Like many of my colleagues, I changed my sermon for last Sunday after absorbing the news from Paris. As often happens — call it irony, call it God’s good timing — I didn’t have to change everything, for what I’d already prepared for that day was not entirely inappropriate.
I had already planned to share the story of a man named Samuel Oliner. Oliner was a Jewish boy from Poland who managed to survive the Holocaust. He spent two years herding cows for a Nazi sympathizer who never knew his stablehand was Jewish; his deception was greatly assisted by a former neighbor, a Christian woman, who taught him how to “pass” as Catholic and who managed to stay in touch with him and encourage him. She ended up shaping his profession, as well.
In adulthood, Oliner became a professor of sociology whose field of research was altruism. He was compelled throughout his career by this question, “What is it that motivates some people to act with heroic kindness?” He interviewed non-Jewish and Jewish rescuers of Jews in Nazi-occupied Europe, heroes—both military and civilian, hospice volunteers, moral exemplars (people who make a difference in their community), and philanthropists.
His research into these people’s character is fascinating. One finding in particular: many of those who risk their lives for the benefit of others were taught love and compassion, an ethic of caring and social responsibility, as very young children. “Ecumenically inclusive religious or spiritual beliefs, such as regarding all people as children of the same God, worthy of protection and love” was an especially important factor.
I want to learn more about this. One friend of mine claims that the tenets of Reformed theology (one of the roots of the UCC family tree) influenced many in Europe to become Nazi resisters in any way they could.
If we want role models for how to effect change, we can find many in 20th century history. Some used traditional political strategy, some employed the power of speech, some believed in protest — whether by sitting at a lunch counter or bus, or marching with a crowd — but I am particularly intrigued by the example of those who, through a combination of cleverness and courage, managed to rescue Jews from the Nazis. I have a feeling that kind of heroism might be called for as we consider how to resist the evil of our day.
And where does it begin? It doesn’t begin with rallies. It begins in mundane places like Sunday School, where children are taught that “Jesus loves the little children of the world.” It begins on Wednesday nights in churches like ours, where — two nights before Paris — we concluded a six-week class on “The Peaceful Roots of Islam”, attended by an equal number of Muslims and Christians who engaged in intensely respectful conversations together. It begins with youth who find personal transformation through mission trips. In all of these ways, we teach and learn what it means to follow the one whose life ended on a cross.