Why the Holocaust Matters: Presented at Tyndale University and Seminary
The audacity of evil continues to surprise us. Germany considered itself the heart and intellectual leader of Christian civilization—how did the enormity of hate so completely consume its people that the shame still hovers over them? That nation had 500,000 Jews out of a population of 70 million—less than .01% of the population. Despite the insistent propaganda of the Nazis, the Jewish population in Germany held few great positions of financial or industrial power. How were the German people convinced that all their problems—indeed the world’s problems all could be hung on this one people who even today number only.0022 per cent of the world’s population (15 million out of 7.125 billion people).
It is now 76 years since Kristallnacht and almost 70 years since the liberation of Auschwitz--the murder of six million Jews and millions more who were identified as inferior or degenerate races--yet anti-Semitism is growing again as a world-wide phenomenon.
Why should these events matter to followers of Jesus of Nazareth –Yeshua our Messiah and Lord, those who were born generations later?
It should matter first of all because the Canada in the 1930s was a participant in this crime. As the Nazi leader had foreseen, countries like Canada and institutions like the Vatican were complicit in their original plans. In 1933, the Vatican made a pact with the Germans declaring that their priests would not interfere in German politics as long as the Church could continue to function—a treaty that eventually did nothing but compromise them—even as their institutions were slowly destroyed. Protestant leaders were equally marginalized with their moral declarations, even as they insisted that they were not trying to overthrow the Nazis. And countries like Canada also did nothing, and even refused to receive any of the fleeing Jewish refugees.
During those years, Christians were quite open to hearing Nazi propaganda. One of North America’s best known promoters of anti-Semitism was Rev. Gerald B. Winrod of Wichita, Kansas. On Easter weekend in April 1935, People’s Church promoted his presence in the Saturday papers as a major speaker at a missionary conference. Because of the prejudices of Henry Ford, every Ford dealership distributed an anti-Semitic newspaper. The St. Louis, a German ocean liner with 915 Jewish refugees was denied entry to Cuba, the United States and Canada. Attempts by Canadian academics and clergy to give them entry were rebuffed by Canadian immigration officials and the Prime Minister refused to intervene. The ship returned to Europe and at least a quarter of the passengers perished in the Holocaust.
The Toronto of the 1930s had gangs of hooligans emboldened by the Nazi example, who commonly tried to intimidate Jews. There were public signs around the city declaring that Jews were not welcome—and major institutions where Jews couldn’t enter. It was well known that Jews were able to get teaching degrees but no Toronto high school would ever have more than one Jewish teacher—if that many. There were quotas for Jewish students in professional schools for medicine and law. Until 1955, in Canada you could refuse to let a Jewish person buy your property. In fact, the Ontario Superior Court upheld the law—it was struck down by the Supreme Court of Canada. When the Supreme Court Justice Ivan Rand was told that having a Jewish neighbour would devalue any adjoining property, he asked whether having the pianist Artur Rubinstein or Albert Einstein as a neighbour would devalue property. And this decision was not handed down until 10 years after Canadian soldiers had died to free Europe.
Fear held people in line. Almost every community in Germany had members taken away to concentration camps. If the Jews were marginalized and paid the price of the anger and hate of the Nazis—who entered the schools and began asking the children what their parents thought of the Nazis and began subverting the entire culture with their fascist agenda—well the Jews could be sacrificed.
How is it that the enormity of these lies overwhelmed every other basic Biblical instruction? Not just the Golden Rule: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you,” or the covenant blessing to Abraham: “I will bless those who bless you and curse those who curse you and all nations will be blessed through you,” or even “You are your brother’s keeper,” but all of it.
How could Christians and so-called Christian societies turn their backs on everything that Scripture taught? How could they stand by and watch the destruction of the Jewish people from whom they had received the Scriptures and the Messiah, and whom they had seen God sustain despite 1600 years of persecutions?
Consider the power of fear. In Germany, it was fear of the Nazi authorities who had pervasively overwhelmed the population with anti-Semitic hate propaganda. In North America, even among Christians, there was a widespread acceptance that the Jews must be responsible for all the hate which had been projected upon them. The victim must be responsible for the crime. It was also common for Christian voices to express doubt about the extent of the persecution that was taking place. One of the most famous Dispensationalist voices of that era, Arno C. Gaebelein, questioned whether the Nazis were so evil until he went to Germany himself in 1937. Seeing the oppression first-hand made him publish feverishly about the Nazi program—but it was too late.
In Canada, the excuse that refused to allow Jews into the country out was the Great Depression. It birthed the fear that Jews would come and take jobs away from Gentiles. Later, when the government reconsidered its policies, they feared that there might be a popular backlash if they allowed Jewish people to come. And there was a fear because no one else was willing to do anything—so what if all the Jewish refugees came to Canada? In the end it was decided that keep the door closed was the safest policy. We did nothing and for generations all that Canadians remembered about the Holocaust was their involvement of freeing Europe from Nazi domination.
Martin Niemöller (1892–1984) was a prominent Protestant pastor who resisted Hitler’s agenda and spent the last seven years of Nazi rule in concentration camps. His most famous quotation still makes us pause: “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.”
When you read these words in the New Testament, in John 11, you are hearing the same attitude: 49 But one of them, Kayafa, who was cohen gadol that year, said to them, “You people don’t know anything! 50 You don’t see that it’s better for you if one man dies on behalf of the people, so that the whole nation won’t be destroyed.” (CJB)
Against a common public culture of lies, deception, fear and ignoran ce the Nazis also pointed back to church history. They could point to the early church that had separated out Jews and condemned them for the death of Jesus. Church history is rife with anti-Semitism. Consider the declarations of the Council of Nicea, 325: “We ought not to have anything in common with the Jews…we desire, dearest brethren to separate ourselves from the detestable company of the Jews…” A major focus at that council was to separate forever the celebration of Easter from the timing of Passover.
By the fifth century, successive acts by church councils led ultimately to the declaration of the Jews as second class citizens in every Christian community. Until the Enlightenment, Muslim treatment of the Jews was often considered relatively enlightened by comparison with Christianity. Gregory of Nyssa (331-396 CE) called them: “Slayers of the Lord, murderers of the Prophets, enemies of God…” The accusation of Jews as Christ-killers was one that I grew up with in Toronto.
John Chrysostom (347-407 CE), later the Archbishop of Constantinople, denounced the synagogue as “a place of prostitution” and “a house of idolatry.” He declared, “The Jews live for their bellies…In shamelessness and greed they surpass even pigs and goats…you should turn away from them as the pest and plague of the human race.” His famous eight sermons against his Jewish neighbours—Adversus Judeos—were popular reading for Christians until this century and the basis of a continuing church bias about Jews as inherently evil. Before the original Crusaders got to the Holy Land of 1000 years ago, they were determined to cleanse Europe of its Jewish population and almost succeeded. It was common for Jews to summarize the attitude of Christian neighbours as this: “they hate Jews.” The Nazis could simply say that they were only doing what the early church had already done before them.
The death of six million Jews is one of the strangest crimes in world history. For the perpetrators it wasn’t a crime. It was seen as a necessary ethnic cleansing—the very presence of Jews in the world was seen as a contaminating influence on the whole of society. As the great Jewish philosopher, Emil Fackenheim, pointed out: Jews were guilty of being too communist and too capitalist at the same time. In this sense, the Nazi accusation against the Jewish people was not simply their existence but that they had so thoroughly assimilated into German and European society. Thus, the murder of those who had even a single Jewish grandparent was deemed necessary. The murder of some 200,000 Messianic Jews (or Hebrew Christians as they were then known) was accomplished in the same brutal ways without any compunction. And we have pictures of concentration camp guards pausing in their duties to receive communion from a local priest.
And even when Jews were able to provide palpable proof to the British and American military commanders about what was going on in the death camps, the Allied Bomber Command refused to spare even one plane to bomb the tracks leading to Auschwitz.
After WW2, many of the Jews who tried to return to their former homes in Eastern Europe were not only rejected but when they showed up, some were killed. The British government declared that the Jewish people hadn’t suffered any more than anyone else during the war and the allies kept the surviving Jews from the death camps in camps that were practically next door to the death camps.
Finally, when the members of the United Nation Special Committee on Palestine went to the camps and asked the refugees why so many of them wanted to go to Israel—the universal answer was that they had learned that they had no nation—they were strangers everywhere else.
As leaders in Christian communities, there is a lot of time spent on being relevant—being in touch with people and where they are—but unless we are radically Biblical in challenging our society, it is easy to be swept away in the lies, deceptions and fears of the people who surround us and they will have to look elsewhere for moral leadership.
My questions about God and the Holocaust met a radical confrontation while I was studying philosophy and English at the Univ. of Toronto. My older brother brought a Bible home and out of pure sibling rivalry I went out to find one for myself. Reading the Bible in contemporary language brought me face to face with some of the most powerful literature I’ve ever read. In addition, I was fascinated by reading philosophers and thinkers who actually believed in God, including the French mathematician Blaise Pascal. When I read John 14:6 I realized Yeshua is saying he’s God and I shut the book on him. But I was unable to shut out the God who I’d encountered.
In early March 1976 I was walking across the campus of the UofT when I saw a sign advertising a speaker called Art Katz, a former Marxist who had become a committed follower of Jesus. I went to hear him and I heard him say all the things that I’d been thinking about for the past year.
When I confronted him about the Holocaust: he confronted me with this question: “What are you going to do about the Holocaust in your own heart.” I understood immediately, “What will do with your own impulse to evil?” Had I been born in a different time and place, would I have had the courage to confront evil and choose to pay the price of doing what was right? And where would that courage come from? I had no answer to that and turned away, but he called me back, and said: “You’re ready to come.”
In front of my Jewish friends who knew me as fearless searcher of truth, I said, “Yes.” Art immersed me six months later in Minnesota and I came back to Toronto and became a founding member of Canada’s first messianic congregation. I later was called to go to seminary and have been involved in many different ways in ministry to my own people.
Much of that work has been growing and building Messianic congregations here in Canada and around the globe through my work as a pastoral leader, writer and publisher. But I recall how I was discussing Messianic Judaism with a Jewish man, a documentary film-maker who had made a film about Jewish followers of Yeshua, and he said to me, “The Christians have done everything else possible to destroy us. Is this just another way to destroy us with love?”
This year, Canada will mark Remembrance Day with a new sense of purpose. I was a member of Canada’s military Reserve and wear my poppy proudly. But I have a larger task within a historical arc that I have seen work its way through our national story: to understand how the Gospel must provide us with a deeper understanding of God’s call on my life and the life of others in my faith community who are committed to a Biblical perspective. To engage in meaningful debate with others so that we can sharpen one another’s understanding—even if we disagree, to make a commitment to a meaningful life according to our calling and our faith.
The events of the Holocaust remind us what takes place when we let our society dictate to us how to think, how to act, what to fear--who to hate. Paul wrote to Gentiles in Romans 11 warning them about their arrogance toward Israel--a common prejudice among Romans--to remind them that they had been grafted into the “Olive Tree” of Israel in order to benefit from all that God had given his chosen people. He wrote:
16 …And if the root is holy, so are the branches. 17 But if some of the branches were broken off, and you — a wild olive — were grafted in among them and have become equal sharers in the rich root of the olive tree, 18 then don’t boast as if you were better than the branches! However, if you do boast, remember that you are not supporting the root, the root is supporting you.”