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Old Apr 9, '05, 5:17 am
chicago chicago is offline
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Join Date: May 16, 2004
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Default Embodied Power of Love


John Paul II embodied power of love

April 5, 2005


On the day that Pope John Paul II died, I saw "Downfall," a film about the last days of Adolf Hitler. It was an eerie experience to move from the atmosphere of near-universal sorrow over the pope -- a sorrow blended with gladness at a life that had achieved so much -- to the claustrophobic delusions of the Berlin Bunker where Hitler's suicide seemed merely the logical climax of a life devoted to hatred and destruction.

The contrast was an illuminating one. Hitler and John Paul II were at opposite ends of a spiritual spectrum and they lived out their respective spiritual beliefs about as purely and undilutedly as human beings ever manage to do. They were neither saints nor demons but human beings. It is hardly necessary to say this about the pope since everyone knows even saints begin as human beings. But there are some who prefer to see Hitler as an inhuman monster.

Thus "Downfall" has been criticized in Germany and Europe for showing Hitler in too human and even sympathetic a light. He is kind to his secretaries, for instance, and fond of his Alsatian dog, Blondi.

The film's script, based on Joachim Fest's authoritative Inside the Berlin Bunker and a memoir by Traudl Junge, the secretary who typed Hitler's last testament, is historically accurate. Life in the bunker -- with its odd mixture of administrative order and onrushing inescapable doom -- is a brilliant depiction of hell. The portrait of Hitler by the German actor Bruno Ganz, is utterly convincing.

Ganz's Hitler is a human being with some natural gifts and decent qualities -- he had charm and was often kind to subordinates -- but who chose to embrace evil doctrines and to cling to them ever more fiercely as they destroyed him and all around him. We see him raging against the reality of defeat, condemning old friends to death, boasting of his contempt for the virtue of compassion, and ordering the destruction of the German people because their defeat had shown them to be unworthy of him. It is a picture of a human being who has perverted himself intellectually and spiritually. He was a self-made demon.

Hitler and the pope demonstrate how radically we can be transformed by the choices we make. Hitler made power his lodestar; the pope made love his. And this contrast is evident from how they presented themselves to the world in theatrical terms.

Look at the official Nazi pictures and paintings of Hitler or Leni Riefenstahl's propaganda film "Triumph of the Will" -- they all depict a man of destiny masterful and invincible. Photographs of the pope from 1978 onward, however, show "love carved out of stone" in Bruce Anderson's fine metaphor.

Superficially, Hitler gained the power he sought. His word was law throughout the German Reich and occupied territories. He was able to draw upon his raw power to carry out the greatest of historical crimes.

The pope has very limited authority outside the Vatican City -- and that authority is a spiritual one willingly conceded by those who follow him. Since 1870 no pope has been able to command obedience outside of the church -- a point made by Stalin when he asked "How many divisions has the pope?"

But power alone -- power uninspired by love and unrestrained by prudence -- has a way of breaking in the hands of its user. It recruits opposition to itself. And the more ruthless and brutal power is, the larger the coalition of opponents it assembles. Thus, Hitler's power ended in a despairing suicide to avoid capture, trial and death at the hands of his enemies.

Love by contrast recruits friends. It creates admirers even among those who disagree. And it makes only a few enemies among the incurably envious. When the pope was on his deathbed, people of all faiths (and none) stood outside his windows and prayed for his deliverance from suffering. The better angel in his nature had brought forth the better angels in theirs. Love turned out to have more power than power.

Old Apr 9, '05, 5:17 am
chicago chicago is offline
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Join Date: May 16, 2004
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Default Re: Embodied Power of Love

Nazism ended in a vulgar parody of a Viking's funeral as the bodies of Hitler and his mistress were thrown into a pit and burned with gasoline. Christianity flourishes around the world, especially in those Third World countries which the pope himself visited as a missionary.

That is perhaps the most important contrast -- but it is not the last word. It would be a mistake to believe that Nazism had no spiritual power while it still lived. As "Downfall" makes clear, it was a dark, negative, and self-consuming form of spirituality -- but a form of spirituality nonetheless. Hitler's denunciations of "compassion" point to its central perversion: It was an attempt to make power, violence and oppression things of virtue and beauty -- and weakness a sin. It was a pagan inversion of the Christian message.

As such it inspired many of Hitler's followers to kill themselves -- to accept an irrational martyrdom -- rather than to surrender. It led the sinister Frau Goebbels to poison her children rather than let them live in a world "without National Socialism." Fanatical Nazis roamed the Berlin streets murdering almost without motive or to punish a realistic acceptance of defeat. Hitler's last instructions were to turn Nazism's homeland into his personal funeral pyre.

In the next few days the whole world will mourn Pope John Paul II and the growing Catholic world will pray for his canonization as a saint. By their fruits ye shall know them.

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