Jesus said: “Not everyone who says to me ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven.” Mt. 7:21
Time and time again, Jesus makes it crystal clear that to be his disciple requires more than lip service. It requires action, ethical behavior grounded in love of God and neighbor. That’s why in today’s gospel reading from Matthew, he says, ‘Not everyone who says to me ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven.” By these words, Jesus warns us against self-deception, deluding ourselves into thinking we’re doing God’s will, when, in fact, we’re doing quite the opposite.
A few weeks ago, my wife Gloria and I drove to Washington D.C. for a long week-end of rest and relaxation. Yes, retirement too can be stressful! We hadn’t been in D.C. since our daughter Kate, now 26, was a little girl, and we wanted to check out some of the newer attractions and sample local cuisine. The springtime weather was glorious. We went to the National Zoo to see the pandas, to the WWII and Korean War memorials, and because I’m working with a local inter-faith group developing a study course on the causes of the Holocaust, entitled “The 2000 Year Road to the Holocaust, An Inter-Faith Study of the Greater Rochester Community,” we went to the US Holocaust Memorial Museum.
Walking through the museum, which chronicles the unprecedented horror that happened less than seventy years ago during the dark days of Nazi Germany was a most sobering experience. We learned that the Holocaust, aka the Shoah (“catastrophe”), was the systematic, state sponsored persecution and murder of approximately 6 million Jews from 21 European countries, including 1.5 million children, by Nazi Germany and its European collaborators. Also targeted for extinction were 5 million members of other groups, including homosexuals, Gypsies, Poles and other Slavic people, Soviet POWs, Jehovah Witnesses, Freemasons, people with disabilities, communists, socialists, and other political and religious dissents. With poison gas, bullets, the noose, knives, combustion engine exhaust, clubs, fists, disease, starvation, death marches and over work, the perpetrators of the Holocaust slaughtered two thirds of Europe’s Jews and one-third of world Jewry.
According to its Visitors’ Guide, the US Holocaust Museum’s mission is three-fold, 1. to advance and disseminate knowledge, 2. to preserve the memory of those who suffered, and 3. to encourage…visitors to reflect upon the moral and spiritual questions raised by…the Holocaust. For many years, since I read “The Diary of Anne Frank” as a eighth grader in junior high school, I have been troubled by this moral and spiritual question, namely, How could the worst catastrophe in human history have started in one of the most Christian countries of predominately Christian Europe, birthplace of Martin Luther and the Protestant Reformation? And then spread throughout predominately Christian Europe? My research to date on the subject has uncovered unsettling information.
In the 1930’s and ’40’s, for example, religious affiliation in Germany was 94% Christian; 54% Protestant and 40% Catholic. Organized into 25 dioceses, each with at least one bishop appointed by the pope, the Roman Catholic Church in Germany numbered over 20,000 priests for 20 million Catholics. And there were 16,000 pastors for 40 million Protestants. Hitler and many of his top henchmen like Heinrich Himmler (SS chief and overseer of death camps), Joseph Goebbels (Nazi propaganda chief), Reinhard Heydrich (principle planner of the Final Solution), Rudolf Hoess (architect and SS Commandant of Auschwitz-Birkenau), and Dr. Josef Mengele (“Angel of Death”) were baptized Catholics, as were large numbers of the Third Reich’s security forces, military, civil service, judiciary, concentration/death camp personnel, and ordinary citizens, like you and me, Those not Catholic were Protestant.
Catholic and Protestant churches remained official state churches throughout the 12 years of the Nazi regime, which meant that the state collected a church tax and funded church functions. Clergy as public servants were required to swear an oath of allegiance to Hitler and to offer the Hail Hitler salute. Religious education remained part of the state state education system; chaplains served the military; and theological faculties remained active within state universities. Article 24 of the Nazi Party Program professed “positive Christianity” as the foundation of the German state.
People in Nazi Germany and, indeed, throughout Occupied Europe went about their daily lives attending religious services, receiving communion, reciting creeds, saying the rosary, wearing crucifixes around their necks, celebrating Christmas and Easter, while huge numbers of their “neighbors” were being forcibly rounded up, herded off in cattle cars to concentration/death camps as crematoria smoke stacks belched out thick, black, malodorous smoke. The first concentration camp, Dachau, established in March 1933, just two months after Hitler came to power, was located about 10 miles outside Munich in predominately Catholic Bavaria.
Hitler’s rise to dictatorial power from total obscurity (within a republic, no less) was by no means a foregone conclusion. There were plenty of opportunities to stop his ascent along the way, if more people of conscience had been willing to do so. In his autobiography and political manifesto, Mein Kampf, (“My Struggle“) published in 1925, eight years before becoming German chancellor in 1933 and seventeen years before his death camps were at full killing capacity in 1942, Hitler clearly set forth his vision for the Greater Third Reich, including his plan for territorial expansion and creation of a “racially pure” European society, dominated by a Teutonic “master race.” In Mein Kampf, he minces no words in advocating elimination of Jews from Europe, referring to them as vermin, parasites, maggots, polluters and destroyers of Aryan humanity, and corrupters of society. His virulent brand of anti-Semitism was readily apparent for anyone willing to see.
How can history not conclude that Christian self-deception of monumental proportion was taking place in Nazi Germany and Occupied Europe? That there was a terrible disconnect between what Christians were preaching and what they were doing? Lots of people, in effect, saying “Lord, Lord,” but certainly not doing God’s will. And need I point out that, according to our own Bible, it was mostly God’s “chosen people” being exterminated…95% of Lithuanian Jews; 90% of Polish Jews; 66% of European Jewry.
George Santayana said: “Those who do not remember the past are condemned to relive it,” which is why I was pleased to see so many visitors at the museum on that day in May, most of them school age children. We certainly need to teach our children about the Holocaust and we adults need to learn more about it as well. If there’s any doubt about the need for such education, consider this. There are those living today, including Iran’s President, Mahoud Ahmadinejad, who deny that the Holocaust even happened. Only a few years ago, as we well know, it happened in Bosnia and in Rwanda. Moreover, genocide, now euphemistically termed “ethnic cleansing,” is happening today…in the Darfur region of Sudan. And human nature being what it is, it will most likely happen again.
Today, more than 60 years after the Holocaust ended, antisemitism is not just a fact of history, it is a current event. US embassies worldwide have noted an increase in anti-Semitic incidents, attacks on Jewish people, property, cemeteries, community institutions, and synagogues. Discredited myths about Jews, like their need for blood of Christian children for religious rituals or a Jewish plot to take over the world, stubbornly persists, particularly in the Middle East. And neo-Nazi groups continue to sprout up like obnoxious weeds throughout the world.
Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, Russian novelist and Nobel laureate wrote: “The line separating good and evil passes through every human heart…and even in the best hearts there remains an unuprooted small corner of evil. That’s another reason Jesus admonishes us in today’s gospel to be vigilant about our behavior, so as not to fall in the trap of self-deception. Obviously, the consequences can be lethal.
Deacon Anthony J. Sciolino
Church of the Transfiguration
Readings for the day: Deuteronomy 11:18, 26-28, 32: Romans 3:21-25; Matthew 7:21-27. 9th Sunday in Ordinary Time. June 1, 2008 (Cycle A)