From The Journey to Peace
After the soldiers had crucified Jesus they took his garments and divided them four ways, one for each soldier. There was also his tunic, but this tunic was woven in one piece from top to bottom and had no seam. They said to each other, “We should not tear it. Let us throw dice to see who gets it.” (The purpose of this was to have the Scripture fulfilled: “They divided my garments among them; for my clothing they cast lots.”) And this was what the soldiers did. (John 19:23-24)
Faith and Goodness Triumph Over Evil
A friend of mine brought back a book of photographs that he bought at Yad Vashem in Jerusalem. Its title is The Holocaust, and it was published by the Martyrs and Heroes Remembrance Authority at Yad Vashem. The caption of the first photo describes a “Nazi mass rally in Berlin, August 15, 1936, at which they foresaw a Germany ‘cleansed’ of Jews.” The chief slogan in this picture reads, “The Jews are our misfortune.”
The final photo in the book bears this caption: “Children – prisoners of the Auschwitz concentration camp – after liberation, January 1945.”
I would like to share with you some reflections based on one photo from that book. It is not the most horrible picture, nor is it the most famous. Let me describe it for you and then share some of my own reactions and reflections.
Two men face one another. One is a Nazi soldier. The other is a Jewish civilian. The Nazi wears a steel helmet with the strap secured tightly under his prominent chin. The civilian wears a cloth cap with a billed visor. The soldier’s mouth looks as if it is just about to break into a grin. He seems to be enjoying what he is doing. By contrast, the Jewish civilian’s face is contorted, twisted, as if he is about to weep. There is great pain, grief, agony, embarrassment in his countenance. In his right hand the soldier has a pair of scissors – not a weapon. He is cutting off the beard and earlocks of the Jewish believer.
The caption reads, “Shearing off or plucking out beard and earlocks of Orthodox Jews in front of jeering crowds was a favorite pastime in occupied Poland.”
Why does that picture remain in my mind? On the surface it is far more benign than the pictures of emaciated bodies lying strewn in a huge mass grave in the Nordhausen concentration camp. It is not as confronting as the eighteen faces staring from the wooden bunks at Buchenwald. It is not as gruesome as the skeletal remains outside the crematorium furnaces of Majdanek.
Why then does it stand out? Because it is so close to being ordinary. Because it is not so horrendous as to be totally alien to our own experience. Because it is within the realm of our own possibilities for cruelty.
So many of the perpetrators of the horrors of the Holocaust were banal, petty, mean-spirited, envious, cruel people. They were bullies who had extraordinary opportunity to act out their prejudices, their hatreds.
That is what we see in the picture that I just described. A bully who has power over another human being. A person who can transform a simple act that barbers perform daily into an act of humiliation and desecration. How simple it is to cut someone’s hair! And yet what a violation of one’s dignity it can be. What a violation of a sacred way of life, a faith, a tradition, a commitment! A smirk on one face. Depth of pain, loss, humiliation on the other.
As we look at this scene, we realize that we are, at our worst moments, capable of similar actions. No, we could not starve people to death. No, we would not turn on a gas oven or crematorium. No, we could not shoot children in cold blood. But yes, we could humiliate another human person. Yes, we could smirk in enjoyment at someone else’s embarrassment. Yes, we could mock someone else’s cherished symbols of belief.
The child who taunts a classmate beyond endurance. The adult who tells jokes with racial, religious, or ethnic mockery. The superior who publicly berates an employee. These commonplace instances are not entirely alien to the banality, the petty cruelty, the meanness of spirit in that photograph.
Two men face to face. One with a pair of scissors and a smug grin. He is in command. The other with shorn locks and deep pain. That is what we see on the surface of things. But the words of the Book of Lamentations help us see beneath the surface:
I tell myself my future is lost. . .
but I will call this to mind, as my
reason to have hope. . .
My position is the Lord, therefore
will I hope in him.
(Lamentations 3:18, 21, 24)
The magnificence of faith and goodness stands triumphant over the banality of evil and malice. The Holocaust recalls, at one and the same time, the depths to which humanity can fall and the heights to which human beings can rise. In the final analysis, love is stronger than death. Faith is stronger than hatred. Compassion will outlast cruelty.
O God, my shield and protector, I know what it
means to have power over someone else. It is a
human weakness to strive for power over others, it
alienates us from our true selves and from others.
Help me to cleanse this weakness from my life so
that I can help empower others, not humiliate them.
We Must Stand Naked Before the Lord
We must first relax – physically and emotionally. We must quiet the noise in our hearts. We must be still. We have to get away from our ministerial duties, our coworkers, the pressures and frustrations that are part of the daily cross we carry.
Then we must stand before the Lord, naked, without any kind of camouflage, make-believe, or pretense. We must leave our outer mask at the door. As public persons, this isn’t always easy to do, as you and I well know.
We must also be open to whatever he has in mind for us; we must be willing to take whatever path he points out. Otherwise, there would be little point in coming together this way. Our journey into the wilderness would end up being merely an intellectual exercise, without impacting our life and ministry in any significant way. The only ground rule is that nothing in our life – good, bad, or indifferent – can be off-limits to the Lord.
Finally, we must signal our willingness to be converted more deeply, more completely. We must be willing to accept his transforming love. Ultimately, this is a matter of the heart. “Oh, that today you would hear his voice: ‘Harden not your hearts as at Meribah, as in the day of Massah in the desert, where your fathers tempted me; they tested me though they had seen my works.'” (Psalm 95:7-9)
O Lord, my God, it is difficult to stand or sit or
kneel in your presence just as I am, with no
pretenses, no camouflage. It is even harder to allow
you to guide me on my journey; I often prefer to chart
my own course. Help me to listen to you so that I
may truly give my heart to you, holding nothing
Conversion Demands That We Be Humble and Honest
Conversion demands certain things of us. First, it demands a certain humility. By this, I mean knowing who we are and who Jesus is. It means being truthful, honest with ourselves and with Jesus. Much of our time is spent pretending, trying to persuade others and even ourselves that we are different from what we really are. But how can we talk about conversion unless we acknowledge our true rather than our imaginary selves? How can we enter into an authentic relationship with the Lord if it is not based on honesty and truthfulness? How can Jesus help us, heal us, reconcile us, if we are unwilling to present ourselves to him as we are? When we turn to the Lord in conversion, we need not be afraid to tell him about our failings, our infidelities, our sins. He understands us better than we do ourselves. So all we need is to acknowledge candidly our strengths and weaknesses – in fact, our total dependence on him.
God, you are my light and my salvation. Help me
to be honest with myself. That is true humility, not
puffing myself up or discounting the gifts I have received
from you. You already know all about me.
Why do I try to hide from you? Why do I not trust