Monday Morning, October 26, 2008
This week, I heard about a Nobel Prize winning author named Günter Grass who wrote a novel called The Tin Drum in 1959. It’s autobiographical and filled with allegory and metaphor. It’s the story of a young boy named Oskar Matzerat who grows up in Germany through the nineteen twenties and thirties up through World War II.
As a young boy, he receives the gift of a tin drum, which he learns to play with great enthusiasm and skill. He watches adults around him slip into all sorts of complicated conformities; and children his age caught up in the Nazi youth movement. Brown shirts seemed to catch the spirit of nationalism and Arian supremacy and young Oskar finds that he prefers his little tin drum to the mindless demands of uniforms and salutes. The singing and marching seemed to him a robbery of the joys of childhood. Young Oskar determined in his heart to resist. He found solace in the cadence and rhythms of his little drum. He decided to stay forever young.
I did a little homework, and learned that the novel is filled with all sorts of social experimentation. It’s a provocative effort to find an alternative to the senseless and head-long line up of his friends behind a screeching Hitler and his racist drive to reign supreme over all of Europe and then beyond. In his heart, he knew there was something desperately wrong with the national obsession with superiority.
Aha, I thought. This must be the origin of the famous phrase – “he marches to the beat of a different drummer.” Certainly, Oskar did. Unlike just about everyone in his neighborhood, he set himself apart from a regime that would become the scourge of Europe and forever live as a paragon of infamy.
But in my research, I learned that Günter Grass’s Oskar Matzerat came well after Henry David Thoreau’s immortal lines from his Walden in 1854 – “If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer.” Grass’s novel came just about one hundred years later and while I have no evidence to support it, one must wonder if Thoreau’s thought inspired the basic story line.
We can’t compare our current crisis with Germany’s National Socialism early in the last century. But few could argue with the assertion that conformity played a role. A substantial role. When the airwaves are saturated with an unbridled no-strings-attached to borrow, and lenders have strong economic incentive to book the marginal loans, people will do just that. In droves. When banks are incentivized by new laws that loosen the former and purposeful restrictions on lending, they will exploit the possibilities. When money managers are released from old and proven investment guidelines to embrace instruments that once guided the wise, greed kicks in. Insurance policies (derivatives) become indistinguishable from casino gambling.
We can speculate as to the causes of our current economic crisis. But one thing we know: it’s human nature to follow the crowd; to take our neighbor’s liberties as permission to go for it too. And before long, we find ourselves in the company of the masses wondering what in the world happened. How did we get here?
By the fifties, Günter Grass knew full well the utter disintegration of his homeland, the Motherland, taken hostage by a smooth talking tyrant who seduced an entire nation into thinking they had some sort of divine right to excess. So he created a character – a young boy who listened not to the powerful voice of conformity, but to the rhythm of his little tin drum.
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It’s Monday morning, you are a leader. We are together re-imagining our future. I sat down this morning with an old friend who told me he is postponing his retirement. He’s not alone.
As a church, we are putting together a “Box of Love,” filling it with a collection of foodstuffs which will be distributed to hungry families right here in Southern California. I generally don’t go to the grocery store on Sunday mornings, but there I was. Carolyn had duty with the three-year-olds over at the church. I chased up and down the aisle looking for things like canned cut beans and fruit juice and cornbread mix and pinto beans.
Maybe it’s the Sunday morning crowds. I saw too many shoppers up and down those aisles with hangover eyes, red and puffy, one who looked as though she’d cried herself to sleep last night. It made me think of the pain and the fear that is out there these days. Despair. Paradise lost. And I wondered. Who are we listening to these days?
And in the stillness, a little drummer boy. Beating out a message of hope and joy and confidence. I heard it in worship today.
“He gives and takes away. He gives and takes away… My heart will surely say, blessed be the name of the Lord.”
Copyright Kenneth E Kemp, 2008