Are we all equal in the eyes of God?

In just a few days, Unitarian Universalists from all over the world will gather in New Orleans for our annual General Assembly. A lot is going on in the Unitarian Universalist Association this year, much more than anyone would have expected a few months ago, and in the midst of all of the activity, one long-scheduled piece of business may not get the attention it deserves. I’m speaking of a proposal to change our First Principle.

The congregations of the Unitarian Universalist Association covenant to affirm and support seven principles, adopted in their current form in 1985. As it stands, the First Principle is:

The inherent worth and dignity of every person.

A group of people organizing under the name “The First Principle Project” would like to replace the first principle with the following:

The inherent worth and dignity of every being.

At General Assembly this year, the delegates will vote on whether to send this proposal on to a study commission as a first step for eventual adoption.1

I understand the motivation of the supporters of the First Principle Project, and I even agree that creatures other than humans have inherent worth. And yet I think that this suggested change is a very bad idea, one that I will work hard to prevent from happening. The problem is that an unintended consequence of the suggested change is to remove something important from the current version — something important, but implicit.

This implicit idea is equality. In this post I will explain why I see equality in the First Principle, and why the suggested change removes it. The fact that the idea of equality is not stated explicitly in the Principle is one of the reasons, I suspect, that the people supporting this change have had trouble understanding some of the pushback against their proposal.2


The First Principle comes to us Unitarian Universalists through the Univeralist side of our heritage. Historically, Universalists were Christians who believed that a loving God would not condemn any person to eternal torment; they believed that no matter how a person behaved in their lifetime, and no matter what a person professed, believed, or had faith in, that person would eventually wind up in Heaven.3

WizdUUm.net has a good summary of the various principles and statements of faith made by Unitarians and Universalists over the past 250 years. Here’s the history related to the First Principle: In 1935, the Universalist Church adopted a Bond of Fellowhip which included an avowal of faith in “the supreme worth of every human personality.” In 1961, when the Unitarian and Universalist churches merged into the Unitarian Universalist Association, the new association proclaimed that its member congregations united in seeking “to affirm, defend, and promote the supreme worth of every human personality [and] the dignity of man.” In 1985, when the UUA Principles were updated, that wording was modified and placed at the beginning of a list of seven principles, and became the First Principle as we know it today: “The inherent worth and dignity of every person.”

Let’s think about that original 1935 wording: “the supreme worth of every human personality.” The only way that my worth can be supreme at the same time that your worth is supreme is if we are equally worthy. This dovetails with the Unitarian James Freeman Clark’s words about Universalism:4

[Universalism] is the democracy of Christianity. As political democracy contends, not for the absolute equality of man, but for their equality before the law; not for their equality as a matter of fact, but for their equality as a matter of right: so Universalism contends for the equality of all before God’s love. It does not assert that all are equally good, or will be equally happy: but it contends that no child of God is ever orphaned; that he never loses, or can lose, his Father; that the mere fact of death makes no difference in the mercy and love of God to any soul; that God is the same infinite tenderness and infinite benignity in the other life as in the present life; that all souls belong to God, there as here; and that nothing but their own choice can exclude them from the divine presence and communion.

“The equality of all before God’s love.” To me, this is the Universalist essence of the First Principle. I feel it is the essence of the First Principle even though I do not believe in anything I would call “God.” Indeed, this essential equality is the foundation of my theology: The inherent worth and dignity of all people means that in some spiritual way, we are all equal. We are not all equally good; we are not all equally happy; but we are all equally human, and this cannot be taken from us, even by our own actions.

In the gendered language of Thomas Jefferson — which, not coincidentally, also appears as the first item in a list of self-evident truths — “All men are created equal.”


Taking the First Principle seriously is not an easy thing. Accepting that there is some spiritual core to each person, a core with intrinsic worth, can be difficult when the person in question seems distant from you in their beliefs, or their habits, or their morality, or their culture. How do we act in the world if we accept that you, and I, and Barack Obama, and Donald Trump, and the homeless person on the street in Mumbai, and the white supremacist in Oklahoma, and the undocumented worker in San Diego, and the accused terrorist in Guantanamo, and the person you love most in the world, and the person you hate most — how do we act in the world if we accept that we, all of us, have equal worth and dignity?

I struggle with this every day. There is a tension between the ideal of the First Principle and the reality of how I treat myself and others in everyday life… and recognizing that tension, and wrestling with it, is part of my spiritual practice.


So what’s wrong with the proposed alteration of the First Principle: The inherent worth and dignity of every being?

The proponents of the change themselves admit that it requires adopting some kind of sliding scale of worth and dignity. Does a chimpanzee have the same worth and dignity as a human? Does a dog? A mouse? A trout? A snail? A spider? A termite? Yeast? A virus? Unless you are prepared to let termites eat your house… unless you are prepared to forego antibiotics for yourself and for your loved ones; unless you are prepared to let your pets live with parasites in their bodies… unless you are willing to do these things, accepting this new proposed principle requires that you also accept that some beings have more worth and dignity than others.

What I object to in the proposed alteration of the First Principle is its unavoidable introduction of a sliding scale of worth and dignity.

The whole point of the First Principle is its equal application. Once you start saying that maybe some beings are less worthy than others, it becomes too easy to lose sight of the humanity of the accused terrorist, or the convicted criminal, or the person you hate. Or even of yourself, when you fall short of your own ideals.


In my view — and I think I am not alone in this — the First Principle calls us to live with a radical idea of spiritual equality. But we as a society are nowhere near living up to this call. Too often, we dehumanize — and sometimes demonize — others around us: the rich, the poor, the homeless, the disabled, Trump supporters, Hillary supporters, Bernie supporters. White supremacy keeps our society from valuing the lives of people of color as much as it values the lives of white people. We hear how many U.S. soldiers are killed in action during wartime, but our government does not even tally the number of enemy combatants and innocent civilians who are killed — so we come to believe that American lives are more important than non-American lives. And it is truly difficult for us to see God’s image in a person who has harmed us or our loved ones.

Because we are still so far from living up to the ideal of spiritual equality implicit in the First Principle, I think it is critical to keep equality in the principle: There should be no sliding scale where people are concerned.


What is my recommendation to delegates at General Assembly this year? I would say to vote no on the proposal to change the First Principle, because I don’t think the supporters of the change understand or appreciate the importance that many Unitarian Universalists place in the idea of human equality that is implicit in the current version of the First Principle.

And if the proposal passes, and the revised First Principle is sent to a study commission? At the very least, I would lobby the study commission to include words in their revision that would maintain the ideal of spiritual equality that is central to the current First Principle. For example, “The inherent worth and dignity of every being, and the equality of all persons” could do. But even that compromise is worse than what we already have, because it dilutes the central idea of equality.


Yes, we are all equal in the eyes of God. And we Unitarian Universalists should keep our First Principle in its present form, to honor this truth and to encourage ourselves to live up to it.

I will not be at General Assembly this year, but I would be happy to discuss these issues with delegates and with supporters of the First Principle Project. Feel free to present your thoughts in the comments, or to contact me directly.


  1. If a majority of the delegates agree to send the proposal to a study commission, a somewhat complicated procedure begins. In the usual order of things, the study commission would report back within two years with proposed wording for an amendment to the First Principle (which would not have to be identical to the one voted on this year). The study commission’s version would be placed on the agenda for the first General Assembly following the announcement of their proposal. The UUA Board of Trustees could also propose amendments to the study commission’s proposal at this time, and further amendments could be considered at General Assembly. If the possibly-amended proposal receives a majority vote at General Assembly, it would be placed on the agenda for the following year’s General Assembly for final approval, which requires a two-thirds vote. However, this process can be sidestepped: If four-fifths of the delegates at this year’s General Assembly so desire, the motion to change the First Principal will appear, unamended, on the agenda for the 2018 General Assembly for final approval. If you have really made it all the way to the end of this footnote, then you are probably the kind of person who would like to see the full details of the procedure, which are found in section C-15.1(c) of the UUA bylaws
  2. There are other related objections to changing the First Principle; the Reverend Theresa Ines Soto explains hers here
  3. I write this in the past tense not because there are no Universalists today — there are plenty of them! — but because the meaning of the term “Universalist” has changed over the years. For instance, I consider myself a humanist Universalist. I am not Christian — I’m not even a theist — and I don’t believe in Heaven, and yet I am still a Universalist. More on this later. 
  4. James Freeman Clark: On the positive doctrines of Christianity, The Monthly Journal of the American Unitarian Association 5 (1864), no. 2, pp. 5–64. 

What We’re Looking For

(A sermon delivered at Throop Unitarian Universalist Church in Pasadena, California on 28 May 2017. Copyright 2017 by Everett Howe.)


(This was my final sermon as the intern minister of Throop Church, and, as such, it focused on specifics of the church and on my own life more than is usual.)


I have climbed the highest mountains
I have run through the fields
Only to be with you
Only to be with you […]
But I still haven’t found what I’m looking for.

Our worship theme this month has been seeking, and when I started to think of what I would say in a sermon on this theme, one of the first things that came to mind was the song I just quoted, “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For,” by U2. This was the second track on their album The Joshua Tree, which was released thirty years ago, in March 1987.

But I still haven’t found what I’m looking for.

What am I looking for?

Thinking back on my own life at the time this album was released reminds me that “What am I looking for?” is just one of several questions we can ask of ourselves.

“What was I looking for?”

“What was I really looking for?”

“What did I get?”

And, “How did that change me? What did I start looking for next?”

For me, in March 1987 I was reaching the end of my first year of graduate school in mathematics. What I was looking for was education and training; I was hoping for a career as a professor at a research university. But what was I really looking for? What were the deeper longings underlying that particular career goal?

Well, I wanted to be able to spend time thinking clearly about complicated questions. I wanted to share the beauty of mathematics with other people. I wanted to help students learn — to connect with them.

These were the deeper longings that have been part of my life for many years.

What did I get?

After I graduated in 1993, I worked at the University of Michigan for a few years, teaching and doing research. When that three-year position was over, I moved on to my current job, doing mathematical research at a think tank in San Diego.

Of course, between then and now a few things came along that I didn’t know I was looking for. Bella and I met in 1989 and were married in 1994. Our children Cee and Robert were born in 1997 and 1999, and there’s no way I could have predicted the beautiful individuality they each have grown into.


What about you?

Think back on some formative time of your life. What were you looking for? When you look back, can you figure out what your deeper needs were? What you were really looking for?

This is a valuable exercise. I’d ask you to take some time this week to really consider some moments in your past, and, with the benefit of hindsight, see if you can figure out the things that were motivating you.

After you have experience looking this way at times in your past life, you can try moving on to the more difficult practice: Figuring out what your deepest desires are today.

In ministerial circles, the practice of figuring out what you really want — figuring out what life path to take, what important choices to make — that practice is called discernment.

You can take it to extremes: A few years ago, when I was trying to decide whether or not I wanted to enter seminary, I made a point of exercising my discernment muscles every morning when deciding what to have for breakfast. While I was making the coffee — because of course breakfast includes coffee, don’t be ridiculous, there’s nothing to discern there! — while I was making the coffee I would consider: “Do I want something on the sweet side, with fruit and granola? Or something on the savory side, with sautéed potatoes and greens? What do I really want?” It sounds silly, but getting practice deciding between those two choices helped me get better at making harder decisions. I learned how to tell when I wanted to eat potatoes and greens because it would taste good, and when I wanted to eat them because I felt a responsibility to clear out some leftovers.

A few years ago, some seminarians at Harvard made a funny video about what a seminarian’s life is like. One clip shows a student standing in the toilet paper aisle at the grocery store, saying to his friend offscreen:

I’ll be there in a minute — I’m just discerning whether to go with ultra-soft or ultra-strong.

But even though it may feel a little awkward or silly at first, I recommend this practice: Start by thinking of what you are looking for, and then try to figure out what you are really looking for.


What was I looking for when I arrived at Throop two years ago? On a superficial level, I was looking for a way to satisfy a requirement to be a fellowshipped Unitarian Universalist minister — every UU minister has to go through an internship of some kind.

On a deeper level, I wanted to find out what parish ministry was like. Was it something that would be satisfying? Was it something I could do reasonably well? Was it something that would encourage and support other people? Would it be a way that I could be useful?

And what did I find?

I found a community that has been willing to support me, that has been willing to trust me — a congregation that welcomed me as a minister, and church staff that welcomed me as a colleague. I found — here, with you — a community willing to share with me your joys, your struggles, your hopes, your frustrations, your victories.

For me, being here at Throop has been a transformative experience.


What about for you? What about for the people who come to visit Throop? What are people looking for when they come here?

Some people come looking for friendship and community.

Some people come looking for God.

Some people come looking for strength, or peace, or respite from a world of pain and injustice.

Some people come looking connection to things that are deeper than everyday life.

Some people come looking for knowledge, or wisdom.

Some people come looking for music.

What do people find when they get here? What do you find?


This is an interesting and critical time for Throop.

Many of the things you have been looking for, you have found!

You’ve called Rev. Tera as your settled minister… the first time that you’ve called a minister in more than 20 years.

You’ve committed to being a teaching congregation, training intern ministers who will go out and serve the wider UU community — and you’ve survived your first intern!

You have a regular children’s religious education program, so that parents with children can come to services and know that their kids will gain something from their time here.

You are taking care of critical aspects of this wonderful historic building. A committee is actively working on how to raise money to maintain these beautiful stained glass windows. The project to remodel the bathrooms is under way. Other basic maintanence is being taken care of.

Throop is known throughout the wider Pasadena community as being a hub for permaculture and for environmentalism… and the active “Thirty Days for the Earth” program is spreading that reputation even further.

You’ve had more and more members join, inspired by the energy here.


So, what next? You’ve found so many of the things you were looking for.

But what are you really looking for? What will you look for next?

I think it’s time for some discernment.

And my one parting piece of advice is this: I would suggest that you and your board of trustees create a mission statement for Throop Church. Not a long list of everything you would like and hope to be, but something short, focused, memorable, something that captures the essence of what you dream of becoming.

Then, when someone suggests a project that Throop could get involved with, you can stop and ask: Does this fit into our mission? Is this something we really want to do?

A few years ago Apple produced a short video about the philosophy behind their design process, which included a memorable phrase: “A thousand no’s for every yes.”

You want to say yes to the world. You want to say yes to the projects that will really further your goals. And you will need strength and self-knowledge to know when you have to say no. A mission statement will help you find that self-knowledge.


As I have been preparing to leave Throop, many of you have asked about my plans for the future. You should understand that I am a part-time student, so my future is coming very slowly. I still have about two years’ worth of classes before I finish seminary. And I still have to do a five-month part-time internship as a chaplain in a hospital, which I hope to do in the fall of 2018. But assuming everything goes smoothly, I will be an ordained and fellowshipped minister within the next three years.

I will be glad to keep you all informed of my progress in this. But, as I have mentioned elsewhere, the guidelines of the Unitarian Universalist Ministers Association say that for the next twelve months I should not have any intentional contact with you all. This will give you a chance to get to know your new intern minister as their own person; and it will give me the chance to experience one of the painful but necessary aspects of ministry: Saying good-bye.

I am so lucky to have been able to spend time here with you. I will carry this experience with me for the rest of my life. And after our year of separation, I hope to come back to visit, and to see how this church has thrived.

Bless you all. Thank you. And good-bye.


Image credit: Southern Sierras, Late Afternoon, copyright 2008 by Everett Howe.

I Believe in the Sun, Part IV: Conclusion

I believe in the sun even when it is not shining;
I believe in love even when feeling it not;
I believe in God even when he is silent.

— An inscription on the wall of a cellar in Cologne where a number of Jews hid themselves for the entire duration of the war.


In the first three posts of this series, I wrote about the complicated history of the “I believe in the sun” quotation and its provenance. As I related in the second post, the earliest printed reference I could find was from the July 13th, 1945 edition of the Quaker publication The Friend, from London, which gives a partial transcript (translated into English) of a German language BBC European Service radio show. A German P.O.W. held in England, and identified only as “Prisoner F. B.,” is quoted by The Friend as saying this:

In a shelter in Cologne, where young Catholics were keeping some Jews in hiding because their lives were threatened, American soldiers found the following inscription :

I believe in the sun—even when it is not shining.

I believe in God—even when He is silent.

I believe in love—even when it is not apparent.

Prisoner F. B. gives the sentence about God in the middle of the quotation. In the third post, I wrote about the earliest source I found that gives the sentence about God at the end. The English language version of this source is the 1947 book The Tiger Beneath the Skin, by Zvi Kolitz, in which the quotation appears as the epigraph of the short story “Yossel Rakover’s Appeal to God,” which later became a classic of Holocaust literature. The original Yiddish versions of the story appeared on September 25, 1946 in Di Yiddishe Tsaytung, a Jewish newspaper published in Buenos Aires. The “Yossel Rakover” version of the quotation is the one given at the top of this page.

In this final post, I’d like to address a few final questions.


What is the connection between Prisoner F. B.’s story and Kolitz’s story?

There are three likely possibilities: Either Prisoner F. B. and Zvi Kolitz each heard the story from some common source (with possibly some intermediate steps), or Kolitz heard the BBC broadcast in which Prisoner F. B. spoke, or Kolitz read the transcript of the show in The Friend or from a source that quoted The Friend. There is something to be said for all three of these, but if I had to choose one as being the most likely, I would say that Kolitz heard the BBC broadcast, just because that show would likely have had a much larger audience than The Friend.

Is the story behind the quotation true?

Did someone really write some version of the “I believe in the sun” quotation in a cellar or shelter in Cologne? Well, suppose that Zvi Kolitz did indeed hear this story via the BBC or The Friend. Then the only source we have for the quotation is Prisoner F. B. As I asked in part two, how would Prisoner F. B. have heard of this? And what psychological incentives might he have had for embellishing the story, or even for stating as fact something he had heard as fiction, or as rumor?

On my part, I would not be surprised to find out that the story is true, that somewhere in Cologne American soldiers found those words on a wall. On the other hand, I would also not be surprised to find out that Prisoner F. B. made the whole thing up for the sake of providing a memorable story that could help alleviate the guilt he may have been feeling as a self-professed Christian who fought in the German military for five years.

Where did some of the variant attributions of the quotation come from?

In the first post I wrote about some of the places that people claim the “I believe in the sun” quotation was found, and one location that comes up frequently is the Warsaw ghetto. I don’t think that it’s a coincidence that “Yossel Rakover’s Appeal to God” is set in the Warsaw ghetto. For some time “Yossel Rakover” was taken to be a true account, and it begins with the “I believe in the sun” quotation as an epigraph, so it’s possible that people ignored or forgot the epigraph’s statement that the quotation is from Cologne and instead set the quotation in Warsaw. Also, in the story, the narrator Yossel Rakover describes how his 10-year-old daughter slipped out of the ghetto to find food, and was chased down and killed by Nazis and Poles. This is echoed in the versions of the “I believe in the sun” story that tell of a young girl who escaped the ghetto and wrote the words in a cave.

Is it possible for us to tell this story with integrity?

Well, it’s much harder to do so now that you know the history, don’t you think? Maybe you should have taken my suggestion and looked away.

Here’s one problem to face. The version of the “I believe in the sun” quotation that many people seem to like best is the one that mentions God at the end. But that’s not what the earliest source says. So if you believe that Prisoner F. B. (and the BBC transcriber, and the Quaker translator) got the words right, then you cannot with integrity put the sentence with God at the end.

If, on the other hand, you take Zvi Kolitz’s version as being closer to the truth, then you face another problem, as I wrote about more extensively in part three: Kolitz undermined the whole sentiment of the “I believe in the sun” quotation in his piece “Yossel Rakover’s Appeal to God.” I don’t think that it is possible, with integrity, to take Kolitz as the source and to give the quotation, with the “cellar in Cologne” story, at face value.

So if you want to tell this story with integrity, I think there’s no way you can avoid giving some of its history. It’s not something you can just mention as a quick aside. I think it is still possible to use the story — as I did in this sermon — but it takes some time to set the context, and to not brush aside the complexities.

Why should we take all of this so seriously?

The Holocaust is serious business. This is not an area where it is good to blur the boundaries between what it is true and what is false. There are still groups of people who would like us to believe that the entire Holocaust is fiction; and there are other people who would like to try to pass off false stories as true. Out of respect for the millions who died, we should be scrupulous about the truth.

And the stories we tell do affect what people think. While researching the “I believe in the sun” story, I found an interesting citation. The book Mediating Peace: Reconciliation through Visual Art, Music and Film, edited by Sebastian Kim, Pauline Kollontai, and Sue Yore, contains an article by Sue Yore that considers art works created by undergraduate students at York St John University1. Yore writes of one student (“Student E”) that she

was aware that she did not have any personal and familiar [sic] connections to the Holocaust and therefore had no right according to Stephen Feinstein, director of the [Center] for Holocaust and Genocide Studies at the University of Minnesota to convey the memory of it. Nevertheless she stated that she ‘still felt emotionally connected’ because as she put it ‘as a human being, suffering is universal, and the Holocaust affects every human.’ […] The student justifies [the use of the image of a bright shining light] based on an inscription discovered on a wall in Cologne where Jews hid from Nazis […]

Our familiar quotation, with its themes that seem so attractive to Christians, inspired a student with no personal or familial connection to the Holocaust to ignore advice about misappropriation in order to convey her interpretation of the Holocaust. Whether or not you think Stephen Feinstein’s guidance is correct here, there is no question that the “I believe in the sun” story has influenced an ethical decision by Student E. What would Student E have thought if she had known that the quote was perhaps about love, rather than about God? What would she have thought had she read Zvi Kolitz’s story about Yossel Rakover?


There are mysteries whose resolutions we will never know — and yet time and again I have found that with persistence we can find greater understanding and get closer, perhaps, to the truth. It has been a long trail, beginning with wondering about the music notes to a moving choral piece, and taking us through London, Cologne, and Warsaw; through the BBC archives, through the microfilm depository at the Graduate Theological Union library in Berkeley, through interlibrary loan and AbeBooks2 and Google Books; and here we are, finally, with more knowledge, and perhaps a clearer idea of the questions that remain.

Thank you for joining me on this journey. And if you take one moral from these essays, let it be: For heaven’s sake, always cite your sources.


The posts in this series:
1. Look away
2. The Friend
3. The secrets of tigers
4. Conclusion


Cover image: Cropped image of the Stockholm Public Library, taken on May 17, 2002 by Flickr user Marcus Hansson and released under a Creative Commons license that allows for sharing and adaptation, with attribution. Original version here.


  1. Sue Yore, “‘Seeing Paradise in the Dust of the Streets’: A Reflection on Student Art Projects,” in Mediating Peace: Reconciliation through Visual Art, Music and Film, ed. Sebastian Kim et al. (Newcastle upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2015), 74–98. 
  2. Where I purchased a copy of The Tiger Beneath the Skin, with dust jacket intact. 

Everything Is Holy Now

(A sermon delivered at Throop Unitarian Universalist Church in Pasadena, California on 2 April 2017. Copyright 2017 by Everett Howe.)


Earlier in the service, we heard live performances of Peter Mayer’s song Holy Now and Susan Werner’s song May I Suggest. Here are YouTube videos of those songs:

Holy Now, performed by Peter Mayer:

May I Suggest, performed by Red Molly:


Endless trouble.

Endless trouble is what certain words can cause, especially in religious communities. The most famous example for modern-day Unitarian Universalists is the word God, but there are other contenders too, like prayer, and the holy.

Coincidentally, the worship theme at Throop Church for the month of April is “The Holy.” Let’s see how much trouble we can get into!

Part of the problem with all of these words is that they mean different things to different people. For example, some people might think of God as a God with whom one can have a personal relationship, a God who answers prayers, a God who forgives sins. Others might think of God more abstractly; they might think, for example, that God is the “absolute infinite.” Some might think of gods in the plural, with a lower-case g. And some might prefer Paul Tillich’s idea of God as the “ground of being.”

So it’s no wonder that it’s hard to have a conversation about God; people are literally using the same word to talk about different things.

There are similar problems with the word holy, and one of the reasons why I like Peter Mayer’s song Holy Now, which we heard earlier, is that it is about how his understanding of the word holy has changed over the course of his life.

One definition is that something is holy if it comes from God, or is approved by God, or has some divine quality. Of course, that leads us right back to the problem of agreeing on what God is! But there’s a second definition that I personally find much easier to handle:

Something is holy if we respond to it with veneration and reverence.

With this understanding of the word, it’s easy to tell if someone believes something to be holy: Do they treat it with respect, and with reverence?

And the beauty of thinking about holiness in this way is that more and more of your life can be holy; things become holy if you treat them with reverence. And this is Mayer’s song. When he was a boy, holiness was something that came from God, that came from the church: holy water to dip his fingers in, a morsel of consecrated bread, a sip of consecrated wine. But now, he sings, everything is holy: a child’s face, the new morning, a red-winged bird. He says that he walks through the world with a reverent air because everything is holy now, but I wonder… has he reversed cause and effect? Maybe everything is holy now, because he walks through the world with a reverent air.


This conception of holiness suggests a spiritual practice. Throughout the day, remind yourself to pause; to perceive where you are, and what is around you; and treat it with reverence.

For instance, right now — let’s pause.

See the light coming through our windows.

Listen. Sense the vast space of air above you. Can you hear how it affects sounds?

Feel the presence of all that is around you, the life in this room.

Remain present here and now, but at the same time, feel a sense of all the paths that have led people here today… how all of our lives have converged here, now… threads of consciousness, brought together at this moment, and this place…

Feel how this moment is holy.


This sense of holiness, these holy moments are what Susan Werner’s song May I Suggest is about.

There is a world
That’s been addressed to you
Addressed to you, intended only for your eyes
A secret world
Like a treasure chest to you
Of private scenes and brilliant dreams that mesmerise
A lover’s trusting smile
A tiny baby’s hands
The million stars that fill the turning sky at night

All of the things that you have seen, all of the things that you have heard, all of the things that you have felt, all of the things that you have thought — they make up your own secret treasure chest of holy experiences, known only to you because you are the only one to have experienced them. By pausing and observing, by being present, you can add more to that treasure chest.


A few years ago, as part of a project for a world religions class, I attended Saturday services at the Zen Center of San Diego. I arrived at the Center much earlier than I had planned, because the Saturday morning traffic was much better than I had allowed for. The Zen Center is a large house in a residential neighborhood, and when I arrived, I walked around to the main entrance in the back yard. There was only one person there at that hour, and he was busy sweeping the back patio and the adjoining paths. I offered to help, and he handed me a broom.

As you may know, sweeping is an established form of Zen practice. So I thought to myself, “Huh! Here I am, at the Zen Center, with a broom. I guess I had better be mindful.” And so I was. As I swept, I paid attention to the walkway, to the leaves on the walkway, to the plants that brushed past me, to the trail of ants that I avoided sweeping up, to the whsshh! whsssh! of the broom as it brushed against the brick path. My mind did wander from time to time, but I returned my focus to my task and to all that was around me on that cool morning, all that was around me on the brick path through the garden.

And you know what? The time that I spent sweeping the walkway turned out to be the part of my visit that I remember best. I can still envision the walkway, the broom, the leaves, the grass. Because of the attention I paid, an ordinary task became part of the secret world of private scenes that Susan Werner sings of in her song.


It is not just Buddhism that encourages us to focus on the present. Other faiths have traditions of meditation as well, and researchers on human behavior have tried to make connections between paying attention and being happy.

In the sermon I delivered here in January, I mentioned how researchers at Harvard developed what must be the most annoying iPhone app ever. Their app interrupts you at random moments throughout your day and asks you a series of questions. The questions include:

How are you feeling right now?
What are you doing right now?
Are you thinking about something other than what you are currently doing?

The researchers found that people’s minds wander a lot — nearly half the time, in fact. They also found that people are less happy if they are not focussing on what they are doing. Even if you are doing something unpleasant, and your mind is wandering to something nice — even then, you’ll be less happy, on average, than if you were paying attention to what you are doing.

So, does a wandering mind cause unhappiness? Or maybe it’s that when you are unhappy, your mind is more likely to wander. The researchers considered this question, and by comparing each person’s responses throughout the course of the day, they found strong statistical evidence that in fact it is the wandering mind that creates the unhappiness, and not the other way around.

If you pay attention to what you are doing, you will likely be more happy, and you may find more holiness around you than you expect.


The two songs we heard today — Peter Mayer’s Holy Now and Susan Werner’s May I Suggest — both bring out this idea of a holiness that is everywhere we look. It turns out there’s a connection between that conception of holiness and the ideas about God that were expressed by one of our Unitarian ancestors, William Ellery Channing.

In 1828, Channing delivered a sermon in which he discussed his conception of God. Channing argued that we humans discover the nature of God by looking within, by observing our own souls. Channing wrote that “the idea of God, sublime and awful as it is, is the idea of our own spiritual nature, purified and enlarged to infinity.”

Channing knew that people might object to this; he knew that people might argue that we get our ideas of God not just from our own souls, but also from seeing God’s influence throughout everything we see and experience. Channing wrote:

The universe, I know, is full of God. […] [T]he effects and signs of [God’s] power, wisdom, and goodness, are apparent through the whole creation. But apparent to what? Not to the outward eye, […] but to a kindred mind, which interprets the universe by itself. […] We see God around us, because he dwells within us. It is by a kindred wisdom, that we discern his wisdom in his works.

So Channing acknowledges that there is evidence of God throughout all of creation, in the same way that Peter Mayer says that everything is holy; but Channing also says that we only comprehend this holiness because of God’s image within ourselves. This private comprehension of holiness connects with Susan Werner’s “secret world” addressed to us; just as we make things holy by treating them with reverence, Channing says that we only see the evidence of God around us because of the presence of the Divine within us.


When we are facing pain or oppression, or when we confront evil in the world, the belief that “everything is holy,” or that “everything can be made holy,” can seem hopelessly naïve. How can we reconcile this theology with the existence of pain, and oppression, and evil? Let’s think about this by looking at a situation where holiness seemed very far away.


In the late spring or early summer of 1945, just as World War II was ending in Europe, the British Broadcasting Corporation’s European Service broadcast some interviews with German soldiers who had been captured by the Allied forces.1 One of these German prisoners of war talked about his Christian faith and his unhappiness with what the National Socialists had done. He ends by telling a story which has since been repeated, and retold, and embellished over the years. The story, as he told it, is this:

In a shelter in Cologne, where young Catholics were keeping some Jews in hiding because their lives were threatened, American soldiers found the following inscription:

I believe in the sun — even when it is not shining.
I believe in God — even when He is silent.
I believe in love — even when it is not apparent.

How do these words, and the story told about them… how do they fit into the idea of holiness everywhere?

For some theists, the answer might be that underneath everything, God is still present. God may be silent, and human evil may have temporarily obscured the Divine, but God is still there. The words in the shelter are words of faith that God is never entirely gone, and that the Divine will reappear eventually.

I believe in the sun, even when it is not shining.
I believe in God, even when [God] is silent.
I believe in love, even when it is not apparent.

There are other ways of finding holiness in these words and the story behind them. In 1946, a Lithuanian-born Jew named Zvi Kolitz published a short story in a Yiddish newspaper in Buenos Aires.2 The story uses the “I believe in the sun” quotation as its epigraph; but it complicates and transforms the image. Kolitz’s story is in the form of an imaginary note, hidden in a bottle and found in the rubble of the Warsaw ghetto. Kolitz’s imagined note is written by a Jew who fought fiercely with his comrades against the Nazis who were destroying the ghetto. Kolitz’s narrator tells of his friends and his family dying; he tells of the Germans he has killed; he tells of how he himself will soon be killed. And he does tell of his belief in God; but, more, he tells of his argument with God, of his complaint to a God who would permit such destruction.

In Kolitz’s story, belief in God is not the point. For Kolitz’s narrator, the holy lies in his identity as a Jew, in the traditions and history of his faith. “I love God,” he says, “but I love God’s Torah more.” So here we find another version of the holy: Being true to one’s self, being true to one’s community, being true to a tradition.

I believe in the sun, even when it is not shining.
I believe in God, even when [God] is silent.
I believe in love, even when it is not apparent.

As a humanist, I see another way of finding the holy in these stories. The German POW tells of words inscribed in a shelter. Zvi Kolitz’s narrator leaves his testament of faith in a bottle, for others to find. Both of these stories have this common thread: a message left for the future.

For a humanist faced with bleakness and oppression and the likelihood of death, the answer might be that while there is no holiness right now, I can have faith that one day I will see it again; and if I do not survive, then one day someone else will come who will see hope, and who will create holiness — and who will recognize that I had been here; someone in the future will empathize with the present me, will honor my struggle, and will create holiness in that way.

In this view, the holy lies in reaching out, in finding common humanity. This is the holiness that we all can feel, even when we are suffering, when a friend is there to be with us.

I believe in the sun, even when it is not shining.
I believe in God, even when [God] is silent.
I believe in love, even when it is not apparent.


Whether you are a humanist, or a theist, or both, or neither…

Whether you believe the holy comes from God, or from reverent attention…

Whether you meditate, or pray, or find peace some other way…

I invite you to notice the holy around you — the holy amidst us all. Alone, or with others — The reverence with which you treat the world will enrich your life and may give hope where there had been none before.

Today, tomorrow, this week, this month… Remind yourself to pause.

Be present; find the holiness around you; and consider, that this moment, and this moment, can be the best part of your life.

Blessed be. Amen.


Cover image:
Public domain image from Pixabay.com, uploaded by user Patrick Neufelder. Original here.


  1. A partial transcript of the broadcast was published in the Quaker magazine The Friend in London. You can read about this here
  2. You can read more about the history of Kolitz’s story here

I Believe in the Sun, Part III: The Secrets of Tigers

I believe in the sun even when it is not shining;
I believe in love even when feeling it not;
I believe in God even when he is silent.

— An inscription on the wall of a cellar in Cologne where a number of Jews hid themselves for the entire duration of the war.


Many people have found inspiration in this quotation and the story behind it, and have passed it along, sometimes with embellishments. In the first two posts in this series, I wrote about the embellishments, and tracked down what seems to be the earliest written source for the quotation — a source that gives the words in a different order, with a different meaning. If you have thought about using this quotation yourself, I hope you are considering now how best to be true to its history; and I hope that you might also share my discomfort about how often this story about Jews in the Holocaust has been used specifically by Christians to support their own faith — and not so much by Jews, to support theirs.

So when I tell you now that the quotation, exactly as given above,1 is given on page 81 of The Tiger Beneath the Skin, a collection of stories published in 1947 by a Jewish Zionist named Zvi Kolitz,2 perhaps you will feel some relief. There’s an early source, written by a Jew, with the words in the familiar order! We can lay aside our concerns, and go ahead and use the quotation as it is given above, with no qualms!

Or we can look more closely.


Zvi Kolitz was born in the little town of Alytus, Lithuania. In the 1930s he went to Italy for school, and by 1940 he had moved to Jerusalem.3 Kolitz was part of Zabotinsky’s Zionist Revisionist movement, as well as a member of the paramilitary Irgun, which was devoted to ejecting the British from Palestine. He was imprisoned by the British a couple of times, and yet he also joined the British Army in 1942 and served as the Chief Recruiting Officer for the British Army in Jerusalem, to help build up the forces fighting against Germany.

After the war, he traveled widely, representing the Zionist Revisionists (officially) and the Irgun (secretly). As an emissary of the Zionist World Congress, he traveled to Argentina in 1946, and later to Mexico and the United States.


In 1947, Kolitz published The Tiger Beneath the Skin, the collection of short stories mentioned above. The book is a powerful document of its time, a reaction to the horrors of the Holocaust, filled with rage, and sorrow, and dreams of mystical vengeance.

In “The Curse of the Rabbi of Rytzk,”4 a blind rabbi curses the German soldier who is about to kill him as he sits at prayer in his home. “Know then that it has been decreed from Heaven that you will not fall like a soldier in battle, but as a hunted criminal after the war shall have ended in your defeat. Your death will be delayed by Heaven so that you may live to witness the vengeance of the God of Vengeance on the evildoers of the earth. […] Your comrades […] will not know that God is preserving you only in order to avenge Himself on you […]” The soldier succeeds in his future battles, but he is haunted by a vision of the blind rabbi’s eye, filled with blood. He risks his life unnecessarily while fighting, and even tries to kill himself, but he always survives, and is driven mad by the constant vision of the rabbi’s eye. He escapes from the asylum where he had been placed and flees into a deep Russian forest, where, for a long time afterwards, Russian peasants tell of seeing a man walking on all fours, screaming horribly day and night.

In “The Legend of the Dead Poppy,”5 a mother and daughter are imprisoned in Treblinka. The daughter, 14 years old, is caught trying to escape, and is thrown alive into the camp oven. The daughter’s ash and bone is crushed with the remains of others and used as fertilizer for the fields of poppies surrounding the camp, and the mother believes she will be able to find the flowers that contain the soul of her daughter. She creeps through a wide spot in the electrified fence one night and wanders the fields, until she finds two poppies on one stem that look to her like her daughter’s eyes. She lies down with the flowers until morning, when the guards find her and drag her back to the camp, still holding the double-stemmed poppy. She, and the flowers, are thrown together into the oven. A few days later, when the Nazis pick poppies from the fields to decorate the tables at a celebration of Hitler’s birthday, the water in the vases turns blood red.

There are more stories in the book, as simple and as intense as these two. They are not gentle. They are not resigned. They echo the epigraph that Kolitz chose for the book, the epigraph that gives the book its title:

… For we are tired of bearing our sadness alone
And the secrets of tigers under the skin of a lamb.
—Ury Zvi Greenberg


Most of the stories from The Tiger Beneath the Skin have been forgotten, but one of them has become a classic of Holocaust fiction and has taken on a life of its own: “Yossel Rakover’s Appeal to God.”6

“Yossel Rakover” begins with its own epigraph: the “I believe in the sun” quotation, as given at the top of this page. But in contrast to the quiet, patient, passive faith suggested by the epigraph, “Yossel Rakover” tells a story of violent struggle, armed resistance, and argumentative faith. The story uses a framing device: It begins,

In the ruins of the ghetto of Warsaw, among heaps of charred rubbish, there was found, packed tightly into a small bottle, the following testament, written during the ghetto’s last hours by a Jew name Yossel Rakover.

Yossel Rakover is leaving a note for the future, telling the story of the final hours of the ghetto before the Nazis completely destroy it, and telling of his own imagined argument with God. He begins by describing how his wife and six children have all died by violence or disease, as they fled the countryside, came to Warsaw, and struggled to survive in the ghetto. He and a band of compatriots are in one of the last houses standing, and they have been fighting the German forces for days, with guns and Molotov cocktails. The house is crumbling, most of his friends have been killed, and Yossel Rakover is preparing for his own death: He has three bottles of gasoline, two of which he will use to kill Germans, and one he will soak himself with, so that when the Germans finally attack he will die quickly. Yossel Rakover believes in God, there is no question about that — but he questions God’s silence, and he wonders at how great God’s patience must be to allow the destruction of His people without interfering. Yossel Rakover argues with God, questions Him, accuses Him, and does not excuse Him. Yossel Rakover writes,

I die peacefully, but not complacently; persecuted, but not enslaved; embittered, but not cynical; a believer, but not a supplicant; a lover of God, but not blind amen-sayer of His.

And he closes with the words of Psalm 31:5 — Into your hands, O Lord, I consign my soul — which were also, according to the Gospel of Luke, Jesus’s last words on the cross.


So yes, it is true: One can find the “I believe in the sun” quotation in Zvi Kolitz’s book. But to think that they summarize “Yossel Rakover’s Appeal to God” is to misread the story. “Yossel Rakover” undermines those words, and tells of a different kind of faith. “Yossel Rakover” is the tiger’s secret; “I believe in the sun” is the skin of the lamb.7


Before closing this installment, I should briefly say something about the amazing history8 of the story “Yossel Rakover’s Appeal to God.” Zvi Kolitz wrote the piece in Yiddish, and it first appeared (as “Yosl Rakovers vendung tsu got”) in the September 25, 1946 issue of Di Yiddishe Tsaytung, a newspaper serving the large Jewish community in Buenos Aires. Kolitz wrote the story when he was in Argentina in 1946; the editor of the newspaper invited him to contribute something to the paper to help commemorate the upcoming Yom Kippur observances.

The English version of the story that appeared in The Tiger Beneath the Skin was translated from the Yiddish original by Shmuel Katz9, who edited out some short passages whose theology he may not have agreed with. This 1947 translation apparently did not have much influence in literary society. However, in 1953 an anonymous Argentinian Jew sent a typewritten transcription of “Yosl Rakovers vendung tsu got” — without Zvi Kolitz’s name attached, and without any indication that the work was fictional — to the editor of a European Yiddish quarterly publication called Di Goldene Keyt. The story was published, but now it was taken to be fact, not fiction. It was widely spread, read over the radio in Germany, and discussed by public scholars, including Thomas Mann.

It took nearly 40 years for it to be firmly established once again that the piece was not an accounting of actual events, and was in fact written by Zvi Kolitz.

At present there are at least two English translations of the complete original text from Di Yiddishe Tsaytung. One, by Jeffry V. Mallow and Frans Jozef van Beeck, appears in the CrossCurrents paper listed in the bibliography below. The other, by Carol Brown Janeway, appears in the short book Yosl Rakover Talks to God10, and can also be found online here.

I highly recommend reading one of these translations. The story is compelling, and it will change your perception of the “I believe in the sun” quotation that this series of posts is devoted to.


The posts in this series:
1. Look away
2. The Friend
3. The secrets of tigers
4. Conclusion


Cover image:
Public domain image from Pixabay.com, uploaded by user Marcel Langthim. Original here.


Bibliography:

Kolitz, Zvi. The Tiger Beneath the Skin: Stories and Parables of the Years of Death. New York: Creative Age Press, 1947.

Kolitz, Zvi. Yosl Rakover Talks to God. Translated by Carol Brown Janeway; from the edition established by Paul Badde; with afterwords by Emmanuel Levinas and Leon Wieseltier. New York: Pantheon Books, 1999.

Kolitz, Zvi, Jeffry V. Mallow, and Frans Jozef van Beeck. “Yossel Rakover’s Appeal to God: A Story Written Especially for Di Yiddishe Tsaytung.CrossCurrents 44, no. 3 (1994): 362–377.


  1. Except that where I have put semicolons, the original had commas. 
  2. Zvi Kolitz, The Tiger Beneath the Skin: Stories and Parables of the Years of Death (New York: Creative Age Press, 1947). 
  3. My source for this bibliographic information is the essay by Paul Badde in the 1999 edition of Yosl Rakover Talks to God, listed in the bibliography. I am not sure how accurate Paul Badde is. He gives Kolitz’s birth year as 1919, while the Library of Congress information at the front of the book gives Kolitz’s birth year as 1913, and Kolitz’s obituary in the Los Angeles Times says that he was 89 years old when he died in 2002. This all seems in line with the confusion that surrounds the history of “Yosl Rakover.” 
  4. Kolitz, The Tiger Beneath the Skin, 1–14. 
  5. Kolitz, The Tiger Beneath the Skin, 61–68. 
  6. Kolitz, The Tiger Beneath the Skin, 81–95. 
  7. Thank you, Bella. 
  8. This history is gleaned from the 1994 CrossCurrents paper listed in the bibliography. It’s also outlined in Paul Badde’s essay, but the CrossCurrents accounting is easier to follow. 
  9. Zvi Kolitz, Jeffry V. Mallow, and Frans Jozef van Beeck, “Yossel Rakover’s Appeal to God: A Story Written Especially for Di Yiddishe Tsaytung,” CrossCurrents 44, no. 3: 374. 
  10. Zvi Kolitz, Yosl Rakover Talks to God, translated by Carol Brown Janeway (New York: Pantheon Books, 1999), 3–25. 

I Believe in the Sun, Part II: The Friend

I believe in the sun even when it is not shining;
I believe in love even when feeling it not;
I believe in God even when he is silent.

— An inscription on the wall of a cellar in Cologne where a number of Jews hid themselves for the entire duration of the war.


In the first of this series of posts, I wrote about the many different ways the quotation above has been attributed. In this second post, I will tell part of the story of my investigation into the origin of the quotation.

If you search for this quotation using Google Books and look for older results, you will notice some variation in its wording. In the line about love, for example, you will find these three versions:

  • I believe in love even when it is not apparent.
  • I believe in love even when feeling it not.
  • I believe in love even when I don’t feel it.

The first of these is the oldest, and in this post I will explore its origin. I’ll recount the history of the other two versions in the next post in this series.


Sometime in the late spring of 1945, the European Service of the British Broadcasting Corporation aired a German-language radio show that included interviews with German prisoners of war being held in England.1 The BBC released a transcript of that radio show, and one copy was given to Bertha L. Bracey, a Quaker educator and relief worker. Bracey translated the transcript from German into English, and on July 13th, 1945 a portion of the translation appeared on pages 453–455 of The Friend, a weekly magazine published by the Society of Friends in London.

The BBC broadcast focused on the reaction of German Christians to their county’s defeat in the war. One P.O.W., identified only as “Prisoner F. B.”, is quoted as saying the following:

Christianity became the content of my youth in time of peace. The wrongness and hollowness of National Socialism were clear to me in spite of its seeming triumph. Christ remained for me Lord of our days. I did not stand alone in this conviction. I found a youth community which did not consist of unworldly cranks, but had the courage in school, profession and youth organisation with Christian principles to swim against the tide of National Socialism. Many of us went into concentration camps in consequence. More than once was I myself brought up before Gestapo.

Even my five years as a soldier have not been able to shake my resolution but have only deepened and strengthened it. Mountainous difficulties tower up before us, and no amount of goodwill will be able to surmount them, unless this good will is borne up by pure love of our fellowmen and true faith in God.

In a shelter in Cologne, where young Catholics were keeping some Jews in hiding because their lives were threatened, American soldiers found the following inscription :

I believe in the sun—even when it is not shining.

I believe in God—even when He is silent.

I believe in love—even when it is not apparent.

This inscription is only one of those signs which give us cause to believe that Faith and humanity have not died.


This is the earliest published example of the “I believe in the sun” quotation that I have been able to find,2 and since it appeared only four months after the liberation of Cologne, it’s not unlikely that it is the first appearance of the quotation in print. This version of the quotation appeared in number of places over the next 10 or 15 years, before being eclipsed by another version. For example, the Gospel Messenger, published in Elgin, Illinois by the Church of the Brethren, quotes The Friend in their February 15, 1946 issue, as follows:

Found in a cellar in Cologne where German Roman Catholics had been sheltering some Jews

I believe in the sun, even when it is not shining.
I believe in God, even when He is silent.
I believe in love, even when it is not apparent.

—From The Friend

The AFSERCO News, a publication of the American Friends Service Committee in Philadelphia, gives the same quotation3, identical except for punctuation and slightly more detail in the attribution: “— From The Friend, London.” I was able to find a few other occurrences of this version of the quotation in sources from the 1950s, sometimes with the “cellar in Cologne” story, sometimes without.


What are some of the issues brought up by the article in The Friend?

One observation is that the quotation is significantly different from what is commonly given today. First of all, most of the versions you see after the 1950s say either “I believe in love even when feeling it not” or “[…] even when I don’t feel it” — the variation given here, “[…] even when it is not apparent,” is unusual. But that change in wording is a minor thing compared to the order of the three sentences of the quotation. The quotation in The Friend speaks of the sun, of God, and of love, but all of the more recent versions of the quotation speak of the sun, of love, and of God.4 Changing the order of the three sentences in the quotation completely alters their meaning, because, rhetorically, the first two provide evidence or motivation to support the third. The quotation as commonly given today encourages us to believe in God, just as we believe in the sun and in love. The quotation from The Friend encourages us to believe in love, just as we believe in the sun and in God. We are asked to have faith in humanity, justified by our faith in God, instead of the other way around.

A second issue brought up by the the story in The Friend is the question of how Prisoner F. B. had heard of the story in the first place. How did the story get from the American soldiers in Cologne to a prisoner of war in England? There must have been several links in the chain, each offering an opportunity for garbling or embellishment. As we saw in Part I, retellings of this story have tended to add details that fit in with the teller’s preconceived notions and stereotypes.

Finally, we should ask ourselves what Prisoner F. B.’s motivations were for telling the story. He was a self-professed Christian. He says that the friends of his youth pushed against the tide of Nazism, and that many of them wound up in concentration camps. But he wound up in the German military, and spent five years as a soldier. Here, at the end of the war, with his country defeated and the horrors of the Nazi regime coming to light, what might he have thought about the friends whose religious beliefs had led them to resist, at great personal cost? Did he regret not having joined them? What might he have thought about his own contribution to the German war machine? Would it have been comforting to him to think of Jews escaping from Nazi persecution? Would it have been comforting to him to think of Jews being protected by Christians? Would it have been comforting to him to think of Jews maintaining faith in God and in love, despite all the harm done to them by the government that he had supported with his actions?

And what would the answers to those questions tell us about how Prisoner F. B. might have — consciously or unconsciously — modified the story?

Of course, there’s no way to know the answers to these questions. But I feel we have to ask them, and wrestle with them, if we want to use the “I believe in the sun” quotation and the story behind it.


If we believe the story as told by Prisoner F. B., and if we want to honor the memory of the anonymous Jew in the cellar who wrote the words, then I feel we are obligated to report the quotation as Prisoner F. B. gives it, with its conclusion not about God, but about love:

I believe in the sun, even when it is not shining.
I believe in God, even when He is silent.
I believe in love, even when it is not apparent.

If we take the history I have described as the origin of the quotation, we have no business changing the words.


But there is another source of the quotation, a source that gives the sentences with God at the end, rather than love. It comes more than a year after the story in The Friend, and in a Jewish context rather than a Christian one, but it introduces some further problems of interpretation. This source will be the subject of the next post in this series.


The posts in this series:
1. Look away
2. The Friend
3. The secrets of tigers
4. Conclusion


Cover image: “The Cologne cathedral stands tall amidst the ruins of the city after Allied bombings, 1944,” found here. I have been unable to find the original source for this photograph, and I do not know its copyright status.


  1. I don’t know the date of the broadcast, but (as we shall see) it must have been after the liberation of Cologne on March 5th and 6th, and before the publication of the show’s transcript on July 13th. 
  2. Issues of The Friend from the 1940s are not available online. I found the article that included the partial transcript of the BBC broadcast after spending an afternoon in the library of the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, skimming through the 1945 issues of The Friend on microfilm. Citations given by the Gospel Messenger and the AFSERCO News, which I had found earlier in online searches, led me to believe that searching through back issues of The Friend would be fruitful. 
  3. Visible in these two snippets
  4. One oddball version, from the Journal of the Canadian Dental Association in 1951, speaks of God, love, and the sun, in that order. 

I Believe in the Sun, Part I: Look Away

I believe in the sun even when it is not shining;
I believe in love even when feeling it not;
I believe in God even when he is silent.

— An inscription on the wall of a cellar in Cologne where a number of Jews hid themselves for the entire duration of the war.


I first saw a version of this quotation, with its remarkable attribution, in the program notes accompanying a performance of a choral work that uses the words as its text: Mark Miller’s choir-plus-piano piece “I Believe.” Here’s a video of a good performance of it.

Miller’s piece is beautiful, a moving expression of the quotation’s powerful statement of faith proclaimed in a time of despair. And the story behind the words certainly strengthens the emotional effect of the music.

A year or so later, I attended a workshop on designing effective worship. The workshop leader mentioned in passing that she had featured Mark Miller’s piece in one of her church’s Advent services. That’s when I first had a feeling that something was a little off. Here we have a story about a Jew’s faith while waiting out the Holocaust in a basement… Was it really appropriate to use this story during Advent, the time when Christians are waiting for the arrival of Christ? It felt to me that even though the identity of the author of those words is unknown, we should still respect their suffering, honor their story, and imagine what their wishes might be. Or is that being too scrupulous?


I’m a strong believer in attribution, and in understanding the context in which words were originally written or spoken. But with a story like this one — words found in the aftermath of war — it’s almost certain that there is no documentary evidence that can give us a better idea of the circumstances of the origin of the quotation.

Almost certain.

I decided to see what I could find.


This post is the first in a series of four, in which I will tell you what I have learned. In this first post, I will describe the carelessness with which people have treated the story behind the “I believe in the sun” quotation, and the uncomfortable place that that carelessness leads to.

Not surprisingly, the quotation is most often used in religious or inspirational material, so the second post in the series will discuss the Christian history of the words and the story behind them. I found what is likely the earliest printed source of the quotation, but this source points back even further in a tantalizing direction. Furthermore, this early Christian telling complicates matters, because the version of the words on the wall that it gives is different, in an important way, from the quotation as I gave it above.

The third post will focus on the amazing history of the first written telling of the story in a Jewish context: as an epigraph to a work of Holocaust fiction that first appeared in a Yiddish newspaper in Buenos Aires in 1946. This early Jewish telling also complicates matters, because the short story to which the quotation is attached completely undermines the apparent message of the quotation.

The fourth and final post will talk about how we might still use these words, given what we will have learned about them — and why it is important to care about how we use them.


Before we dive in, let me explain the subtitle of this post: “Look away.” This year, Netflix released an adaptation of A Series of Unfortunate Events, the book series by Lemony Snicket nominally written for children. The opening credits of each episode are accompanied by a song that encourages the viewer to look away, because the story will not be a happy one. I feel as though I should give a similar warning: If you like the words and music whose history I will be tracing, and if you would like to keep an uncomplicated view of them, look away. As Thomas Gray writes: where ignorance is bliss, ’tis folly to be wise.

But if you are willing to look, let’s begin.


When I began to search online for more information about the “I believe in the sun” quotation and the story behind it, I found something striking: There are several different versions of the story. The cellar in Cologne is sometimes the setting, but the details, and the city, and even the time period change from telling to telling.

The televangelist Robert H. Schuller, in his book The Be Happy Attitudes (1997)1, neglects to mention a city when writes that “[s]crawled in the basement of a German home was a Star of David next to these words […]”

Many sources speak of the wartime cellar in Cologne, but add that the Jews were being sheltered there by Roman Catholics. In some sources, the friendly shelter is transformed into something darker. For instance, David Adam, in the introduction to Clouds and Glory: Prayers for the Church Year, Year A (2001), writes: “It was a Jew, but I know it could only be a person of prayer, who wrote the following on the wall of a prison cell in Cologne as they awaited persecution or death […]” Michael Mayne, too, in the third sermon in God’s Consoling Love: Sermons and Addresses (2013), writes that the words were “written by a Jewish prisoner on a wall in a prison in Cologne.”

Once the cellar has turned into a prison, there is no need to keep it in Cologne. Tim Baker, in Jesus Is for Liars: A Hypocrite’s Guide to Authenticity (2009), writes of “the Jewish prisoner who wrote these words on the wall of his Auschwitz prison camp” (p. 146). Likewise, Monsignor William McCarthy, in The Conspiracy: An Innocent Priest (2010), writes that the words were “[on] one of the walls of the concentration camp of Auschwitz, Poland” (p. 267).

At some point, some tellers of the story must have thought it would be more effective to replace the anonymous writer of the quotation with someone that everyone has heard of. Lenya Heitzig and Penny Pierce Rose, the authors of Pathway to Living Faith (2002), go so far as to attribute the quotation to Anne Frank (p. 263).

Still others move the time period forward nearly half a century. Peter Sidebotham, in Growing Up to Be a Child (2014), notes that the words were “allegedly found somewhere in Germany after the fall of the Berlin Wall” (p. 65). The source Mr. Sidebotham cites for this is www.searchquotes.com.

Rev. Gerald Kennedy, formerly the United Methodist bishop of Los Angeles, is responsible for spreading a particularly irresponsible version of the story. On page 56 of the December 1970 issue of Pulpit Digest, he writes2:

A young Jewish girl in the Warsaw ghetto managed to escape over the wall and hide in a cave. She died there shortly before the Allied Army broke out the ghetto. Before she died, she had scratched on the wall three things. First: “I believe in the sun, even when it is not shining.” The second thing she wrote was: “I believe in love, even when feeling it not.” The third thing she wrote was: “I believe in God, even when he is silent.”

I hate to break it to Rev. Kennedy, because it makes his story slightly less poignant, but the Allied Army never liberated the Warsaw ghetto. Hundreds of thousands of Jews from the ghetto had already been shipped to the Treblinka death camp by the time the ghetto was completely destroyed by the Nazis in April and May of 1943. The final destruction was delayed by heroic resistance, but in the end more than 56 thousand Jews who were present at the final battle were either killed on the spot or sent to concentration camps.

The seed cast by Rev. Kennedy fell on fertile ground. Lightly modified, the Pulpit Digest version of the story appears on page 74 of Stephen W. Plunkett’s This We Believe: Eight Truths Presbyterians Affirm (2002); on page 279 of Holman Old Testament Commentary Volume 10 – Job (2004), written by Steven Lawson and edited by Max Anders; in chapter 33 of Maxie Dunnam’s3 The Grace-Filled Life: 52 Devotions to Warm Your Heart and Guide Your Path (2010); and in chapter 10 of Dr. David Jeremiah’s The Coming Economic Armageddon: What Bible Prophecy Warns about the New Global Economy (2010).

And at the beginning of Chapter 4 of E. Carver McGriff’s book Hope for Tomorrow: What Jesus Would Say Today (1999), we find the logical endpoint of this game of telephone:

I believe in the sun, even when it is not shining.
I believe in love, even when feeling it not.
I believe in God, even when he is silent.

— Words scratched on the wall of a cave, next to the body of a Jewish girl who had escaped the Warsaw ghetto.


In this relentless progression, we see an ugly aspect of the urge in Christians to retell this story. The words of faith start out as something written by a Jew who survives the war by hiding in a cellar. But apparently the story becomes stronger and the words more significant if we can say that the Jew who wrote the words died in the war — so the story is retold, and now we find the words in a prison cell, or in Auschwitz. But it’s not good enough to have the reader imagine who this Jew might be — after all, we might imagine someone who complicates the story — so next we find out that the author was a girl — an innocent young girl. (One version even specifies that she is 12.) But the story would tug at our hearts even more if the girl had died but had only just missed being rescued — “If only she could have held out a bit longer!” — so we ignore the historical fact of the hundreds of thousands from the Warsaw ghetto who actually died, in order to dramatize the death of our imaginary 12-year-old girl. And finally, finally, we reach the conclusion: the story won’t be good enough, the point won’t be made well enough, the statement of faith won’t move us enough — unless, right there next to the inspirational words on the wall, we see the body of a dead Jewish girl.

I don’t think that these changes happened purposefully, intentionally. The problem is more subtle than that. The problem is that many of the people spreading the story did not care about the actual facts. I’m sure if you were to ask them whether they cared about the truth, they would say that they did; but their actions show that they did not care about it enough to go through the trouble of giving a reference or finding a source.4 And sometimes, when they did not bother to check what they half-remembered about a story they had once heard, they changed a detail, or added a bit of color, in a way that made the account better match their unconscious prejudices. And so we end up with E. Carver McGriff’s vision of Jews as innocent; passive; able to flee and hide but not strong enough to fight; long-suffering; and dead.


“I believe in the sun, even when it is not shining.” When we tell the story of these words, when we think of the person who wrote them, do we think of an actual person? Do we think of a living, breathing human? A person with strengths and with flaws, someone who has done wrong to others and who has been wronged themself? Someone who has fallen in love, someone whose heart has been broken, someone who has broken the hearts of others? Someone who has sometimes stayed up too late drinking with friends, but who has also done mitzvahs for friends and strangers? Someone with thoughts, and hopes, and dreams? Someone whose life has been ripped apart, whose friends have been killed, whose property has been stolen, and who has been living in a cellar for months? Someone who may have fought on the way to the cellar? Someone who may have supported the resistance? Someone who might care about the words they were inspired to write, and who might care how we use them?

Maybe that’s too hard. Maybe it would be easier to erase that actual human, and replace them with an idealized, pure, 12-year-old girl, whose life was cut tragically short, whose faith in God was uncomplicated, and who certainly won’t complain if we use her words for our own purposes.


So what do we do, if we want to get closer to the truth of the story behind the “I believe in the sun” quotation? There are so many variations on the story — how can we tell which one to believe? Or indeed, how can we tell whether any of them is true?

The first step is to trace back, as best we can, the origin of the story. In the next post in this series, we will go back to London in 1945, and we will hear, surprisingly, the words of a German prisoner of war, as translated by a Quaker woman who was later honored as a British Hero of the Holocaust.


The posts in this series:
1. Look away
2. The Friend
3. The secrets of tigers
4. Conclusion


Image credit: Annular eclipse “ring of fire” by Kevin Baird. Original here. Reproduced under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported.


  1. I found the example in Schuller’s book, and most of the examples cited in the next few paragraphs, by searching Google books; I do not have full copies of the books I cite. Where possible I have given page numbers, but for some sources I was only able to identify the chapter in which the quotation appears. 
  2. The Pulpit Digest is not available online. Beth Kumar, a reference librarian at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, went to the stacks and photographed Rev. Kennedy’s article for me while I was far away in San Diego. Thank you, Beth! 
  3. Maxie Dunnam was the only one of these authors to give any sort of reference for the story; she cites the Pulpit Digest (although she gives the wrong page number). It was through her citation that I found Gerald Kennedy’s article. 
  4. As I noted earlier, the one exception in the examples I gave above is Maxie Dunnam, whose citation of the Pulpit Digest I greatly appreciate. Peter Sidebotham’s citation of searchquotes.com does not count; it’s about as trustworthy as citing a Facebook meme.