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Christof Stache/AFP/Getty Images

Visitors at the Dachau concentration camp (Christof Stache/AFP/Getty Images)

Sophia's World

Lessons from a World War II tour

Can remembrance of deadly 20th-century conflicts prevent future ones?

I recently spent 12 vacation days on a World War II tour in Europe, retracing the steps of Winston Churchill in London, the Allied troops in Normandy and Bastogne, and Adolf Hitler in Munich. 

The tour began in coastal Normandy, France. On the first day, my tour group of about 40 Americans, mostly retired suburban couples, convened at the hotel bar for drinks. Sipping the famous local Calvados, we introduced ourselves and explained why we were on this historical tour. Several said they had family members who served in World War II, and we toasted to those veterans. Three men in our group were veterans themselves—two in the U.S. Navy and one in the Army—and we toasted them too. The others were history buffs who liked to read about aerial warfare and Soviet tanks. 

During the introductions, several people mentioned their concern about the next generation. “Our youngsters don’t know their own history,” one woman said. “I don’t even know what they’re teaching in schools these days.” One retired Ohio man, who volunteers for Honor Flight Dayton with his wife, said with wide, concerned eyes, “Our children don’t even know what D-Day is anymore. They don’t know about our brave veterans who sacrificed their lives for our country, for freedom and democracy. It’s really sad.”

It isn’t just sad. It’s also scary. I used to think of WWII as the distant past, as something far removed from today, because I couldn’t imagine our contemporary society keeping silent while daily smelling the stench of burning bodies from concentration camps. I couldn’t imagine someone as odious as Hitler rousing thunderous crowds today with his wild speeches, convincing them to blame an entire population for their woes, to enthusiastically send their teenagers into a senseless war. 

But having read more about the beginnings of WWII—and having been on this tour—the horrors of the 20th century now feel terrifyingly close. World War I and World War II weren’t so long ago, and neither were the ideological wars that erupted soon after, during which millions suffered and died. These wars fomented out of social unrest, radical ideologies, geopolitical tensions, and delusions of utopia. We see similar warning signs today in our increasingly polarized world, where people band themselves into ideological tribes and view “the other” as evil enemies who must be destroyed at all costs. 

I was in London wandering the Churchill War Rooms and the Imperial War Museum when I read that retired astronaut Scott Kelly had apologized after facing massive public backlash for quoting Churchill on Twitter. The apology was ironic, because Kelly had used the Churchill quote to criticize the political divisions in the United States. Dismayed by the nation’s reaction to the Brett Kavanaugh ballyhoo, he had tweeted after Kavanaugh’s confirmation, “One of the greatest leaders of modern times, Sir Winston Churchill said, ‘In victory, magnanimity.’ I guess those days are over.” 

Twitter users freaked out, calling Churchill an imperialist bigot who ignored a famine in British-colonized India. Poor Kelly—he meant well, but how was he to know that the hero he once extolled in school is now a villain in today’s cultural context? Chastened, Kelly tweeted, “I will go and educate myself further on his atrocities, racist views which I do not support.”

One young journalist with more than 58,000 Twitter followers was particularly indignant over Kelly’s faux pas. He tweeted that Churchill didn’t save the world from Nazism—the USSR did, losing 26 million of its people, compared with “just over” a few hundred thousand Brits and Americans. Apparently Americans and Brits should stop taking credit for winning the war, since they lost fewer lives than the Soviets and thus “there is no comparison.”

Scrolling through that journalist’s Twitter feed, I quickly saw many more tweets equating capitalism with neo-fascism and claiming that East Germany fared better under communism. He seems to have conveniently forgotten or dismissed the fact that the great Communist leader Josef Stalin launched ethnic killing campaigns before Hitler did, sent millions to the gulags, and allied with Hitler on an invasion of Poland in 1939, instigating WWII and the Holocaust. Another darling Communist leader, Mao Zedong, was ultimately responsible for the deaths of about 45 million of his own people. But why hassle with those annoying pieces of history when they don’t fit your worldview? 

Toward the end of the WWII tour, we visited the Dachau concentration camp, the first camp the Nazis opened in 1933. As we hopped off the bus, I saw dozens of German schoolchildren also jumping out of their school bus. They looked about 15 or 16 years old, with healthy, rosy cheeks and golden hair that glinted in the sun. They were laughing and giggling and squealing as they fooled about, girls jostling each other and boys looking for opportunities to flirt with female classmates. 

Then we entered the camp’s wrought-iron gate, which carries the slogan “Arbeit macht frei”—“Work sets you free.” Of course, the Nazis never intended to set any of their prisoners free—they worked them to death and killed off the weaker ones. We learned about the daily atrocities that took place behind those gates as we marched across the open courtyard where prisoners once had to stand at attention every morning, quaking with fear that an officer would call them out for any random, petty offense. 

We observed the gas chambers and crematorium, where the Nazis stacked three corpses into each oven, baking the rigid bodies into stinking dark ashes that poured out of the chimney and rained over neighboring towns. We walked through the prison cells, where the Nazis held the undesirables and dissenters that included pastors and priests who dared oppose Hitler’s policies. We also passed the barracks, where prisoners were squeezed so tightly into wooden bunks that a typhus epidemic wiped out many of them. 

By the end of the visit, all of our faces were gray. I looked across the yard at the German students, and saw that none of them was smiling anymore. Several kids were crying, some were hugging each other, and others were staring silently at the ground, dazed with mental images of past horrors. 

I asked my tour guide what the German public schools teach their kids about their history, given that most likely, they’re related to someone who participated in Nazism or condoned it. The tour guide told me that every German student learns an unfiltered account of Germany’s role in the wars and the Holocaust. The schools spend a whole year’s curriculum teaching how Hitler rose to power and what evils his regime committed. 

“You never have to worry about Germans,” he said. “They take great pains to teach their younger generation about their own history and why the past must not repeat itself. They keep the memory of the Holocaust alive. They will never forget what their forefathers did, and they feel responsible to never forget, to never let it happen again.” 

Although my first thought was “Never say never,” I was also moved to see how seriously the Germans take history, even when it’s not flattering to them. That’s a far cry from how the Japanese sanitize their own history, which remains a major sore spot for the Koreans and Chinese who endured their worst brutalities.

I then asked the tour guide about the news I’d read about the rise of anti-Semitism in Europe. He frowned: “There’s always been anti-Semitism. Some things don’t change.” 

He’s right: Some things don’t change—and that includes our human nature, our instinct to blame and demonize others, our inclination to compromise on what’s just and right, and our instinct to curate history into a narrative that fits our own purposes instead of God’s.

And that made me wonder: We human civilizations may try our best not to forget history, but is that enough to prevent history from repeating itself?

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Melanie Stetson Freeman/The Christian Science Monitor via Getty Images; Joe Raedle/Getty Images

(Melanie Stetson Freeman/The Christian Science Monitor via Getty Images; Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

Sophia's World

Race and the church

How much do our enduring divisions grieve God?

My younger brother and I grew up very close playmates. He’s about two years younger than me—the perfect age gap for me to boss him around while still sharing similar maturity levels and interests. I remember him following me around everywhere, and together we played Power Rangers, jumped rope, performed mock criminal trials (my brother was always the criminal, I the prosecutor), and when we got into trouble, we hugged each other piteously and cried. 

That kind of camaraderie eroded over the years. We hung out less and less, and part of that was natural—he had his friends, I had mine, and we were two drastically different personalities. But then when we were both young adults, a conflict arose, and it lingered until soon we barely had any genuine relationship beyond sharing the same blood. It wasn’t that we were hostile to one another; we just grew apart, and made very little attempt to preserve our sibling bond.

At the time, I felt like I was fine with it—but it broke my parents’ hearts. When I admitted to them that my brother and I hadn’t called or texted each other in a while, my parents would look despondent and shake their heads. “Remember those days when you guys were joined at the hip?” my mother would sigh. And my father would say, “Nothing pains us more than to see our own kids not in harmony.”

I thought of my parents’ broken hearts when I read the controversial Statement on Social Justice and the Gospel and observed the responses among my evangelical brethren to it. The statement, released in early September, warns Christians about “an onslaught of dangerous and false teachings that threaten the gospel, misrepresent Scripture, and lead people away from the grace of God in Jesus Christ.” As I write this, more than 8,500 individuals have signed the statement, including individuals I respect. And it seems to have lit a fuse within our evangelical circles.

Keeping the church rooted and centered on the gospel is an imperative goal. Unfortunately, the statement seems to be criticizing an idea so broad and ambiguous, using terms so imprecise and contentious, that it probably has further blurred the evangelical stance rather than clarifying it. Though the statement also condemns cultural narratives about sexuality and gender roles, the conversation it has sparked among evangelicals predominantly centers on race.

That’s because when it comes to “social justice” issues, most conservative evangelicals agree on what the Bible says about abortion, sexuality, gender roles, and caring for the widows and orphans. But when it comes to the matter of race, it sometimes feels like we’re not reading the same Bible. The statement—and the reactions to it—exposes just how far away we in the church are from true racial reconciliation.

Though I am neither black nor white, nor even a natural-born American, seeing the pervasive racial division within my brothers and sisters in Christ grieves me. Sunday morning is still the most segregated hour in America, and even in racially diverse churches such as mine, segregation persists in subtle yet powerful ways. I remember my parents’ own grief over the emotional distance between my brother and me, and I think, “How much more does God grieve to see His children harboring so much misunderstanding and apathy and bitterness against one another?” 

The Statement on Social Justice and the Gospel comes in the wake of the deaths of Mike Brown and Trayvon Martin and Eric Garner, Black Lives Matter, the 2016 election, and Charlottesville. It also comes in the wake of various churches and leaders attempting to address racial reconciliation, such as publicly confessing sins of racism, preaching about racial reconciliation from the pulpit, and holding an MLK50 conference to discuss the state of racial unity in the church.

For some people, this statement is a rightful censure against the encroaching leftist identity politics that crowns victimhood and idolizes skin color. They see how quickly such a mentality has invaded college campuses and mainstream media, recoil at the riots in Ferguson and Baltimore and Charlotte, and worry when they hear fellow Christians mix similar political buzzwords with Scripture.

But to other communities, this statement reeks of past rhetoric that condoned racism—back to the 1800s when some churches claimed addressing slavery would distract people from the gospel, back to the civil rights era when certain groups labeled civil rights leaders as “Communists,” accusing them of trying to undermine American democracy and incite havoc through interracial marriages.

A day after I read the statement, I had lunch with a reporter from a major newspaper in his 50s and a comic book writer in his 30s. The reporter is black, the comic book writer is white, I’m Asian, and we’re all professing Christians. We got together over burgers and iced tea because we wanted to seek community as believers in a lonely writing field. And somehow, we got to the topic of race.

In addition to his journalistic career, the reporter runs a ministry with his wife that allows him to engage with hundreds of churches and church leaders, and he says those interactions have left him tired, frustrated, and discouraged as an African-American man. So he had a lot to say about this subject and I had a lot of questions, while the comic book writer mainly listened. For the next three hours, the reporter aired out his grievances about living in a society where the police pull him over and the store manager tails him simply for his skin color. But his greater grievance comes from the church’s response.

When he tried to talk about racial injustice—such as racial profiling—with the pastor’s wife at a predominantly white suburban church, she said, “Well, that’s not a racial issue, that’s a safety issue.” Another time, he had to listen to some folks talk tactlessly about how many of the social ills come from fatherless black families, when he was standing right there with his black wife and two black sons. 

It’s not that these people are overtly racist, but they seem tone-deaf and dismissive to the pressing concerns of other communities—concerns not just pertaining to extreme cases such as White Supremacist rallies and police shootings, but also to everyday injustices that others might not notice and to unequal socioeconomic status. Some laws have to change, he said, because “the law has everything to do with how I treat my fellow human beings—loving our neighbor as ourselves.” Then he said, “My question is: What are Christians who refuse to deal with social justice issues really afraid of?”

In 2016, 80 percent of white evangelicals voted for a shoot-from-the-mouth, sexually immoral president to right the social wrong of abortion. So why are many in this same group so unwilling to right the other social wrongs that daily affect people of color? The reporter has his answer: “It’s all about power and money.” Church leaders are unwilling to take on controversial stances and lose tithe-giving members, he said.

Hearing the finality in his voice disheartened me. I told the reporter that I couldn’t share his cynicism. It was hard for me to conclude so quickly that the main intention behind many so-called “white” churches is to hold onto their cultural dominance. “I’ve still got to have hope,” I said. The reporter chuckled and sighed: “Well, this is me speaking at 55 years old. When you get to my age….”

That conversation and the statement have left me semi-obsessed about the race issue. I don’t want to be 55 years old and jaded. I have little faith in the state of mankind without Christ. They fight for principles that they don’t even realize derive from the gospel, and they usually find ways to pervert them. We legally ended slavery, which gave way to sharecropping, then to Jim Crow laws and lynching, then to racial zoning and mass incarceration. Somehow, racism and oppression stayed, shedding one skin for another. Today, I see fresh wounds continue bleeding as each group tries to silence and guilt and delegitimize the other.

But regarding the future of the church, I’m confused: Isn’t the gospel enough? Shouldn’t the natural process of salvation and sanctification uproot the sins of racism and arrogance and unforgiveness, and heal all wounds and animosity, which would lead towards racial harmony? Why then, with all our Bible studies and theological podcasts and revival conferences, do we seem to be more divided than ever? Why is it that historically, many of the so-called theologically sound churches chose to stay silent while the progressive mainline Protestant churches chose to stand up for justice? Is that what we’re doing now? What are we missing?

Last year, I made a resolution to be consistent about reaching out to my brother. We live in opposite coasts, so it’s easy to be out of sight, out of mind. I decided to text him at least once a week. It felt unnatural and awkward at first, and sometimes I wasn’t sure what to say to him, given that our lives are so different now—he a married man driving a Porsche SUV in suburban Virginia, I a single woman pumping a second-hand bike (now stolen) in Los Angeles. But I realized we weren’t going to magically reconcile without at least one side intentionally doing something about it.

Then this July, my niece was born. Her name is Praise. She entered life as a pink alien-looking thing, and now her delicate features are molding every day into a cute smiling, squealing, snuggling human bean. I save all her photos on my iPhone and smile whenever I see that little face—which is a miracle, since I am not a lover of babies. But what can I say? She’s family. My blood pumps in her veins, my DNA frames the eyebrows on her forehead, and I pray to God she doesn’t inherit my temper. I didn’t choose to love her, but I do, and I will make efforts to love her, because we’re family.

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Sophia's World

Glad to be a woman

God made the sexes inherently different, and that’s a good thing

I was 9 years old when I declared myself a feminist. Who knows what provoked me to take up the feminist cause—it might have been the progressive books I was reading, rebellion against the traditional family dynamics under which I grew up, or just extreme irritation that I had to wash the dishes every night because it was a “female chore” while my brother watched TV. Whatever it was, I decided at a very early age that I wanted to smash the patriarchy. 

Of course, I was only 9. My elementary understanding of being a feminist meant bucking against traditional “feminine” and “masculine” stereotypes. Men and women are equal, I would cry, but to me that meant equal nature and equal outcome—a view that blurred the distinctions between what made a man manly and what made a woman womanly. 

My childhood beliefs led to some far-reaching behaviors and long-term lifestyle choices: I tried climbing trees like a tomboy, though the brutal ant bites made the whole experience very uncomfortable. I loved playing with dolls, but all my dolls died horrible deaths from torture and murder. I picked fights in playgrounds and refused to cry when a chunky boy punched me in the stomach with all his might. I developed a Power Rangers obsession, which led to an interest in martial arts and to beating up on my little brother. As a teenager I openly scorned romantic comedies, although sometimes I secretly admired the dashing male lead characters. Over the years I stopped wearing dresses, skirts, and anything frilly, instead preferring jeans, sneakers, and sweatshirts.

When I grew older and began noticing boys, things got pretty confusing. Body features change, voices change, interests change—everything seems to change, drawing clearer lines around the differences between male and female. I didn’t quite know how to deal with the strange feelings fluttering in my stomach regarding the male species in my classroom and gym. After all, I prided myself as a strong, independent young woman, and I was aghast that a male creature could render me tongue-tied, weak-kneed, and insecure.

So I chose my seemingly only option for preserving my feminist pride: I suppressed my crushes. And if any boy dared showed interest in me, I slammed that window down on his fingers. Today, as a 30-year-old woman, I look back and chuckle. But even now, I spot certain patterns of thoughts and behaviors that linger from those days. 

I remembered all this while working on my recent story about professional matchmaking services. I talked to professional matchmakers, matchmaking clients, and online daters—and every interview highlighted the fact that men and women are rather different creatures. Matchmakers told me men typically want women with softer qualities such as warmth and nurture, while women want men who can provide and protect them. Men want to pursue and women want to be pursued, but when women do the chasing, it can turn men off, and such rejections usually hurt women much more than they do men.

“The women’s liberation movement was good for us women in terms of getting equal opportunities, but in terms of relationships, it’s made things more complicated,” said Julie Ferman, a matchmaker who works with clients in Los Angeles, Calif., and Santa Fe, N.M. Ferman, who’s 58, says mothers aren’t teaching their daughters to cultivate their femininity anymore. As a result, modern women have become more domineering, equating the stereotypical masculine traits with strength, yet the kind of men they desire seem to prefer women who “will let him finish his sentence.”

So part of Ferman’s job involves encouraging women to embrace their natural femininity. You can be a strong career woman and still “let the man be the man,” she tells her female clients: “Men get weaker if we get stronger the wrong way. There’s a time to speak and a time to listen, and a truly strong woman will learn when to exert her strength and when to be vulnerable.” 

I wonder how controversial Ferman’s statement is in an age when people claim to be “gender fluid,” blame social constructionism for “gender-conforming” children’s toys, and endorse “theybies.” Just look at how people have sputtered over psychology professor Jordan Peterson’s suggestion that the gender pay gap may partly be due to a natural reflection of gender differences rather than outright prejudice. Or look at how Google fired software engineer James Damore for penning a memo about how biological and psychological differences between men and women may explain why the majority of workers in the tech industry are men. 

I’m sure Peterson’s and Damore’s arguments have flaws and holes in them that are susceptible to a robust debate. Like many men and women, I believe in gender equality when it comes to legal rights and access to opportunities. I believe women should be treated fairly, that there should be zero tolerance for sexual harassment or sexual assault in public and private spheres. And I know Peterson and Damore believe that too, because they’ve publicly said so.

Yet people are labeling them “misogynist,” “regressive,” and even “dangerous” for merely stating that men and women are inherently different. That reaction seems awfully close to the mindset of 9-year-old Sophia Lee ... and well, she didn’t bring me much except ant bites and a gut-punch. 

Over the years, I’ve met many strong women in leadership positions who are also wonderfully feminine. For example, one 66-year-old who’s a businesswoman, a Bible teacher, and a church board member once told me she always remembers to reapply her lipstick before meeting men. “Never forget to accentuate your womanly attributes,” she said with a wink, and I felt such freedom knowing that I can be strong and powerful in my God-given womanhood. 

This woman is bold in her preaching, unafraid to speak up for what’s right among a group of men, and whip-smart in her finances. But somehow she does that all with a quiet, confident, beautiful femininity that is refreshing and liberating to watch. Well, fancy that—I guess I love being a woman after all. 

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