It was a minor concentration camp, Belzec in Poland, where somewhere between five to six hundred thousand Jews were murdered, plus another twenty or thirty thousand Gypsies. The numbers are still overwhelming seventy years on. And these are the smaller numbers. The Revelation of the Holocaust broke the Western Mind.
The word choice is important to my point. It was not the murders that broke us, it was their revelation through the still young media of film. It was not mere murder either, it was the religious nature of the Nazi Party and their cause. It was the collusion of the church and our religiously decorated prejudices. It was the Revelation of their sacrifice of people who were no longer a label in gray tones on the movie screens of the Western world. On grainy black and white film the emaciated Jews and Gypsies and prisoners of war were reduced to just being human persons.
The Western Mind is not unique in categorizing human beings and their worth according to labels. We are not the first or worst sinners of history. But the Revelation of the Holocaust, the unveiling of our inhumanity, destroyed that system for the collective mindset of the West. We still have not come back to equilibrium. We are still healing from the break of seventy years ago.
Look at how we are still gathering in the streets of St. Louis and arguing over the pay of women in the work world. The Western Mind likes to see itself as Christianized. In many ways the influence of Christianity on the Western Mind is indisputable. But the sin, that deep brokenness at the level of our being, undercuts any hope of the Rule of God working at large time and time again. The Jesus of our theology bows to the prejudices of our cultures again and again. So we are still trying to work out what it means to live as human beings with other human beings who are different from us and worth the same love and peace.
Jesus [an Israelite of Galilee it is worth pointing out] taught and modeled that everyone had worth before the God of Creation that he called Abba, “Daddy.” The Gospels repeatedly tell of him crossing the cultural lines of his day to proclaim and embody the Rule of God. His prejudices were Galilean Israelite prejudices, and yet he is portrayed in the text as moving past them to proclaim a different day of the Lord’s favor for all people. He pointed out that the prophets had gone to the Gentiles before, and then he went out healing and proclaiming the gospel to Syro-phoenicians and Samaritans and even centurions, the American Marines of his day. Acts continues this story in the early church’s apostles and their communities. The letters of the New Testament proclaim again and again that the old boundaries are no longer meritorious in the unity found in Christ.
The church has often turned the spread of the gospel into a weapon in the arsenal of violence, oppression, and especially colonization. But that was never the call of the church. We were called to proclaim the gospel to every human being, making disciples of the way of Jesus. That way is laid out in the Gospels as non-violent: loving, forgiving, healing, and bringing reconciliation and peace. It has often been taken by those who would use it for violence and turned into another covering for the Third Reich with the church’s blessing. (Not the whole church maybe, but the majority.)
As an American Christian, I cannot ignore that many here supported Nazism and the violent anti-Semitism and race hatred that was passed from hand to mouth as a cultural norm. We did not get involved in the war because of the deep divides in our country; we did not rise up against the Axis of Evil until we were hit in Pearl Harbor.
The thing that haunts me is the support for the ideas and prejudices of Nazism and the various forms of hatred and evil that it embodied by religious people. We are not a pure people, even as Christians. We are in constant need of being changed, of repentance.
Those images flickering out of the rubble of Europe, our cultural mother, of human beings destroyed and still living and piled up in mountains of sin were apocalyptic. The Holocaust is an offensive word for it; the sacrifice that is burned as an offering is not the image we want to hold up. In the Revelation of John the Lamb appears announced as the Root of Jesse, the lion of Judah, and is described as “slaughtered” in my usual translation, but in Greek is “standing as if beaten to death.” It is isn’t a sacrificial word. But the truth is that the Jews and others were destroyed, sacrificed by the Western World time and time again to a god that is not recognizable in Jesus. That god is the god of hatred and prejudice, but it is also the god of valuation, setting one good above another. Sadly it is often the true god of religion.
I worry that we have brought back that god when we talk about American interests leading us to war again. I worry that we have not learned anything at all.
The Western Mind was broken seventy years ago as the “other” became a human being, because without the detailed Retina screen I carry around now in my pocket, we couldn’t tell if the people on the movie screen was a Jew or a POW or a Gypsy or just some kid from Yonkers. We had to face that devastation without the labels that justify our violence. We were forced to make the leap that every human being is worth the full worth that we have, whatever label either of us wears.
We are still working that out. I think that is what opened up race, geographical, and gender bias and violence to our ethical reflection. As a religious people we could not go back to a pre-Belzec world, could we? We still carry around prejudices and a tendency toward violence, but we could no longer call that good or godly, could we? We did in Selma and Ulster. We did in more subtle ways with our responses or lack of responses to Sudan, Rwanda, Detroit and Syria.
But we have also made huge strides, acknowledging our common humanity and often our sins, even the ones of omission. I am encouraged by the Israel Palestinian struggle of our day. I am not always sure that the lessons of those first Russian newsreels have made an impact, and then someone moves toward peace from an unexpected place. A Jewish doctor decries the death of Palestinian children. Marines rebuild the sewers of Ramallah. Small vital signs that the Rule of God peak through even in the midst of violent death.
The Rule of God is based in two important concepts. One, the rule means area of control, care, and provision, along with order and law must be the peace of provision and reconciliation. What is not under the rule of God? Two, that the God of Creation loves every human being and wants their return to relationship, to love, humanity, and peace. This return to God must include a return to peace with God’s children. This God and the Rule embodied in Jesus have always been in danger of being taken over by the violent without and the violence within.
It is this Rule which salts my tears seventy years after Belzec reading about the utter loss and destruction of God’s sons and daughters in a small Polish town so far removed from right now. It is this Rule that I see when I look into the face of the woman or man or child on the news or across the cafe. God-breathed clay brought to life and wonderful, worthy of love and peace, that is the visage of every human face.
After Belzec there is no label that can hide that face. I still believe in sin and lament my own and other human sins daily, but I believe there is a way to live beyond sin, that values that child of God across the world or across the cafe. It is the way of Jesus, of peace and forgiveness, of healing and love.
It is hard to know what should have been done seven decades ago in the face of such violence. It is hard to know what to do today in the face of the violence we face daily. But it begins in remembrance and prayer for there to be on earth a way that is as it is in heaven. It begins here in this little cafe in Michigan, or it will remain in heaven while we slip again towards hell on earth.
If my Jewish brother is less human than I am, then Jesus is less than I believe and I have no hope.
If the gospel is not for the Palestinian woman, then it isn’t for me.
I cannot sing Amazing Grace for myself alone.