Of Priests and Politics
Some personal thoughts on how,
when religion gets appropriated by nationalism, we all lose.
This is the picture that, of all the ones at Gdansk's Museum of the Second World War, has rattled around in my brain the most. This is Maximilian Kolbe, a priest who took the place of a prisoner about to be killed. The Catholic Church venerates him as a saint. But it's not just his story that makes his presence in the museum remarkable - it's how his story's being used.
According to the narrative we've been given by the museum's former director, the building was a project of continental empathy: a place where Polish, Jewish, German and Soviet suffering could be collectively gathered. Remembered. And done so along with the ways certain sides were complicit in atrocity even in their victimhood. It's a difficult history to process.

The Law and Justice Party, portrayed as semi-authoritarian, quasi-democratic nationalists, think this is a threat to an image of Polish statehood and exceptionalism. Some critics, including the party leader, classified the museum as an existential threat to the Polish people (apparently legit happened). On gaining power they waged a heavy legal battle that eventually let them take control of the museum and, starting a few months ago, make changes. They haven't been too drastic yet - the inclusion of a patriotic video, de-emphasizing Polish complicity in the holocaust and adding stories of Poles saving Jew has been what's been done so far. And, in the dismissive words of the former director, "they added a few priests who died."

One: I find it deeply, deeply disturbing that a man like Kolbe is brought in like a chesspiece to prop up an ideology that can't stand entirely on its own two feet. That he's used as to represent the interests of a political party that cares more about their own interests than the core of what Kolbe stands for. He's been reduced to an instrument in a nationalist grab for the country's imagination. Which is an insult to Catholics everywhere, and certainly poses it's own cultural and moral implications for that community. Stories like his need to be told indeed, and need to be told separate from the interests of agendas like that of the party (as we've been told - whether or not this analysis is true is another question).

Two: there's a thing I've noticed about Viadrinicum and pretty much all the summer schools I've been to so far - an inability to be present to people on the ideological other side. Present to people written off as patriots, conservatives, concerend parents or religious folks. An inability to imagine the diversity of a whole swath of people who may have a beef with some of their methods or thoughts. And here, if there's a Catholic who looks at this debate, they may see liberals, the same liberals fighting for democracy and human rights and systemic justice, they may see these liberals dismiss their beliefs and relegate them to those of an imagined 'dumb nationalist'. So someone who finds the story of Kolbe really inspiring could all-too-easily be seen as on the side of a problematic government seeking to rewrite history. Perhaps this is caused by cultural or religious illiteracy, or by a failure of imagination most people would call bigotry. And this's *us* we're talking about.

I keep thinking: what if we, at all steps of our education, challenge not only the narratives of the other but *our* narratives as well. Sit with them, ask them questions. See what comes up. It's a complicated thing, because then we have to ask if there are interests behind our initiatives, if there are blind spots in our empathy, if our actions are received the ways we intend. That's a conversation I'd like to have more often. That's what I thought when I saw Kolbe in the museum. That, and I felt a bit more alone.