Category Archives: research

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. 

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. 

Unfiltered

As part of my training for the Unitarian Universalist ministry, I am interning at Throop Church in Pasadena, California. Each month we choose a theme that informs the worship for that month, and the readings, music, and sermon each Sunday usually connect somehow with the monthly theme.

This month, the worship theme is Feminism. And it was my turn to lead worship last Sunday. But I didn’t deliver a whole sermon; instead, I gave a short introduction, and then turned the pulpit over to two women in the congregation — Ruth Torres and Frances Goff — who each related something about how feminism has affected their lives.1

Why share the pulpit like this? An example from our hymnal gives an explanation.


Margaret Fuller was a remarkable woman.2 She was born in 1810 to two Unitarian parents, and by the time she was 23 she was translating Goethe and publishing essays in Boston newspapers. When she was 25, friends introduced her to Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Fuller became part of the Transcendentalist circle in Boston. At 30 she became the first editor of the Transcendentalist journal The Dial.

Her writing and editing brought her to the attention of Horace Greeley, the founder of the New York Tribune, and Greeley invited her to write for his newspaper. Fuller became the first full-time book reviewer in all of American journalism, as well as the first female editor of the Tribune.

In 1846 the Tribune sent Fuller to Europe as a foreign correspondant. She eventually found her way to Italy, where she reported on — and became a supporter of — the revolution that resulted in the formation of the Roman Republic of 1849.

During her time in Italy, Fuller met Giovanni Angelo Ossoli, a marquis who had been disinherited by his family for his revolutionary politics. Fuller and Ossoli had a child together in 1848. In 1850, Fuller, Ossoli, and their baby boarded a freighter to come back to the United States. The ship struck a sand bar off of Fire Island, New York, only 100 yards from shore, but Fuller, Ossoli, and their son all perished in the wreck. Fuller was only 40 years old.

Margaret Fuller had an incredibly remarkable life, especially for a woman in the first half of the 19th century. Some of her thoughts sound progressive even for our time. And so we come to the reason why I am telling you about her now.


The editors of the Unitarian Universalist hymnal Singing the Living Tradition did a wonderful job, collecting and editing music for singing and words for reading that have served Unitarian Universalists for nearly 25 years. But in any work of this size and complexity, one is bound to find editorial decisions one might disagree with… and for me, one of them occurs in reading #575, “A New Manifestation,” which consists of selections from Fuller’s 1845 book Woman in the Nineteenth Century, arranged to make a responsive reading:

A new manifestation is at hand, a new hour is come.

When Man and Woman may regard one another as brother and sister, able both to appreciate and to prophesy to one another.

A new manifestation is at hand, a new hour is come.

What Woman needs is not as a woman to act or rule, but as a nature to grow, as an intelligence to discern, as a soul to live freely and unimpeded, to unfold such powers as were given her.

A new manifestation is at hand, a new hour is come.

Man does not have his fair share either; his energies are repressed and distorted by the interposition of artificial obstacles.

A new manifestation is at hand, a new hour is come.

We would have every arbitrary barrier thrown down. We would have every path laid open to Woman as freely as to Man.

Were this done, we believe a divine energy would pervade nature to a degree unknown in the history of former ages.

A new manifestation is at hand, a new hour is come.


My objection is to this quote: “Man does not have his fair share either; his energies are repressed and distorted by the interposition of artificial obstacles.” That’s what the hymnal says, but what Fuller actually wrote was this:

It may be said that man does not have his fair play either; his energies are repressed and distorted by the interposition of artificial obstacles. Ay, but he himself has put them there; they have grown out of his own imperfections. [Emphasis added.]

So in effect, what Margaret Fuller actually wrote was that “You might say that men have it tough too, but it’s their own darn fault.” Now, you may or may not agree with her; you may or may not like her analysis; you may or may not think that it was wise for her to have written this — but that’s what she wrote. And the hymnal takes that strong statement and shortens it to “Men have it tough too.” Even though the hymnal was edited by people sympathetic to her beliefs, the editors softened her very pointed statement – they moderated her strong viewpoint to make it easier to hear.

The lesson is this: If you want to know what someone really thinks, it’s best if they speak for themselves.


So that’s why I shared the pulpit last Sunday. I can tell you my thoughts about feminism, and someday perhaps I will; but to begin with, maybe it’s best to listen to someone other than a man.


Whether you are female, or male, or live outside of that binary —

May we work together so that everyone is seen for who they truly are; may we work together to create equality for all; and may we work together so all may live in beloved community —

for that is the work of feminism.


Image credit: Library of Congress. More information here.


  1. And who, gloriously, brought Frida Kahlo and Terry Pratchett into the service. 
  2. The information in this brief biography came from Fuller’s entry in the Dictionary of Unitarian and Universalist Biography, from her Wikipedia page, and from David Robinson’s book The Unitarians and the Universalists

Nero’s Expedition up the Nile

Later this week, I will be heading off to Wisconsin for the annual conference of the Unitarian Universalist Musicians Network, where hundreds of church music directors, instrumentalists, singers, and composers will gather to learn new music, to educate ourselves in best practices, to increase our skills, and to provide choral music for Sunday services at our host church, the First Unitarian Society of Madison. This year it will be especially exciting for me, because one of my pieces was chosen for the choral music reading session.

In keeping with the week’s theme, I thought that I would post something today about music. But it’s not just about music — it’s also about the mementos we leave behind us, about the things we will never know about one another, and about the secret histories of our thoughts.


Several years ago, the a cappella group that I sing with at church performed a round called “Nero’s Expedition up the Nile”. Here are the lyrics:1

Nero’s expedition up the Nile
Failed
Because the water hyacinth
Had clogged the river
Denying Nero’s vessels passage
Through the Sudd of Nubia

And here’s a video of a good interpretation of the song (with instruments), performed by the Dedalus Ensemble.

The director of our group had learned this song orally, so the first few times we rehearsed the song we did not even know its composer or its history. But a little research showed that it was written by an interesting character named Moondog (born Louis Hardin). His Wikipedia entry tells you the basics, but this longer biographical piece fleshes out his life a little more.


Question: Was Moondog…

(a) a sometimes-homeless man who for more than 20 years was a fixture on Sixth Avenue in New York, known for his viking helmet, cloak, and spear;
(b) a frequent guest at the home of Philip Glass, where he sang and recorded songs with Glass, Steve Reich, and Jon Gibson, three of the founders of American minimalism;
(c) the composer of more than 100 idiosyncratic rounds; or
(d) a street musician who, late in life, played in the courts of European royalty?

The correct answer, of course, is (e) all of the above.2


So now my a cappella group knew where the unusual round we were singing came from. But still I wondered: How did this song come to be? How did these unusual lyrics wind up in Moondog’s head? Moondog died in 1999, so unless someone had interviewed him and asked this specific question, there would be no real way of finding out for sure.

But perhaps the source could be traced a little further back.


First, some history. According to Seneca3 and Pliny the Elder4, the emperor Nero did send an expedition to find the source of the Nile and to explore the lands around the river, and Seneca even mentions that the waters become completely unpassable at a certain point, due to the masses of vegetation.

However — and this is important — the vegetation could not have been water hyacinth. The water hyacinth is native to South America, and it was not introduced into Africa until the 19th century.5 It did not become a problem on the White Nile until the 1950s. So Nero’s expedition may have turned back because of vegetation, but not because of water hyacinth. Moondog got his history wrong.

I became perhaps just a little obsessed with finding some article or book that could have led Moondog to think about Nero’s expedition to find the source of the Nile. And now I knew that if such an article existed, it most likely would have been written after the late 1950’s, and it must have somehow been unclear in its description of the natural history of the water hyacinth in Africa.

“Nero’s Expedition” appears as round #12 in Book 1 of Moondog’s 1970 booklet Round the World of Sound: Moondog Madrigals. I obtained a copy of this booklet, hoping that it might include some commentary explaining how it happened that Moondog was pondering the failure of Nero’s expedition. Unfortunately, the only annotation to the piece was a date: it was written on June 23, 1968. But that at least gave me a firm ending date for the publication of my hypothetical article.


It turns out that there are quite a few articles about the Nile written between the late 1950’s and 1968. I’ve read a lot of them. And almost all of them either do not mention water hyacinths at all, or make it quite clear that they had arrived on the Nile only recently.

For example, in 1960 the travel writer and former war correspondent Alan Moorehead wrote a bestselling nonfiction book, The White Nile, about the 19th century explorers who traced the Nile to its sources. In the prologue to his book, Moorehead writes:

The Emporer Nero sent two centurions with an expedition into the wastes of Nubia, as the Sudan was then called, but they returned unsuccessful, saying that they had been blocked in the far interior by an impenetrable swamp.

Nearly 400 pages later, in an extended description of the Sudd, Moorehead notes that even when a paddle steamer is pushing through the channels that have been opened up in the maze of papyrus,

[…] the water in the channel itself is not clear, since within the last year or so that most prolific of aquatic plants, the water hyacinth, has taken hold upon the Nile. It reaches out from the banks in long floating filaments with a pretty purple flower, and although it is savaged and cut about by the steamers’ paddles, it never seems to die […]

This is somewhat promising, in that both Nero and the water hyacinth are mentioned in the same book, but the number of pages between the references, and the fact that it is made quite clear that there were no water hyacinths in the Nile during Nero’s time, make it seem unlikely that this is the proximate source of Moondog’s lyrics.


However, Moorehead’s book was based on a series of articles he wrote for the New Yorker. And one of these articles — “To the beginnings of memory”, from the September 27, 1958 issue — actually seems a likely source.6 On pages 140 and 141, Moorehead writes:

Samual Baker gives a fine idea of what the Sudd was like when he saw it in 1870, the stream being then completely blocked. He says, “The immense number of floating islands which are constantly passing down the stream of the White Nile had no exit; thus they were sucked under the original obstruction by the force of the stream, which passed through some mysterious channel until the subterranean passage became choked with a wondrous accumulation of vegetable matter. The entire river became a marsh, beneath which, by the great pressure of water, the stream oozed through innumerable small channels. In fact, the White Nile had disappeared.” This was the obstacle that for a good two thousand years blocked every attempt to get to the source of the river. Two centurions sent by the emperor Nero were forced to turn back, and between that time and the nineteenth century numberless unsuccessful expeditions set out.

A few short paragraphs later, on page 142, Moorehead writes:

In the Sudd, the Nile cabbages vanish—perhaps they are broken up by the rapids above Juba—but they are replaced by the water hyacinth, which is even more prolific. It is a green, fleshy creeper with a pale-purple flower, and it reaches out, floating, from the bank. Long filaments of the plant constantly break away and sail off down the river. We kept smashing into these green rafts, and although they were torn to pieces by the paddles, they always gathered themselves together again in our wake.

Nowhere in this article does Moorehead mention that the water hyacinths are a new feature in the Nile, and the reader has no reason not to believe that the “wondrous accumulation of vegetable matter” that forced Nero’s centurions to turn back was not formed by the water hyacinth.


So, there we are. An article from 1958, and an enigmatic round from a decade later. Is there really a connection between the two? Moondog was blind; any link between him and Moorehead’s article must include at least one further step, a person who had read the article and talked about it. On the other hand, in 1968 the idea of an imperial expedition into a foreign land being turned back by an abundance of flowers would surely have struck a countercultural chord.

But it is probably unrealistic to hope to find an explicit link between Moorehead’s article and Moondog’s round. Like Nero’s centurions, we can go no farther; the source we are seeking is, as was theirs, a distant rumor in a land not our own. We can only turn our boats towards home, and wonder.


Cover photo: “Kenya — Lake Victoria” by Global Environment Facility, shared under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0. Original here. I might have used this photo instead, but I don’t have permission.


  1. As documented in Robert Scotto’s 2007 biography of Moondog, which has recently been revised and updated. Apparently a biopic is also in the works. 
  2. See paragraphs 3 and 4 of Section 8 of Book VI of Quaestiones Naturales, here in Latin or here in English translation. 
  3. See Book VI of Naturalis Historia, paragraph 181 in this Latin version or Chapter 35 of this English translation
  4. Thanks, Belgium. It’s a seriously invasive species
  5. If you subscribe to the New Yorker, you can follow the link and get a copy of the article. It’s an interesting read, and it’s also fun to look at the 58-year-old advertisements. 

Grounding Our Selves, Freeing Our Minds

(A sermon delivered at Throop Unitarian Universalist Church in Pasadena, California on 10 April 2016. Copyright 2016 by Everett Howe.)


Here’s an experiment: For a moment, try to think of yourself, and what you are doing, in the most basic terms — try to forget the social meanings of things. You are a mammal. You are breathing, and warm. You are sitting in a large space, with a ceiling high above1. There is colored light coming through the windows. You are sitting with several dozen other mammals of the same species, all facing the same direction. Moments ago2 you were making sounds, and the other mammals were making similar sounds. Now you are sitting, and breathing, while another mammal is at the front of the room, making unusual noises all by himself.

Now, gently, start to wonder. Why? How is it that some kind of social system has put me in this place? Why does this building exist? Why is there colored light coming through the windows?

I will do this exercise sometimes, just to remember how strange some of the things we do are. Yesterday I sat nearly motionless in a small metal box for two hours, among many other small metal boxes, moving at high speed. Somehow it made sense at the time.

I find that it helps me see some of the systems that affect my life, systems that can otherwise be invisible. Systems that we are not aware of can cause trouble.


Perhaps you heard about the April Fools “joke” that Google played on people who use Gmail through a web browser… Google added a button right next to the regular “Send” button in the composition window; the new button was also labeled “Send”, but it had in addition a little graphic of a falling microphone. This new button was for a special “Mic Drop” option. If you clicked on this button, your message would go out, along with an animated GIF of one of the characters from the Minions movies dropping a microphone. The feature would also block all further replies to the email conversation, so you just wouldn’t see anything else anyone said in that thread of messages. This is the email equivalent of dropping the microphone and leaving the room.

What could possibly go wrong?

Well, one thing that went wrong was that the new “Send and drop the mic” button appeared in exactly the place where you would normally find the “Send and Archive” button. So some fraction of Gmail users who thought they were clicking on the usual “Send and Archive” button instead found that they had send an animated mic drop GIF to their friends; to their clients; to their bosses… and then they would not see any responses to that email. There was no way to undo this.

It may not have been a large fraction of users who had this problem… but when more than a billion people use your service, even a small fraction translates into a lot of unhappy people.

Who do we blame for the mistakenly sent emails? The buttons were clearly marked; but I don’t think any of us would find the users at fault. The main problem was in the system that they were using.


I use this story as a gentle introduction to today’s topic. Our worship theme last month was evil; this month’s theme is liberation. I would like to talk about the difficulty of liberating ourselves from systemic evil.


Last month, Rev. Tera and I both quoted the theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, who wrote:

Evil is always the assertion of some self-interest without regard to the whole, whether the whole be conceived as the immediate community, or the total community of humanity, or the total order of the world.

This is a pretty good definition of evil, but it seems to be most appropriate for evil on the individual level, evil done by a single person or a small group. But what about systemic evil? People can set up social systems whose end results are are evil, and the evil can lie more in the system than in the people who are part of the system.


Systemic evil can seem abstract, until we see it on a personal level. I would like to tell you a bit of my family history that helped me personalize a well-known systemic evil from American history.


We all have many ancestors, and we are part of each of their stories. And likewise, all of their histories are a part of us. What’s more, each of their histories can take us in a different direction.

My mother’s mother was born in a small village in Sicily. My mother’s father was the son of French immigrants. My father’s father’s family has branches that have been in California since before statehood. But my father’s mother came from Texas. The bit of family history3 I would like to tell you about concerns one set of this grandmother’s great-grandparents. I will warn you beforehand that three people are killed in this story.

William Baker and his wife Matilda Baker were born in England in the early 1800’s. He worked as a joiner, someone who does woodwork in the construction industry. In 1834 the Bakers immigrated to the United States with their newborn son. They spent about 6 years in New York, and then moved to Texas. Their family grew; their sixth child, my grandmother’s grandmother, was born in 1848.

Let me remind you of some of the historical context of Texas in the 1840’s and 1850’s. Texas became a state in 1846, and slavery was legal there. In 1851 about 60,00 people were enslaved in Texas. The Fugitive Slave Act was passed by Congress in late 1850. It mandated that people who had escaped from slavery to free states would have to be sent back to their former owners. This was very controversial in the Northern states, and many Northerners did not want to comply with the law. For instance, when Thomas Sims, a black man who had escaped slavery in Georgia, was arrested in Boston in early 1851, U.S. Marines had to escort him from the courthouse to the ship that would take him back to Georgia, because otherwise abolitionists in Boston would have helped him escape. So all this is the backdrop to the following events, which were reported in the Texas State Gazette, a weekly newspaper published in Austin.

On the morning of July 11, 1851, a black man rode up to the house that my ancestors, the Bakers, lived in.4 He wanted directions to a neighbor’s house. The Bakers asked him to wait until after they finished breakfast. While he was waiting, Colonel E.S.C. Robertson of the Texas Militia happened to stop by. Colonel Robertson questioned the black man and decided that he was fleeing enslavement, so Colonel Robertson and William Baker tied up the man, and Colonel Robertson rode off to alert the authorities. But the man somehow escaped his bonds, and found a kitchen knife; when William Baker tried to tie him up again, the man fatally wounded him with the knife. Matilda Baker rushed up to the fighting men, and was stabbed and instantly killed. The man escaped.

A reward was offered for his capture5, and on July 26th he was caught near the city of Austin.6 The newspaper reported that “[h]e was tried on the same day by a jury of twelve slaveholders, and his guilt being apparent and unquestionable, he was executed in the presence of a large concourse of spectators.”

The Bakers, my ancestors, were dead, leaving as orphans six children between the ages of three and seventeen. The black man was dead, killed by a lynch mob, and God only knows what family and loved ones he left behind. Colonel Robertson lived for another 28 years, and was one of the delegates who signed Texas’s proclamation of secession from the Union in 1861.


This tragedy does not make sense without the context of slavery. Slavery was the systemic evil that wound the mainspring of the whole sequence of events. It is fitting and proper to mourn the deaths of the Bakers, because their lives had value, as all of our lives do.7 It is fitting and proper to mourn the death of the man whose name the newspaper did not see fit to tell us, because his life had value. But to get beyond the particulars of this tragedy — to address the systemic evil of slavery — to fight the systemic evil of slavery — one would have to start by insisting that black lives matter, because that is the fact that the system denies.


Today, because we live in miraculous times, you can find every issue of the Texas State Gazette online, and you can read through their scanned pages, almost as if you were there 165 years ago.

Reading these pages, you see how much violence was necessary to maintain the institution of slavery. The week after my ancestors were killed, there was another tragedy.8 An overseer at a plantation was beating an enslaved woman with a whip. A black man, seeing this, could not take it any longer. Was she his sister? His daughter? His wife? Was it just that he could no longer bear to see a man flogging anyone? The newspaper doesn’t say. It just reports that the man rose up and stabbed the overseer in the heart. “After a fair and impartial trial by jury,” says the newspaper, the black man was hung, for having defended a woman against a savage beating.

Violence, and more violence, and those in power could not get beyond the thinking that created it. The newspaper dismisses any other possibility, and mocks the abolitionists in the North. In the weeks during which they reported on the case involving my ancestors, the Texas State Gazette wrote about Thomas Sims, the man who escaped slavery in Georgia and who was arrested in Boston. The paper says:9

To recover the famous slave, Sims, […] his owner […] paid $2000; the city of Boston and the authorities of the General Government, about $10,000 each, in putting down the mob [of abolitionists] and enforcing the law;— making the whole sum paid for the recovery of one fugitive, twenty-two thousand five hundred dollars. The negro was probably worth $800.


All of this was long ago, of course. What does it mean for us today?

Well, one thing is that even in the telling of these stories, I could feel the long reach of the social structure of slavery. How should I refer to the man who killed my ancestors? As a “slave”? That is the terminology that made sense at the time, but I will not use it. He was a man, a man who had been enslaved.

And what was his name? The newspapers did not give it, because in their estimation he did not deserve one. You know who they did name? His owner, and his former owner.

Systemic evil from long ago still influences how we think of events. It is hard to escape.


And the systemic evil of slavery did not just disappear. It morphed into new and subtler forms. Michelle Alexander, in her book The New Jim Crow10, traces the links from slavery to segregation and the Jim Crow system in the South, to red-lining and restrictive housing covenants, to the War on Drugs. Ta-Nehisi Coates personalizes this in his book Between the World and Me11. He writes of his friend Prince Jones, a fellow graduate of Howard University.

For Ta-Nehisi Coates, Prince Jones was one of those friends of young adulthood who seem to represent the limitless possibilities of youth. He was talented, popular, well-liked. And one day, a year or two after college, Prince Jones was shot by a police officer.

The officer was undercover, and dressed like a drug dealer. The officer was supposed to be tracking a man who was eight inches shorter and 40 pounds heavier than Prince Jones. The officer, from Prince George County, Maryland, followed Prince Jones as he drove his Jeep out of Maryland, through Washington D.C., and into Virginia. He confronted Prince Jones as he neared his fiancée’s house, where she and their baby daughter were waiting for him. He confronted Prince Jones with his gun drawn, with no badge, dressed as a drug dealer. The officer — the only witness to survive these events — says that Prince Jones tried to run him down. The officer shot and killed Prince Jones yards from his fiancée’s home.

Ta-Nehisi Coates writes of his own anger as the details of the killing came out, as the officer faced no serious repercussions, as the Prince George County police department and the local politicians circled the wagons.

Coates writes12:

The officer who killed Prince Jones was black. The politicians who empowered this officer to kill were black. Many of the black politicians […] seemed unconcerned. How could this be?

In exploring this question, Coates argues that it is a systemic evil that set up this situation in which a black policeman killed a black man. The racism is not in the people; it lies in the system that puts people in these situations. The system may not explicitly deny that black lives matter, like slavery did — but the effect is the same.


How do we deal with systemic evil? It is hard to break out of the systems of thought that affect us — it is hard even to recognize them. But systemic evil threatens lives, and to save our lives we need to free our minds.

Think back to the exercise at the beginning of this sermon. Throughout the week, consider repeating the experiment: Think of what you are doing in the most basic terms, and then slowly try to understand the social forces and systems that explain why you are where you are. Try to see how systems we take for granted may be harming ourselves; harming others; harming the planet. Try to see how changing them might make life better for us all. And then go out and work for that change.

May it be so. Blessed be.


Image credit: Detail of Page 1 of the Texas State Gazette (H. P. Brewster and J. W. Hampton, eds.), Vol. 2, No. 47, Ed. 1, Saturday, July 12, 1851. Digitized by the Dolph Briscoe Center for American History, Austin, Texas, and hosted by the University of North Texas Libraries, The Portal to Texas History.


  1. Those of you not reading this during a church service should make appropriate adjustments. 
  2. When the congregation was singing a hymn. 
  3. Which my sister Pat tracked down about a decade ago. 
  4. See this page of the 12 July 1851 edition of Texas State Gazette. The article is in the first column, about halfway down. 
  5. See this page of the 19 July 1851 edition of the Texas State Gazette, second column, first item. 
  6. See this page of the 2 August 1851 edition of the Texas State Gazette, first column, fifth item from the bottom. 
  7. Our Unitarian Universalist principle of the inherent worth and dignity of every person affirms this. 
  8. See this page of the 19 July 1851 edition of the Texas State Gazette, third column, a few paragraphs down. 
  9. See this page of the 26 July 1851 edition of the Texas State Gazette, second column, top. 
  10. The New Jim Crow is available from Apple, Amazon, Barnes and Noble, or your favorite local bookseller. 
  11. Between the World and Me is available from Apple, Amazon, Barnes and Noble, or your favorite local bookseller. The title of the book is taken from a powerful and disturbing poem by Richard Wright, which you should go and read. 
  12. Page 83.