Forgive Us Their Trespasses
Rev. Jeffrey Symynkywicz, April 9, 2000
There is something about the turn of a century that makes people want to seek forgiveness, I guess. Certainly, in the news over the past few months, we've seen more than our fair share of public confessions, of public figures seeming to own up to some of the past failings of the institutions they represent: the Pope asking forgiveness of the Jewish people for the Holocaust on his recent trip to the Holy Land; our President saying that perhaps African Americans are owed an official apology for the crimes of slavery...
In March of 1998, the Vatican issued a long-awaited document, "We Remember: Reflections on the Shoa" (or, the Holocaust). Written by the "Commission on Religious Relations with the Jews", and more than nine years in the making, its publication received extensive media coverage. In the time since then, Pope John Paul II has referred to this document (and its teachings) on numerous occasions. Recently, on his historic trip to Israel and the Holy Land, the Pope has reiterated the document's main teachings-- as though he wanted to clarify this great religious issue between Christians and Jews once and for all in these (perhaps) latter years of his papacy.
Reaction to the document "We Remember", and to the Pope's official utterances since, has ranged from joyful praise to hostile criticism, and has encompassed just about everything in between. Some see the Vatican's stance as a bold and courageous step, seeking to bring us into the new millennium by redressing the imbalances of the past, and moving forward on a new basis. Others believe that the document (and the Vatican's words and deeds since it was issued) fall far short of genuine contrition for past evils-- that the whole exercise is merely a ploy to obscure the deeper issues involved and cover up the Church's past moral failures.
Perhaps a closer look at "We Remember" is called for...
The statement begins by noting that the 20th Century is "fast coming to a close and a new millennium of the Christian era is about to dawn". New occasions demand new duties, as James Russell Lowell once wrote. In this great historical context, then, all Christians (indeed, all people) are called upon to reflect upon past history-- to discern the workings of God, the workings of the Spirit, in human affairs-- to discern, especially, those places where "the image of the divine in [humanity] has been offended and disfigured"-- those places where we have failed to meet the standards of God's justice and righteousness in our (and our forebears') dealings with others.
In the 20th Century, the greatest of these failings has been the Holocaust. The Shoa, says the Commission was "an unspeakable tragedy, which can never be forgotten [and] a major fact of the history of this century which concerns us even today." The words of the Pope himself are even more blunt on this: The Holocaust, the Pope wrote, was a "crime [which] remains an indelible stain on the history of the century that is coming to a close".
The Holocaust was a Very Bad Thing, the writers of "We Remember" conclude (hardly a radical pronouncement)-- and furthermore, it is important (indeed, critical) for Christians to remember the Holocaust, because it is at the root of the common future which Christians and Jews must build together. For "there is no future without memory," the authors of "We Remember" rightfully declare. So, we need to look closely at the pain and suffering which the Jewish people withstood during the Second World War. Those are difficult sentiments with which to argue, obviously, and one yearns for more specifics as one reads them. Part Two-- "What We Must Remember"-- provides some of these specifics.
There are two main points which Christian people need to ponder, the document says: One is that throughout history "the Jewish people have suffered much at different times and in many places", but that the Holocaust "was certainly the worst suffering of all." All this was done to them, the text continues "for the sole reason that they were Jews." Again, we seem to be dancing around the surface of the obvious.
The second point seems to cut a little deeper: It states that because of the magnitude of the crimes against the Jews, and the fact that the Holocaust took place in Europe, Christians have a responsibility to question the relationship between Western (that is, largely Christian) civilization and the anti-Semitism which made these crimes against the Jews (culminating in the Holocaust) possible. This is the core of "We Remember": an overview of the history between Jews and Christians, and a discussion of the relationship of Nazi anti-Semitism both to the Shoa and to the Catholic Church. It is also where the document (and the Pope's later utterances based upon it) seem to fall farthest from the goal of genuine contrition and apology.
There is a grudgingness, a half-heartedness, a passivity in many of the commission's utterances-- which makes one wonder if the search for truth was really at the heart of the work here-- or (perhaps) a more palatable, less challenging version of "truth" which would pay lip service to certain historical grievances while leaving the Church's overall position largely unchanged. (But you see: You can't have genuine contrition unless you're also willing to change because of it. Any kind of apology which adds all kinds of qualifications and but's and however's is just about useless in terms of how it really changes anything.
The air of reluctance in "We Remember" is obvious almost from the start. Consider this sentence in speaking of the Holocaust:
"Before this horrible genocide, which leaders of nations and Jewish communities themselves found hard to believe at the very moment when it was mercilessly being put into effect, no one can remain indifferent, least of all the church." Why all these qualifications? Why the sop that seems to say, "Well, everybody else didn't know what was going on-- why should we be any better?" Why not just write, "Before this horrible genocide, no one can remain indifferent, least of all the Church"? Straightforward-- to the point-- an abject apology that says right off: "We should have known better. We should have done more."
Or, even more troublingly perhaps, consider the account of Jewish-Christian relations which the document presents. The history of Christians and Jews is "a tortured one", "We Remember" says, and then its authors add: "In effect, the balance of these relations over two thousand years has been quite negative." And then the narrative begins: "At the dawn of Christianity, after the crucifixion of Jesus, there arose disputes between the early Church and the Jewish leaders and people who, in their devotion to the Law, on occasion violently opposed the preachers of the Gospel and the first Christians."
Why on earth this reference to the ancient persecutions of Christians by Jews in a document looking at the Holocaust? It comes too close, it seems to me, to a covert attempt to establish a moral equivalency between Christian anti-Semitism and Jewish anti-Christianity which, historically, does not exist.
Now, there may well be many Jews who, throughout history, have loathed Christianity (perhaps even unfairly from a Christian perspective). But historically, when we look at the long history of torments, pogroms, discrimination, persecution-- culminating in the unspeakably horrible events of the Holocaust in our own century-- there is no "balance", no "equivalency" whatsoever.
All the evil spawn which the Christian Church has birthed-- colonialism, racism, sexism and misogyny, homophobia-- have their festering ground in the original sin of Christianity, as it were-- the sin of anti-Semitism.
But consider the Church's (now) official summary of the ugly situation in the Middle Ages: "Sentiments of anti-Judaism in some Christian quarters. And the gap which existed between the Church and the Jewish people, led to a generalized discrimination, which ended at times in expulsions or attempts at forced conversions."
"In some Christian quarters?" No-- in many Christian quarters-- probably in most Christian quarters. Moreover, these "sentiments of anti-Judaism" (which was really anti-Semitism-- and why not use that term instead: It wasn't Jewish faith that was being attacked; it was individual Jewish men, women, and children-- and not because of what they professed, but of who they were)-- led not only to expulsion and conversion, but also to torture and murder in many instances, centuries before Hitler took power.
Then, the next sentence gets even stickier: "In a large part of the 'Christian' world [with "Christian" in quotation marks, for perhaps the only time ever in an official Church document] until the end of the 18th Century, those who were not Christian did not always enjoy a fully [legal] status." A little bit of punctuation is important sometimes, because it can really twist meaning. Those two little quotation marks are important. It wasn't in the (so called) "Christian" world that non-Christians (especially Jews) were persecuted. It was in the Christian world-- in governments run by self-proclaimed, proudly-proclaimed Christians in years long before separation of Church and State became the norm, who took the actions they took against others in the name of their Christian faith-- who (supposedly) built their institutions based upon the tenets and ethics and standards of their faith.
From the documents rendition of the Church's response to Nazism, you would think that Catholicism was one of Hitler's main opponents during the Second World War. Such was, sadly and obviously, not the case. "We Remember" cites at length (and rightfully so) the few Catholic priests who preached courageously against Fascism-- and theirs is a very heroic story from a very sad time. But the document also makes it seem as though these priests were the rule rather than the exception, which they certainly were not. Especially as the Nazi juggernaut swept over Europe, most Christian clergy (Catholic and Protestant alike) remained silent, went along with the mad regime, and bided their time.
At the highest levels of the Church, there was (before the war), Pope Pius XI's encyclical of 1937, Mit Brennender Sorge (or, "With Burning Sorrow"), in which he denounced Nazism-- but critically-- did not denounce anti-Semitism. To the contrary, Pius XI still saw fit to characterize the Jews as "the people destined to crucify [Christ]"-- he still blamed them for the death of Jesus. (Indeed, the Church wouldn't change that official stand until 1971.) Pope Pius XI opposed the Nazi regime not because it was anti-Jewish, or inhumane or unjust, but because it was pagan, nascently anti-Christian. In "With Burning Sorrow", the pope denounced these "pre-Christian Teutons [who]... elevate a somber, impersonal destiny above the personal God, who make the race or the Folk or the state... the object of an idolatrous cult."
Now, in "We Remember", his words are almost echoed, and the Holocaust is blamed once again not on anti-Semitism (with its long, sad history at the base of Western civilization). Rather, according to the Commission, "The Shoah was the work of a thoroughly modern, neo-pagan regime." And Hitler's anti-Semitism "had its roots outside of Christianity, and in pursuing its aims, it did not hesitate to oppose the Church and persecute her members also."
Those are really sad sentences, because they undermine much of the good that this document could have produced. Remember: Any kind of apology which adds all kinds of qualifications and but's and "however's is just about useless in terms of how it really changes anything.
The Holocaust was not merely the work of some abstract "regime". It was the work of a totalitarian society-- which is to say, it was perpetrated and abetted by an entire society-- which was, in its tradition and orientation and heritage Christian. Millions and millions of people cannot be ostracized, persecuted, arrested, tortured, shot, deported, concentrated, gassed, and burned by an abstract "regime". It takes thousands and thousands of accomplices. Thousands and hundreds of thousands and millions of otherwise decent men and women-- laborers and teachers and bureaucrats and ministers and priests and bishops who remain silent, bide their time, go along-- and do the "regime's" dirty work.
As I've said before, it often occurs to me when I read history that most of the truly monstrous tyrants of our century-- Hitler, Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot, to name just a few-- probably never killed a single individual in their lives. Yet, their regimes (what they stood for) cost the lives of millions upon millions. All because people would "go along to get along": a good enough philosophy in everyday life, perhaps; a deadly sin when we are confronted by the reign of a tyrant.
There is no use to the study of history unless we take its lessons inside ourselves, ponder them in our hearts, and glimpse how they might change us-- how they might contribute to the role was can each play in moving humanity's story forward, and building a more just and loving world on this good Earth.
In our personal lives, when we apologize to someone else we've hurt, we hold out our hand and say, "There is no excuse for what I've done. There is no way to explain it away, or qualify it, or to hedge my bets. But I know that the pain I caused you now hurts me, too. But here is my hand. Let's start over."
If the other person senses that our remorse is sincere, then the pain we share between us can become the bridge over which we walk into the future together-- into a wholly new relationship, starting from a new beginning.
In the venue of history, however, the questions range just a little wider. Nations (like churches) have the responsibility to face their histories with honesty and humility. Being a just people requires having a true picture of where we have come from. Germany has had to face its responsibility for allowing a mad man like Hitler to come to power and all the horrendous devastation that wrought. We Americans, too, have deep and painful questions to ask ourselves: Do we owe an apology to the Native American people of America for the crimes our ancestors committed against theirs? Should we apologize for slavery, even though none of us owned slaves, and most of us probably had no ancestors that did?
There's a fine line, it seems to me, between facing our history and wallowing in the assumed guilt of previous generations. It's all fine and well, I guess, to have the President issue a statement apologizing for slavery in the 18th and 19th Centuries.
It's much important, though, to implement programs that face squarely the issue of racism and the growing economic divide in contemporary America (which has now reached absolutely ludicrous and obscene proportions).
It's important to remember the Holocaust. Not to wallow in the pain of the past. Not to use it as a cudgel to browbeat anyone who dares to oppose every particular policy of the Israeli government. Not to cut off Germany from the rest of the world.
But to guarantee that as long as we live, and as long as our children remember, there will be no further holocausts. But even here, how imperfect our learning and how quickly we forget. We were too late in Cambodia. We were too late in Rwanda. We were almost too late in Bosnia and Kosovo and East Timor and Guatemala, and God knows where else.
Perhaps the document "We Remember" (and the Pope's subsequent pronouncements), as imperfect as they are, can nevertheless be seeds from which good can grow. While it flees from the frankness and directness that we might have liked to have seen, its central message abides:
We must live with our eyes open, and acknowledge our communal and individual sins. Christians must never again let their gospel of love be twisted into a theology of hate. We must, together, dedicate ourselves to a future where the tears of the past have been transformed into mighty streams of justice, and where the mountain of past despair has been carved into a monument of hope and courage and God's own shalom.