Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Christian Heroes of the Holocaust

My crisis of faith was deepened years ago when I read that in the years leading up to World War II Germans of my theological stripe, far from opposing Hitler, were some of his most zealous supporters. These were literate, pious people, and there's every reason to believe they read their Bibles, prayed, and heard Bible-based preaching. I still find myself asking, Why couldn't they see what was coming? Why didn't the Holy Spirit speak to them?

At least as disturbing was learning that Nazi government organizations supported Christian missions. Couldn't those in charge of the missions organizations see that the money they were receiving had been coerced from people and had not been gathered from cheerful givers (2 Co 9:7)?

Of course, I have the benefit of hindsight; if Hitler could say of the death camp system once it was fait accompli that the world would never believe such was possible, I need to cut my brethren in Christ some slack if they could not have anticipated it. But that same hindsight should enable me to look at the present and ask questions about the direction my brethren are traveling in today. While people can be forgiven for not believing the unbelievable, it's a different story when they refuse to see themselves falling into a pattern that is all too familiar. One should also look at those who bucked the tide at the time and see what it was that kept them from joining so many others in doing evil.

I saw a video the other day that showed both how easy it is to fall into horrific behavior and the courage of those who resisted doing so. Weapons of the Spirit, made in the 1990s, tells the story of Le Chambon sur Lignon, a Huguenot village in southern France, where thousands of Jews found refuge during the Holocaust. As far as I can tell, this is a documentary made by a Jew giving credit where credit is due; for that reason it is more important than it could have been had it been made by an evangelical (Pr 25:2).

One theme that runs through through the video is that character is developed over time; the Hollywood fantasy of the do-nothing who becomes a hero at the right time because he intensely wants to is just that—a fantasy. Rather, we are in a crisis what we've been all along. It was because David had been fighting bears and lions for years that Goliath was just another wild beast to be slain, and in the same way, Jewish refugees were nothing out of the ordinary to the people of Le Chambon because they had been taking in strangers for centuries. Of course, this disturbs me because I don't see enough of that hospitality and habitual righteousness in my own life.

Nor was the opposition of the Germans or the Vichy French government to what the Chambonais were doing anything new: when the nineteenth-century Enjolras sings in Les Misérables "the blood of the martyrs will water the fields of France," those fields had already been watered with Huguenot blood centuries before. The French had never liked the Huguenots, nor had they liked the Jews, and their participation in the Holocaust was simply an extension of who they already were, as was the resistance of the Huguenots.

I was also disturbed by the parallels I see between France and today's US. When northern France fell to the Germans, southern France was under nominally French control. It was the French who had originally built the internment camp facilities, though for refugees from the Spanish Civil war; it was the French who helped spread propaganda about the "Jewish threat"; it was French police, not German soldiers, who rounded up Jews off the street and put them in the camps; and it was the French who took them from the camps and put them on the trains to the death camps in Germany. Perhaps they felt they had no choice and were going along to get along, but I'm more inclined to think many believed the propaganda and served from their hearts.

In our own society, we have the Muslim threat, we have a military that cavalierly kills innocent people, we have the National Guard already experienced in running US citizens out of their homes and confiscating weapons, and we have refugee camps built by FEMA ready for occupants. And just as the French probably had no particular love for the occupying Germans, US conservatives have no love for the Obama administration, but they still support his wars foreign and domestic (e.g., the war on drugs). How far would they have to stretch to support the interment of Muslims or free-marketers? For that matter, how far would liberals or centrists have to stretch? If the equivalent of the Reichstag fire* were to light the fires of US patriotism (as many believe happened on 9/11), our society would be more like what it is today than it is already: blindly following the government to war against innocent people.

What side is the church in the US on? Is she used to standing for righteousness and against oppression? Is she used to defending innocent members of despised groups from persecution? Is she willing to have her blood shed that she might not shed the blood of the innocent? Does she view anyone who doesn't know Christ as a possible future brother or sister who needs to be won over by love and grace?

If you would like to see an inspiring story of Christian brethren who put themselves at mortal risk to stand against the tide, yet never considered themselves heroes or martyrs, I heartily recommend Weapons of the Spirit, which is available from www.chambon.org. It's a few bucks and ninety minutes well spent, and you might think of nonbelieving neighbors who would also be interested.

*The Reichstag fire was set not by Jews, but by the Nazis, and by blaming it on the Jews the Nazis were able to gain the support of Josef Sechspackung for what he was assured were "temporary" violations of human rights.

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