Rector's Ramblings April 26, 2017
Last Friday I arrived late to Relay for Life because I had accepted an invitation to offer a homily at Temple Beth Tefilloh in Brunswick. Many of you heard Rabbi Rachael Bregman when she preached at Christ Church during Advent, and she invited me to come worship with them for their regular Friday night service. This service happened to be one that included a commemoration of the Holocaust, as the service closest to Holocaust Remembrance Day.
She extended the invitation because I had shared with her that our Lenten reading group was studying the works of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German pastor and theologian who stood up to the Nazis and eventually gave his life as a result. (That’s the quick summary.) One of the things that set Bonhoeffer apart was that he stood up for the Jews when virtually no one else in Germany was doing so. As I admitted in my homily, Bonhoeffer is still somewhat controversial, however, because he held onto some anti-Semitic theological perspectives about Jews on the whole – particularly early in his career.
As a 20th Century German theologian in the Lutheran tradition, he held that the Jews were responsible for murdering Jesus, a claim that may be partially true, but not wholly true. Scholarship has allowed us to dismiss this simplified finger pointing. He would also have seen Jews primarily as fertile ground for conversion to Christianity. He also portrayed a view that basically articulates that Christianity replaced Judaism and that God’s chosen people are now those who follow Christ, a stance that is completely dismissive of the Jewish religion. But, as time went on and Bonhoeffer reflected on what was happening to the Jews, his understanding changed and he came to identify with those who suffered under the Nazis, particularly the Jews. He died before he could continue his formal theological writing on such topics, but those who studied under him did lay the theological groundwork for dismissing traditional anti-Semitic Christian understandings of Judaism.
I shared all of this with the congregation at Beth Tefilloh and explained how reading Bonhoeffer and considering the Holocaust during Lent had inspired me. At its core, Bonhoeffer’s theology is based on discipleship. Much of Bonhoeffer’s theology boils down to living as Christ wants us to live, which means identifying with the poor and the vulnerable and seeking justice and an end to oppression. Reading from his books, essays, and even his personal letters and poetry one begins to understand how his faith led him to stand up for the Jews and resist the Nazis. It inspires me to speak up when I see and hear injustice and hateful speech. Had enough people spoken out sooner, we may not have seen the Holocaust at all. There was a point in time when it could have been stopped.
Too often we fall into self-preservation mode, not really addressing things that we may think are dangerous or wrong because they don’t directly affect us. For example, are eminent domain debates nearly as important until it’s our property that is in jeopardy? Or, does sea level rise, as a part of climate change, matter as much to those who don’t live on the coast? Do we care about the schools that other people’s children go to, as long as ours are doing well? Perhaps we think hateful speech isn’t so bad because it doesn’t target and therefore doesn’t affect us directly. There are many such examples that might represent a need for good people to take action, were it not for their relative comfortableness and a bit of fear.
The Holocaust didn’t happen overnight. It started slowly, and legally (technically speaking), and it happened with the consent of many good people along the way. While we remember its nine million victims, we also must remember its millions of supporters, or at least those too apathetic to stop it before it was too late. There was a point after which it truly was a death sentence to stand up to the Nazis, but it didn’t start out that way. As we consider the Holocaust 72 years on, pledging that it could never happen again, one of the lessons we have learned is that we are the only ones who will make sure it doesn’t happen again. If we are consistent in seeking justice, and respecting the dignity of every human being (as our Baptismal Covenant calls us to do) we’ll be ok. If we falter in our efforts, history could indeed repeat itself. Or, we could see a 21st Century version. Let us fervently pray that we won’t let any such thing happen on our watch.
Ribbono shel Olam – Master of the Universe:
On this most solemn of occasions, we open our hearts, minds, and souls to you.
As we remember the six million, the eleven million, the indifference, and the evil;
As we honor the heroes, the martyrs, the survivors, and the victims;
We ask you to soothe our souls, to amplify our memories, to strengthen our resolve, and to hear our prayers.
We ask for your presence in our midst; for healing, light, and love to soothe and ease our pain, as we commemorate the horrors that were committed not long ago. Please, oh Holy One, be gentle with our souls.
We ask that you help us to forever remember the stories we hear. As tales of the atrocities are shared, as we re-encounter the unthinkable, we ask that these memories be strengthened and never fade, in the hope that those who remember the mistakes of the past will not repeat them. Please, oh Holy One, amplify our ability to remember.
We ask that you strengthen our will, that you help us to ensure that the world does not again see such monstrosities. We say "never again" and we dedicate ourselves to this principle, to the idea that justice does not allow persecution, that genocide shall not be repeated, and that vigilance is the responsibility of freedom, at all costs. Please, oh Holy One, make manifest our resolve that these horrors remain but memories.
We ask that you answer our prayers. We pray that the call of evil falls on deaf ears, that those who fight for freedom and justice always prevail, that those who need protection do not become victims. We pray that the lessons we learn from this darkest hour allow all humankind to better itself, and to truly and nobly embody the idea that we are each made in Your image. We pray for the souls of the millions and millions of victims of this brutality; we pray that we honor their lives and their memories by observing this day, and by doing everything in our power and beyond to make sure that no such shadow again darkens our world.
Above all, we pray for shalom—for wholeness and peace—to be in our midst, now and forever. Please, oh Holy One, answer our prayers and bring us a world devoid of hatred, filled instead with peace.
Ken yehi ratzon – may this be God's will. And may we all say together, Amen.
Rabbi David Katz