Out of many… one?

Emily Manthei
Nov 7, 2018 · 6 min read

Post truth is pre fascism. Solidarity instead of exclusion. White silence kills. Maybe my favorite: Still not loving capitalism. But the one that took the day: Take racism personally.

Thousands of banners and protest signs accompanied 242,000 people on the streets of Berlin today, 12 October. They marched for the lives of refugees stranded in rescue boats on the Mediterranean, where they are being denied a safe harbor to enter Europe. They marched for a queer drag queen activist murdered in Greece. They marched to condemn fascism and remember those whose lives have been lost to it, especially in Germany. They marched to acknowledge the murders of Turkish, Syrian and other brown-skinned German residents and citizens assassinated by the National Socialist Underground over the past decade. They marched to amend an arcane paragraph in the German constitution that limits women’s access to abortion information. They marched to defend affordable social housing from those who want to turn it into luxury condos. They marched for cyber security. For animal rights. For love and thumping bass.

We marched to proclaim Germany as a country of solidarity, where an attack on one person is an attack on us all.

The march was organized under the name Unteilbar, meaning indivisible. United under pluralism is a bit of a hard concept to grasp. So many grains of sand that if one falls away, will its absence be felt?

I can’t help thing about E pluribus unum, the motto on the American dollar: out of many, one. Flooding out of the u-bahn, across Alexanderplatz, through the streets. I stood three hours at one spot as the floods marched by, finally bringing up the end of the march. People represented causes all the way from fringe concerns to, literally, anti-fascism.


Can so many really remain indivisible?

Photo by me.

Just a week ago, I was sitting in a boardroom meeting with about 25 members of my family in the United States. We decided to form a “Family Council” to facilitate relationship and communication within our extended family. The Manthei Family represented by the family council spans five generations and contains around 250 people, many of whom live in the same small town in Michigan. Others are spread as far as [elsewhere in] Michigan, Wisconsin, Indiana, Georgia, California, Montana, Thailand, Columbia, China, and yes, Berlin. Our family contains military personnel, teachers, traveling humanitarians, missionaries, writers, construction workers, engineers, company CEOs, craft beer brewers, filmmakers, stay-at-home parents, nurses, pastors, accountants, makeup artists, painters, and more. About 20 of those family members work together in a variety of family businesses.

Family business. Worth mentioning because it’s part of our family story. In fact, it is our family story. The narrative of my family goes like this: my great-grandmother Constance came to America in 1903 with her brother and a family friend, Ferdinand. They came from Silesia, a region of present-day Poland that was Prussian at the time. Ferdinand, who became Constance’s husband, was the illegitimate son of a disabled woman, could hardly keep a job and was violently abusive to his kids. Constance, on the other hand, was an entrepreneurial, hard-working and hard-praying Lutheran from a solid German farming family who grew and sold flowers to support her five kids. Two of her sons, Ted and Ernie, took over her entrepreneurial spirit and started growing beans and strawberries when they were young. They made a huge success as farmers and moved into veneer manufacturing and, eventually, real estate while also financing the first Lutheran radio broadcast in China. They passed the businesses to their sons, who in addition to the original businesses started a construction company, a retirement village, three concrete products companies, and acquired more real estate holdings while leaving the Lutherans and getting embroiled in a handful of Evangelical missionary projects around the globe. Their kids have now taken over those businesses, along with the financial success it’s created, and started more, while giving to more local missions projects.

The cohesion in this story is incredible. Generation after generation, preserving the family legacy and expanding it. It’s great. But remember when I mentioned that this is 20 out of the 250?

My dad’s generation has succeeded beyond their wildest dreams, and want to pass the family identity to their kids in a strong, concise formula. They have determined four themes around which the heritage functions: “faith, family, legacy and leadership.” A large part of the Family Council meeting was devoted to putting sharp edges around the definitions of each of those words as we see them relating to our family. The problem is, we see these things differently. “Leadership” has been defined as involving those who are in charge of family businesses. “Legacy” is being defined as charitable giving and the preservation of the cohesive family story above. “Family” seems to revolve around the matriarchal role of devising social gatherings. And “Faith,” the stickiest wicket of them all, was eventually decided to mean “adherence to the historic Christian religion.”

Entrepreneurial spirit, German ancestors, patriarchal meal gatherings, Christian religion. Those are my family’s roots. And its limits.

The problem with defining terms, of course, is that it becomes limiting — and eliminating. Majority rules would be the slogan on Family Council t-shirts. But the majority lacks this unifying element, this indivisibility. It’s just the one, without any space for the many.

Photo by me.

A word is a funny thing. It’s a symbol meant to put brackets around something and contain it. To serve as a stand-in for a known quantity. Except sometimes, words express unknowable quantities. Imprecise measurements. Abstract concepts. Justice. Art. Truth. Power. Spirit. Faith. And sure, you can put brackets around any definition of those things that you like, but their boundaries of meaning are constantly stretched, subverted, or redefined by the completely subjective mind of the one who utters the word. Sure, our meanings overlap much of the time. But they don’t fall strictly aligned into a track because their concepts are not concrete.

Indivisible. While it sounds like something very solid, is it unbreakable because of its homogeneity?

Or does the loss of that one grain shatter the entire thing?

One idea seems certain, we have to agree on a shared meaning for abstract terms before we can participate in a conversation about them. Because naming a word does not imply shared understanding. A conversation can yield different perspectives, and a common functional meaning can be agreed upon. But even proceeding with an agreed-upon a definition gives no voice to the silent but ever-present subjectivity of understanding.

Photo by me.

Today at the demo, I heard this Alice Merton song: “I have no roots, but my home was never on the ground.” It describes simply what it’s like to be a human today. No roots, but at home in memory and experience. Planted in self, not soil.

But that is often a hard place to be. It means your family is the one directly in front of you. Your joy, your pain, your purpose, is as much defined by those around you as you are a defining participant in the lives of those same surrounding bodies.

Nationalism says I belong to a place, to a soil.

Racism says I belong to a color, a tribe.

Legacy says The past is concrete, defined, and it determines my future.

What if one’s home is spiritual, psychological, social? Is that what makes one out of many? Does it change wherever we go? If home is a constellation hovering around a constantly changing location, a many that is always in motion, roots that stretch out from me in every direction, then it’s like those words that gain meaning by a moment of sharing a definition. It requires constant context, constant communication, constant change an exchange.

But that is the only home in which one racial slur or undocked migrant ship or rejected refugee or assaulted woman or homeless person is personal to me, and to you, and to everyone around us. The only way to be indivisible is to commit to the community of wherever you are.

Emily Manthei

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Wordy and worldly. Filmmaker and freelance writer covering culture, philosophy, travel, urbanization and theology. Based in Berlin.