A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Randy Hammer, February 8, 2015
Esther 3:1-13 GNT
My first real exposure to Auschwitz and the Holocaust was the book and then the 1975 movie titled The Hiding Place. It is the pre-World War II story about Corrie and Betsie ten Boom and their Christian Dutch family, and how they hid several Jews in a secret hiding place over their father’s watch-making business at the beginning of the Holocaust. Several members of the small congregation I was serving drove several miles to a theater to watch it as a group. It made a profound impression upon me.
As most of you probably know, January 27 was Holocaust Remembrance Day and the 70th anniversary of the liberation of the Jews from Auschwitz, the Polish concentration camp, by the Soviet Army. Some 300 survivors returned to Auschwitz to commemorate the liberation on January 27, 1945. It is estimated that more than 1.1 million people died at Auschwitz, and 90% of them were Jews. Of course, there were many death camps, but about one in six Jews who died during the Holocaust died at Auschwitz. Also killed there were gay men, lesbians, Soviet prisoners of war, Christian Poles, Romani (Gypsies), and others. In an excellent Wall Street Journal article, Jonathan Sacks calls the Holocaust “the greatest crime since human beings first set foot on Earth.”1
Some who gathered to remember that eventful day uttered “Never again, never again,” expressing the hope that the world will never again let such a human atrocity take place. Yet, a number of articles I have read in recent days question the never again hope. Several writers have noted a return to anti-Semitism around the world. The excellent, two-page Wall Street Journal article by Jonathon Sacks is titled “NEVER AGAIN,” but the “N” in “NEVER” is Xed out. Sacks notes that “An ancient hatred has been reborn. . . . For Jews, ‘never again’ has become ‘ever again.’” Another article by Charles Krauthammer published by The Washington Post is titled, “Do we really mean ‘never again’?”2
Ronald Lauder, president of the World Jewish Congress, in an Associated Press release, noted, “For a time, we thought that the hatred of Jews had finally been eradicated. But slowly the demonization of Jews started to come back. Once again young Jewish boys are afraid to wear yarmulkes on the streets of Paris and Budapest and London. Once again, Jewish businesses are targeted. And once again, Jewish families are fleeing Europe.”3 In that same Associated Press article, it is noted that “a rise of anti-Semitism . . . has made many Jews fearful of walking the streets . ..”3
Both Sacks and Krauthammer agree that “The rise of European anti-Semitism is, in reality, just a return to the norm. For a millennium, virulent Jew-hatred—persecution, explusions, massacres—was the norm in Europe until the shame of the Holocaust created a temporary anomaly wherein anti-Semitism became socially unacceptable. The hiatus is over. Jew-hatred is back.”
When we consider history, it does, indeed, seem that Jews have been a target for prejudice and violence from the very beginning, all the way back to the biblical time of Esther. In that ancient story, the Jews living in Persia were targeted because of their different customs, monotheism, and refusal to bow down to anyone but God alone. So wicked Haman hatched a plan to exterminate all the Jews within the Persian Kingdom. As the story goes, Queen Esther (also a Jew) put her own life on the line to save her people. This story became the impetus for the Jewish Festival of Purim, which is still celebrated today.
Ever since, Jews have been falsely accused and blamed for all kinds of things, and persecuted as a consequence. During the Middle Ages, Jews were accused of desecrating the sacramental bread Christians used in communion, poisoning wells, spreading the plague, causing the Black Death, and more. In other words, Jews have become scapegoats for whatever trouble happened to be ailing humanity at the time.
There was a time, you know, (around the turn of the 20th century) when many preachers preached that humanity was growing toward human perfection, to a state when there would be no more mass wars, no more genocide; instead, there would be growth toward greater compassion, understanding, peace and cooperation among humankind. Well, then along came World War I which knocked a big dent in that theory. And then about 25 years later came the Holocaust, which totally wiped out any idealistic hope that humanity had moved anywhere near human perfection.
Maybe such human atrocities as the Holocaust, and the return to anti-Semitism today, happen in part because there is an innate human tendency to look for a scapegoat for any and all trouble that comes our way. When a plague, or mass epidemic, or massive natural disaster strikes, many people feel the need to explain the reason for it and find someone to blame for it. You may recall that when Hurricane Katrina struck, some fundamentalist Christian preachers quickly found scapegoats to blame for the hurricane, which, they contended, was a manifestation of God’s wrath and punishment. But for some reason, the Jewish people have been labeled as a cause and branded as someone to blame more than any others.
Curiously, Charles Krauthammer contends that the current “threat to the Jewish future lies not in Europe but in the Muslim Middle East, today the heart of global anti-Semitism.” He continues, “Iran openly declares as its sacred mission the annihilation of Israel.”2 What is curious about all of this is the Iran of today was the Persia of Esther’s day.
Jonathan Sacks puts an interesting twist on his Wall Street Journal article when he contends that in the process of making scapegoats, people see themselves as victims. Victims in turn look for more scapegoats, so the whole scapegoats and victims phenomenon becomes a vicious cycle. Sacks contends that the cure for the world’s hatred problems lies in letting go of hate and to stop seeing yourself as a victim. He says, “To be free, you have to let go of hate. You have to stop seeing yourself as a victim—or else you will succeed only in making more victims.”1
Sacks continues, “Judaism, Christianity and Islam are religions of love, not of hate. We must listen and heed the survivor in Auschwitz . . . when he said, ‘I don’t want to be here again’—for that is the end of the road that begins in hate. All of us—Jews, Christians and Muslims, brothers and sisters in Abraham’s family—must choose another way.”1
It saddens me greatly when I hear on the world news or read in the newspapers of the religious and ethnic hatred, persecution, and violence that are spreading, like monstrous social cancers, across our world. Won’t humanity ever learn? I wonder. Will humanity ever progress beyond the hatred, suspicion, narrow-minded and arrogant thinking that makes some feel superior to others? Will humanity ever progress beyond the idea that hatred, persecution, and genocide are justified? Didn’t the world learn anything at all during the Holocaust? The scary thing is that should the hatred and violence and terrorism continue to escalate, there now is the potential to not just wipe out one religion or one ethnic group, but possibly to annihilate the whole human race.
May we who seek to follow the teachings of Jesus on love, forgiveness, compassion, and peace-making; may we who believe that where God is there is love, and where love is, there is God; may we choose to follow another way and truly believe, and truly try to live out, the cry of “Never again! Never again!” Amen.
1Jonathan Sacks, “NEVER AGAIN,” The Wall Street Journal, Saturday/Sunday, January 31-February 1, 2015.
2Charles Krauthammer, “Do we really mean ‘never again’?” The Washington Post, January 209, 2015.
3Associated Press. Published in The Oak Ridger, Wednesday, January 28, 2015.