think racism, when defined by those with privilege, is never committed. A better term is needed. This is about human dignity. I've been sharing multiple perspectives of black Americans on Facebook so my white friends can hear for themselves why this is a human dignity issue. A majority white grand jury, overseeing a white police officer in a nearly all white police station with a long history of dignity-stripping of a black neighborhood, cannot gloss over this repression of dignity. When a young black man is executed at 150 feet from an officer whose procedural guidelines encouraged rather than discouraged escalation of emotions and instead of clear thinking, injustice is apparent to all who want to change the status quo. The status quo strips dignity from neighbors and their moment when the national press descends enables a "Liberation Complex" in Ferguson, a bubbling up of suppressed human dignity, with mixed results.

Dr. Christina Cleveland, a Christian social psychologist (who is also a black American) observes,
       Yesterday, my neighbor broke down while we talked about the realities of police brutality toward young black men. Her hands trembled and tears showered her face. Experiencing the unique mixture of rage and sorrow that black moms know well, she described the numerous ways in which the local police have already treated her 8 year old son like an animal.
        Based on data from communities all over the U.S., a recent study found that local police officers kill black men nearly two times a week. Beyond this, black men suffer from the crushing indignity of being regularly stopped and frisked, harassed by the police for simply “driving while black”, and generally assumed guilty before proven innocent.
       Seeing the suffering Christ in these young men isn’t achieved by theological gymnastics, deep pity, or altruism. It’s done by listening to their stories, sharing life, standing in solidarity with them, and experiencing their rage.
      I’ve written elsewhere that when oppressed people are angry, privileged people should listen up.

It is hard to listen. If a friend tells us that something we are doing causes them great pain, wouldn't we at least listen? Can we listen to a neighbor who tells us we are hurting them? Can we see Christ among the least of these? If Christ is not asking for a glass of water but empathy, do we tell him to bug off, as the Bible does not literally commend empathy, just water or clothes? Can we invite the stranger in, to hear their story, to acknowledge their humanity, their pain, their struggle, their dignity? See Jesus's teaching in Matthew 25: 40-45. Can we join with protestors in Ferguson and MLK, Jr. and Jesus Christ and be extremists for love?


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