Monday, December 14, 2015

Why This Is Important To Me

The 60s were just beginning. I was turning 12-years old. A Nazi war criminal was kidnapped in Argentina and transported to Israel where he was to stand trial. As a young boy with a Jewish mother it was the beginning of an awakening to the ways of the world. By the time I had my Bar Mitzvah at age 13 a year later the trial of Adolph Eichmann had raised awareness and renewed interest worldwide in The Holocaust.This was a new frightening reality to a 13-year old.

The Final Solution, the latest and arguably among the most terrible, awful, and horrific chapter of the 2000-year journey of the Jewish people facing persecution and anti-Semitism was out in the open. It is not something I have ever let slide from my memory. Even after I became a Christian just before turning 16 the awareness of The Holocaust stayed as real and as essential to my being as anything else.

Over the next couple decades I did a lot of reading and study on the issue of anti-Semitism and its history. If racism is the “original sin” of the United States, anti-Semitism is the “original sin” of western civilization and the Christian Church. Over these years I learned that

  • neither I, nor any children I might have would have been safe in Germany in World War II.
  • the anti-Jewish theological interpretations of many Christian writers and leaders from the early Church Fathers to Augustine then Martin Luther set the foundation for the hatred of the Jews.
  • the word “ghetto” was first used as the place where Jews were made to live so they wouldn’t contaminate good people, i.e. Christians.
  • perhaps the best and greatest era for many Jews was in Muslim Spain. Then when the Christians re-conquered Spain, the Jews were expelled- even Christians who had converted a generation or two earlier. (You can’t trust the Jews.)
When I got to Seminary I was introduced to the writings of people like Dietrich Bonhoeffer who stood up against the Nazis and died in a concentration camp. I learned of Martin Niemoller, a Lutheran pastor who stood up against the hatred and spent years in a camp. Both of them led a faction known as "The Confessing Church" making a clear distinction that they were not part of the "German Christians", the civil "official" religion of the day including leaders of the Evangelical and Catholic Churches.

For a number of years I regularly participated in an annual dialogue between Christians and Jews at Princeton Seminary. I had the fortune of hearing Elie Wiesel speak years before he was a Nobel Peace Prize winner. I put together a multi-media presentation based on the novel, Last of the Just, and developed several versions of a Passover Seder for my churches and others. I visited Israel and stood in overwhelmed silence at Yad Vashem. I am sadly and deeply aware of the complicity of the Christian Church in all of this and that the very foundation of this evil is in Christian theology. (That is for another time and place, though.)

In all these studies, readings, presentations and challenges, two things were at the core of what I learned.
  • Never Forget!
  • Never Again! 
 Not just about the Jewish people and anti-Semitism, but about persecution and oppression. If “they” could do this to others, “they” can do it to me, too. Martin Niemoller’s famous words were burned into my heart and soul:
First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Socialist.

Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.

Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Jew.

Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.
I have now been a Christian for nearly 54 years, almost 80% of my life. But I know that I am also "Jewish", the son of a Jewish mother. My "people" are Jewish and Gentile. Many of my "people" have been killed over the centuries by my other "people" in the name of a Jewish Rabbi from 1st Century Judea. Over these years I have promised myself that I would stand up for what is right when oppression and hatred are expressed. I have told myself that if need be, I should stand with the oppressed, even if I am part of the oppressors.

Scary stuff, then, when we see things happening in the world around us that looks so much like the evil we have faced down in the past. I have just finished a year of reviewing my Dad's service at the end of World War II. One of my discoveries was that his Division was a "liberating" unit at some camps in Germany. Whether he was part of a specific liberating group is unknown. That is what my Dad fought to end. How can I sit by and watch?

I will not stop speaking out about it. I cannot. There are all kinds of ways that we humans can justify evil and hatred- fear and protection being high on the list. That does not ever excuse it. Such discrimination is evil. Period.

Are we anywhere near that? No, not yet. I hope. But I am afraid yet hopeful. I love the United States and our freedoms. I believe that we are, at heart, good people. But good people can be subverted by those seeking to play on their fears and uncertainties. Good people can be made to do evil when they believe it is good. There were many good people in Germany in the 1930s before World War II. They were there during the war. Many of them did what they could in the face of their own possible deaths to help.

A Rabbi I talked with once when I was writing an independent project paper for seminary had been a prisoner in a concentration camp. Since he was an American he was kept aside for possible use in negotiations with the Americans. He reminded me a number of times that while the vicious and hateful guards were Germans, so were the guards who risked their lives to bring him an extra bit of food.

There are many good people in our country. When push comes to shove in this very difficult time, I am sure that we will do the right thing. If they would start to "register" Muslims there are many non-Muslims who will line up at the registration stations next to their neighbors. I pray that it doesn't come to that- and I don't believe it will. But we must no let those who would sow hatred and oppression have the final word. I will not be silent. I cannot be silent. There are far too many who have already been silenced by such hate.

And yes, that means that we also must stand against the evils of groups like ISIS or the Taliban. We must always call evil what it is. We can stand WITH our Muslim friends and neighbors, supporting them against the evil they are also fighting. 

Enough is enough.

Never again!

Silence in the face of evil is itself evil:
God will not hold us guiltless.
Not to speak is to speak.
Not to act is to act.
--Dietrich Bonhoeffer

1 comment:

Jeff Coppage said...

Moving piece Barry.