September 21, 2008
Yad VaShem: Confess Your Sins
Sometimes the brutal reality of pain, suffering and evil in the world nearly overwhelms me. I felt that way watching the news reports when a monstrous earthquake in the Indian Ocean unleashed a series of devastating tsunamis back in December, 2004. Over 225,000 people, approximately 1/3 of whom were children, lost their lives, and another 10 million were left homeless. “I’ve never seen anything like this before,” I thought to myself, “and I hope I never will again.”
Then, less than one year later, Hurricane Katrina pounced on the gulf region here in the U.S. in August, 2005, killing nearly 2,000 people, causing some $81.2 billion in damage, and leaving 80% of the city of New Orleans under water! What a truly unbelievable site. “I’ve never seen anything like this before,” I thought to myself, “and I hope I never will again.”
If you are anything like me, however, what is even more alarming than the wreckage of natural catastrophes is the evil sometimes performed by human beings. With natural catastrophes, we can at least fall back on either the mysterious and powerful forces of nature or the sovereign will of God, who for reasons known only to him allows such horrible events to occur. Take your pick. In either case, we can create a degree of distance between the astonishment that we feel and our own innate sense of responsibility to treat other people with civility and compassion. If God or natural forces cause pain, that is one thing. But if other human beings cause it, then my own humanity is somehow violated.
I certainly remember what went through my mind on September 11th, 2001, don’t you? As I watched the Twin Towers burn and saw people frantically trying to escape before the buildings collapsed, I not only sensed the trauma of the event itself, but the horror of this totally unfathomable thoughtsomeone intentionally did this to other human beings. September 11th was no accident. It was not the result of natural causes. It wasn’t a so-called act of God. What happened on September 11th, 2001, was simply an extreme demonstration of human hatred and sin, pure and simple. “I’ve never seen anything like this before,” I said to myself in complete bewilderment. “I never imagined that people could do such a thing to other human beings.”
But they can, and have been doing so for a long, long time. In fact, various biblical writers were at times caught off guard themselves by the evil that human beings are capable of performing. “The heart is devious above all else,” the prophet Jeremiah announced in 17:9. “It is perversewho can understand it?” “It is actually reported,” Paul wrote to the Corinthians, “that there is sexual immorality among you, and of a kind that is not found even among the pagans;… (1 Cor. 5:1).” “Out of the heart,” Jesus himself said, “come evil intentions, murder, adultery, fornication, theft, false witness, slander (Matt. 15:19).” Even God the Father, if you can imagine it, experienced this same sense of bewildermentshockover humanity’s capacity to do wrong:
The Lord saw that the wickedness of humankind was great in the earth,
and that every inclination of the thoughts of their hearts was only evil
continually. And the Lord was sorry that he had made humankind on the
earth, and it grieved him to his heart (Gen. 6:5-6).
Like the writer here in Judges 19:30, these and other baffled witnesses throughout history continue to ask, “Has such a thing ever happened since the day that the Israelites came up from the land of Egypt until this day?”
That pretty much sums up my own thoughts and feelings as I visited Yad VaShem again with my daughter just a few months ago. Yad VaShem, which literally means “a memorial and a name (Isa. 56:5),” is the Holocaust Museum in Jerusalem. Opened originally in 1953, Yad VaShem was totally rebuilt just a few years ago and reopened in 2005. Few places I know of are more moving than this, and as I walked through the various rooms of the museum and looked over the endless displays, the horrors and disbelief of Judges 19 kept coming back to me. “How could people treat other human beings this way?”
I was struck at Yad VaShem, first of all, by the sheer magnitude of evil. In Judges 19, an unnamed Levite brought his concubine and servant north from Bethlehem, and they stopped to spend the night in the town of Gibeah. During the night, hoodlums from the town pounded on the door and demanded that the Levite be sent out so that they could sexually abuse him. When the host refused to do so, both he and the Levite sent the concubine out instead, and she was brutally beaten, raped and left for dead. Upon finding his concubine lying on the doorstep the next morning, the Levite dismembered her body and sent pieces of it to each of the tribes of Israel. How do you begin to comprehend such a thing? It is grotesque, I know, one of those biblical texts typically left in the closet. Thank God it happened over 3,000 years ago!
The Holocaust occurred only a few decades agoin the modern, civilized world. The word “holocaust” itself means “completely burnt,” and that aptly describes what transpired throughout Europe in the 30’s and 40’s. No natural catastrophe or act of God, the Holocaust was instead a deliberate attempt to exterminate the entire Jewish population in Europe, not to mention gypsies, communists, Soviet prisoners, ethnic Poles, homosexuals, political and religious dissidents, and the physically and mentally disabled. The Holocaust was, as the Nazis phrased it, “the final solution of the Jewish problem.” All told, some 6 million Jews, including over 1 million children, were systematically rounded up and executed60-75% of the Jews in Europe. If you add in the number of non-Jewish victims of such Nazi aggression, the number swells to between 9 and 11 million. How do you begin to wrap your mind around such concentrated evil? How could human beings do such a thing to other human beings? Sin is no common cold, no pimple on the tip of my nose.
I was amazed at Yad VaShem, secondly, at the extent to which peopleeven “ordinary” people like you and meare often involved, sometimes unknowingly, in carrying out evil. In Judges 19, for example, the local citizens of Gibeah refused to extend hospitality to the Levite, his concubine and servant when they first arrived in town, putting them immediately in a particularly vulnerable position. Then, unnamed hoodlums“sons of worthlessness”beat on the host’s door with the intent of abusing his guest. Finally, both the Levite and his host willingly surrendered the concubine to the hoodlums without any apparent regard for her welfare. They sought only to save their own necks. Everyone, it seems, was involved in one way or another.
Much the same thing, unfortunately, can be said about the Holocaust.
It is easy, of course, to blame Hitler and his demonic intentions, but the magnitude of this atrocity was made possible in large part through the complicity of others. Hitler could never have done such a horrendous thing alone. Churches, for example, helped supply the birth records that enabled the Nazis to identify the Jews. Postal workers delivered the deportation orders. The Finance Ministry confiscated Jewish property. German firms fired Jewish workers. Universities refused to admit Jewish students, expelled current ones, and terminated the employment of Jewish academics. Government transportation offices arranged for the trains to carry the Jews to extermination camps. German pharmaceutical companies tested various drugs on camp prisoners, and construction companies bid for contracts to build the ovens. Hitler did not carry out the Holocaust in isolation. It seems as though virtually everyone in Germany participated at some level.
The magnitude of evil and the various ways in which so many people participated in it nearly overwhelmed me at Yad VaShem. It is hard not to cry there, particularly when you walk through the Children’s Memorial, see the pictures of the young kids who perished, and hear the names and ages of each victim read aloud. I lost it myself when I heard the name of a child who was the same age as one of my own children. How could people do such things to other human beings? I wondered again.
But as my mind raced about, and as I felt my fingers tightening into a fist, I heard God calling me to look deep within my own heart and soul. He asked me to do two things, the very same two things that I want to ask each of you to do today and during the week ahead. He asked me, first of all, to confess my own sins against other people, whether in thought, word or deed. Though perhaps not of the magnitude of the atrocities on display in Yad VaShem, I, too, hurt other people. I categorize and label people, and I look down on people who are different from me. I speak in ways that are hurtful, ignore people who I would rather not have around, and often put my own interests high above the welfare of others. “Confess your own sins,” I heard the Lord saying to me. “Pay attention to the log in your own eye, for you, too, stand in need of mercy.”
And secondly, I sensed God calling me to confess my own complicity in the evil done by others without my protestation or intervention. My own reluctance to get involved in defending and helping those who are victimized and exploited by one group or another, in this place or in that. I read more than once a poem posted on one of the walls in Yad VaShem, a poem attributed to a pastor named Martin Niemöller:
When the Nazis came for the communists,
I remained silent;
I was not a communist.
When they locked up the social democrats,
I remained silent;
I was not a social democrat.
When they came for the trade unionists,
I did not speak out;
I was not a trade unionist.
When they came for the Jews,
I remained silent;
I was not a Jew.
When they came for me,
There was no one left to speak out.
”Forgive me,” I prayed, for my own indifference, for my sometimes acute ability to tolerate evil without doing anything about it.
What a morbid day, huh? You are all ready to catch a plane and visit Yad VaShem, right? In reality, it was a wonderful day. Honest confession to God and, when appropriate, to other people, brings great relief and hope. The stuff that we sometimes carry around with us for so long, the sins, the guilt, the painful memories, the secrets, the indifference, the lingering habits, the hurts we’ve caused others, all of it grows so heavy. And some of you are carrying some pretty heavy stuff. Confession to God and, when appropriate, to others, offers new beginnings, new opportunities for healing and freedom.
I know. The good Lord reminded of that as well as I left the main building at Yad VaShem and began walking down the sidewalk to the exit. On either side of the sidewalk are trees planted in honor of various people who helped protect and save Jews during the Holocaust. Trees of all sizes bearing the names of people from all over the world. Corrie Ten Boom, the Dutch Christian who, long with her entire family, built a secret room on the upper level of their house to help protect hundreds of Jews during the Nazi invasion of the Netherlands. Oskar Schindler, the German industrialist who hired, funded and ultimately saved nearly 1,200 Jews in what today is Poland.
But there is another tree growing along the sidewalk at Yad VaShem in honor of someone you’ve probably not heard about. Monsignor Hugh O’Flaherty was an Irish Priest serving at the Vatican in Rome during the Nazi occupation there. O’Flaherty, an extraordinarily courageous and creative man, orchestrated a secret passagewaya sort of underground railroadthat enabled literally thousands of Jews and other potential victims to flee imprisonment and a likely death.
What makes O’Flaherty stand out to me, however, has not so much to do with his heroic efforts on the part of the Jews, but his developing relationship with Colonel Herbert Kappler, the Nazi leader in occupied Rome. Kappler was ruthless, and his crimes against humanity in Rome and elsewhere are well documented. Kappler hated O’Flaherty, but he was stymied in his efforts to quiet him because of the international uproar that entering the Vatican would cause.
When the Nazis were finally defeated, Colonel Kappler was tried and given a lifetime sentence for the war crimes that he had committed. During the years of his imprisonment, Kappler reportedly received only one visitor. Month after month after month, Monsignour O’Flaherty came to the prison, sat with and talked to this otherwise neglected Colonel. Then, one day in 1953, Colonel Kappler confessed his sins before God and was baptized into the Christian Faith.
As I stood and stared at O’Flaherty’s tree, I couldn’t help but think of Paul’s words in Romans 5:20: “…but where sin increased, grace abounded all the more,…” Or as Eugene Peterson paraphrases the passage in The Message, “Sin didn’t, and doesn’t, have a chance in competition with the aggressive forgiveness we call grace. When its sin versus grace, grace wins hands down.” To be sure, Yad VaShem reminds me of the terrible evil in the world, and it likewise points out the level at which everyone, including you and me, are sometimes involved. But Yad VaShem does more than that. Yad VaShem points beyond the pain, suffering and evil in the world and assures us that genuine confession to God and, when appropriate, to other people we’ve wronged, brings healing, hope and new beginnings. “When its sin versus grace, grace wins hands down.”