On a recent Sunday, after leading worship at Groton Community Church (UCC), I sat in on a caregiving committee meeting at one of the most progressive UCC churches in our Association. Before long, the meeting devolved into a discussion about displaying the American flag in the church sanctuary during worship services. Sigh.
Later that afternoon, I attended a talk at Tikkun v’Or (TvO), a reformed synagogue in Ithaca, New York. The topic was the Holocaust—and more specifically, the story of thirty Jewish children who were hidden from the Gestapo from 1942 to 1945 by the residents of a little French village, Savigny Le Vieux, in the region of Normandy. It was a remarkable story of heroism and moral courage during perilous times. Simon Jeruchim, one of those thirty children and now an artist living in upstate New York, was the speaker. (Simon’s story is chronicled in his book, Hidden in France: A Boy’s Journey Under the Nazi Occupation—A Memoir [McKinleyville, California: Fithian Press, 2012).
Somehow, that earlier caregivers’ discussion about displaying the American flag during worship lent a tone of urgency to the TvO talk; both events were fraught with important lessons:
The sanctity of life. Children, the elderly, immigrants, and those who are oppressed by anti- Semitism, racism, sexism, homophobia, Islamophobia, and xenophobia are among the most vulnerable members of our society. We must welcome and protect them. “No matter who you are, or where you are on life’s journey” . . . well, you know the rest.
The importance of, and the utter need for, the Sanctuary Movement (and Sanctuary Churches) in America. This one is easy. Re-read the last paragraph about the sanctity of life.
The sacred imperative of helping others, and the evil of apathy. As I listened to Simon Jeruchim, I remembered the Rev. Martin Niemöller’s famous, but tragic apology for German citizen apathy and moral cowardice:
First they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out— Because I was not a socialist.
Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out— Because I was not a trade unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.
This is an ominous statement, particularly when read today, because racism and xenophobia dominate American politics and social discourse. Even so, I was heartened by TvO Rabbi Brian Walt’s citation of Michael Adam Latz’s defiant response to Niemöller’s lament (“First they Came,” Truah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights, 2016):
First they came for African Americans and I spoke up—
Because I am my sisters’ and my brothers’ keeper.
Then they came for the women and I spoke up—
Because women hold up half the sky.
Then they came for the immigrants and I spoke up—
Because I remember the ideals of our democracy.
Then they came for the Muslims and I spoke up—
Because they are my cousins and we are one human family.
Then they came for the Native Americans and Mother Earth, and I spoke up—
Because the blood-soaked land cries and the mountains weep.
They keep coming.
And we keep rising up.
Because we know the cost of silence.
We remember where we came from.
And we will link arms, because when you come for our neighbors, you come for us—
and THAT just won’t stand.
Patriotic sentiment can drive reasonable people to think, say, and do unreasonable things. During the TvO talk, my mind drifted to the subject of patriotism. I remembered Colin Kaepernick and other players who had been taking a knee during the singing of the national anthem at the start of NFL games, and I remembered that their protest was about the persistence of racism in America, and about a pattern of police killings of unarmed citizens of color. I remembered that many white Americans had misinterpreted Kaepernick’s argument, and said that those kneeling players were rich and spoiled, and disrespectful to the American flag and the national anthem, or perhaps to the military, or perhaps to America itself.
I remembered that strange discussion, earlier in the day, about displaying the flag in the church sanctuary.
I remembered reading about the Weimar Republic—which immediately preceded the 1934 ascent to power of Adolf Hitler and National Socialism in Germany. The Weimar Republic was a pretty robust democracy, yet it turned totalitarian. And I wondered if something like that could happen in the United States.
I remembered that the German people were just as patriotic under National Socialism as we Americans are today; they loved their country just as much as we love ours. The Nazi flag and full-throated affirmations of Aryan exceptionalism and patriotic sentiment were prominently featured in many German church services every Sunday morning. Good German Christians loved both their country and their political leaders, and were in full agreement that something needed to be done about all the “undesirables”—a category that included Jews, Gypsies, Blacks, Slavic peoples, Jehovah’s Witnesses, LGBT people, people of disability, and “foreigners”— living in Germany. And in the end, a shocking number of good German Christians endorsed the Holocaust.
I also remembered that the U. S. State Department and the American government were unable— or perhaps unwilling—to do anything to stop the Holocaust; Roosevelt Administration officials had heard reports that Germany was imprisoning and slaughtering millions of Jews, but they could not believe that such a civilized and cultured people (after all, Germany had given the world Beethoven and Goethe!) were capable of that kind of barbarism and cruelty.
It occurred to me that similar patriotic sentiment can prompt American churchgoers to demand that the American flag be displayed in church sanctuaries, while endorsing a government that deports undocumented immigrants and separates children from their parents and put them in cages.
It is easy to get injured or killed in America today. Patriotism can do it. So can military service. So can simply living in the United States, if you’re Black. Your rights can be taken away, and you can be subjected to harassment, discrimination, physical assault, imprisonment, deportation, or worse.
Americans cannot condemn the Holocaust, which occurred in the 1940s, and at the same time support Israel’s ongoing cruelties to the Palestinian peoples, and its theft of Palestinian territories, which are happening right now. The two are mutually exclusive. Of course, we must condemn the Holocaust. And that condemnation requires supporting the “outsider,” the stranger, and the “other.” Condemning the Holocaust must mean defending undocumented immigrants, eradicating the scourge of Islamophobia, and advocating for the civil liberties and rights of Palestinian peoples.
The lessons of ethnic, racial and religious intolerance are not just for the targets of bigotry and discrimination—they are especially for the perpetrators and the oppressors. I was disturbed when I saw that the audience at the TvO talk was heavily Jewish—just as I am disturbed whenever Holocaust Remembrance Day events are attended mostly by Jews, and whenever commemorative programs and services on Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s birthday are regarded as African-American events. It is white Christians—people who look like me—who need to be attending such services and programs, and heeding their lessons.
Finally, “the love of Jesus” is too precious to be reserved only for Christians. Years ago, I read Corrie Ten Boom’s The Hiding Place (1971), about how she and her family hid Jews from the Holocaust in their family home in the Netherlands. And I remember that she credited “the love of Jesus” for prompting her humanitarian action. Well, I don’t know the religious affiliation of the villagers who hid the thirty Jewish children in Savigny-le-Vieux in 1942—but I don’t think that “loving Jesus” is the only reason people do remarkable and heroic things. I believe that many good people today—of any and all conceivable religious affiliations, or of no religious affiliation whatsoever—act heroically based on simple human compassion. Stated differently, I believe that Muslims, Jews, Buddhists, atheists, and Wiccans can all practice and express “the love of Jesus” as well as, or perhaps better than, many Christians do.
At the end of the presentation, TvO member Tony Gaenslen asked an important question: “So what? What does this amazing story have to do with us today, and how should it motivate our behavior?” He then referred to a September 2018 CBS report which said that, to date, the Trump Administration had separated 12,800 migrant children from their families, and was holding them in detention camps. And then Tony said that all of us—Jews and non-Jews, religious Americans and the non-religious—should be raising holy hell about the mistreatment of immigrants and children (Grace Segers, “Feds Holding 12,800 Migrant Children in Detention Centers, Report Says,” CBS News, September 12, 2018).
The TvO talk about the thirty Jewish kids who were saved made the earlier conversation that I had overheard–the one about displaying the American flag in church sanctuaries–rather silly. Would that moral courage and the kind of heroic action that saved thirty children in Savigny-le-Vieux be displayed in American houses of worship instead?
As Simon Jeruchim noted in his final remarks, survivors have a moral obligation to tell their stories and to try to help. “Some may say, ‘My story is too insignificant, and carries no weight,’—but every story is important to tell.”
Rev. Chris Xenakis is a UCC pastor currently serving Groton Community Church (UCC) in Central New York. In addition, he is an adjunct lecturer at SUNY-Cortland, teaching courses this year on world politics, democracy, U.S. foreign policy and multiculturalism. Chris has written numerous books and articles, which can be found on his blog.