15 April 2012 - Yom HaShoah - John 20:19-23
The Reverend Kirk Alan Kubicek
This is my seventeenth Yom HaShoah service at St. Peter’s. I have been asked, since the beginning, Why do we interrupt our regular service schedule? Why do we interrupt Easter Season, to hold an observance that remembers the Holocaust? My answer has always been simple: The Holocaust itself was a major interruption of Western Civilization, an interruption that could not have happened without a long history anti-Semitism supported by the Church.
I grew up in a pluralistic suburb of Chicago in the 1950’s and ‘60’s. My father had spent time after World War II rounding up Nazi war criminals. I can remember seeing pictures of the concentrations camps, pogroms, Nazi rallies and so forth in paperback books as early as elementary school. Many of my friends growing up were Jewish, and I attended several bar and bat mitzvah parties. The most memorable took place at the local YMCA. I won a dance contest at that party, and the prize was a then popular record by the Singing Nun. Talk about religious pluralism! Although the Holocaust as such was never discussed in those days, I can remember knowing at a young age that the magnitude of suffering was greater than anything I could possibly imagine.
When I went away to college I decided I wanted to know more about Jesus. I chose what was to be an important path for seeking that knowledge. I figured that Jesus was Jewish, so it made the most sense to register for the Introduction to Judaism course being taught at our college by a local Rabbi, Stanley Kessler.
The first assignment for Rabbi Kessler was to read Elie Wiesel’s slim personal account of life in the concentration camps, Night. It should be observed that it took Wiesel eleven years after Auschwitz to even begin to write this book. He wrote over 800 pages of manuscript and distilled it to 124 pages. It is now standard reading in High Schools across the country. In the fall of 1968 few people had heard of this book, in fact few of our Religion Department faculty had even heard of Wiesel, and even fewer had read it.
To say that it changed my life is not enough. To say that it changed my faith is only the beginning. It caused me to reexamine from the ground up how Christianity had allowed itself to stray so far from the humble origins of its founder, a young Israeli Jew, and to have fostered in the name of Christ an anti-Semitism that transformed a Christian and highly cultured country like Germany into a seething caldron of hate, violence and destruction against the very people to whom, as Paul says, we gentiles have been grafted.
The anonymous author(s) of John, however, write from a much later date when both Jews and Christians are under persecution by Rome. It was an atmosphere of fear in which this gospel was written. As such, Jews and Christians in first century Israel were in hiding for their lives. We had a shared history at the point in time. Our memory of that, however, is lacking. This has caused problems.
A second thing we might notice is that the text is usually translated “for fear of the Jews.” Now on the surface of it this should cause us to wonder. For all the followers in that room were Jews. What the Greek text of the New Testament says is “for fear of the Judeans.”
It is up to the reader to remember that all the Jews in the room behind locked doors were Galileans, not Judeans. Galileans were considered somewhat like country bumpkins – not sophisticated, socially inferior, from the wrong side of the tracks. Way back in chapter 1 of John, Nathaniel asks Philip who is telling him about Jesus, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” which is in Galilee? It was just as true back in the first century as it is today, not all Jews are alike, come from the same background, or think the same things.
The third thing, and the most tragic thing, is that it is all too easy to see how a text like this could be used to support anti-Semitism. “Well, if the disciples feared the Jews, how much more should we fear the Jews?” the argument might go. Whereas if you are talking about Judeans, a pluralistic culture even way back in the time of Jesus, one would be strained to make a similar argument.
We are called to be witnesses of these things. There are those in the world who deny that the
Holocaust ever happened. There are those who make it out to be a hoax, a plot, an effort to curry world opinion, a public relations stunt. Even worse, there are racist and anti-Semitic video games on the market including one called Ethnic Cleansing. On its website it states with pride, “The most politically incorrect video game ever made. Run through the ghetto blasting away various blacks and spics in an attempt to gain entrance to the subway system, where the jews have hidden to avoid the carnage. Then, if YOU'RE lucky.... you can blow away jews as they scream "Oy Vey!", on your way to their command center.” Since this game’s release in 2003, several others have hit the market, marketed by White Supremacy groups. We can never forget that such groups have only grown stronger and become better organized since the dawn of the internet.
We must also never forget that for years in the 1930’s and 40’s thousands of European Jews attempting to escape the coming Holocaust were refused entry into the United States, giving Hitler the propaganda boost of being able to say in all truth, “See, even the United States does not want the Jews.” This was in part due to immigration quotas, but also in part due to State Department policies that were in fact anti-Semitic.
Years of treacherous teachings by the church contributed to making all of this possible. Years of teachings by the church obscured the fact that the cornerstone of my faith was a young Israeli Jew. Reading Night, studying alongside my Jewish classmates for three years in college, made me aware of all this, and eventually brought me closer to Jesus than I had been before studying Judaism.
I went on in college to read every book he had written, and to write my Religion Department thesis on the work and witness of Elie Wiesel. I concluded my paper, “Wiesel’s tale is also important for people today. Wake up, people, see what you have done, see what you can do. The civilization that created Mozart, Voltaire, Beethoven – this is the same civilization that also created Dachau, Auschwitz and Hiroshima. It is our turn to choose between beauty and ugliness. Wiesel’s tale is important for religion – be it Christian or Jew. Wiesel has said on several occasions, ‘For either God is God, and I do not do enough to serve God, or God is not God, and it is my fault. We must not think it is our fault. It is our privilege.’” [Elie Wiesel, from a Lecture in Worcester, MA – 1972]
It is a difficult task, Yom HaShoah. It is an interruption. We must face into the truth of our past and at the same time lift up the lives of those who shined with the Paschal Light of Christ in humanity’s darkest hour. We must be witnesses of these things. Christians and Jews must come together to shine God’s light into the dark corners of the world today - the God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and Jesus. Amen.