I live in a pretty sleepy suburb of Washington, DC. Every now and then a bicycle might get stolen or the morning buses might seem too loud, but that’s about it. So how is it that a couple nights ago some nefarious character sprayed swastikas on the walls of a local synagogue not far from me? Am I in America? Is this 2015? Of course it’s no coincidence that this happened a few days before Holocaust Remembrance Day. Anyone with a point to make knows it’s all in the timing.
My first exposure to the Holocaust came when I was a kid in the 1960’s. They showed us some pretty raw concentration camp film footage in the basement of our synagogue. I’m not sure that would pass today’s best practices for childhood education, but it sure left an impression on this young mind. My entire Jewish experience is colored by the Holocaust, but unlike many friends I never knew of any family members who perished in its flames. Until Luba.
Luba Shtein was my father’s first cousin and lived in Zoludek, Poland. My dad is the youngest of four boys and he never asked his Lithuanian-born father about the family he had left behind in Europe. When my grandfather died in 1945 all chance of that was gone. It wasn’t until I started poking around into family genealogy that I learned about Luba and the rest of the family in Europe.
Luba and Meier Shtein had a young daughter named Hannah—my second cousin. She, along with her parents and 6,000,000 others, was murdered in the Holocaust because of being Jewish. As I kept digging into my family roots I learned about other family members that perished at the hands of the Nazis. Israel Smoletz, his wife Sara and their daughter Feiga were killed in the liquidation of the Kovno ghetto. It appears likely that my great-grandparents were marched into a Lithuanian forest and gunned down with all the other Jews in town.
So I ask myself, “Why are Jewish supermarkets and schools in France becoming targets of violence? Why on this 70th anniversary of the Holocaust is someone still spray painting swastikas on synagogues in my neighborhood?” On the TV news, one synagogue member said, “I just don’t understand hate.”
The truth is that hate is not that complicated. Though a 2009 Scientific American article describes efforts to uncover the neurological root of hatred, the Bible points to our heart as the problem. It says that “…hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions… and the like” all emanate from our corrupted human nature. (Galatians 5:20-21, NIV)
Jesus disagreed with the word on the street, that we should “love our neighbors and hate our enemies.” (Matthew 5:43, NIV). In our dangerous times that sounds so very sensible. But can we justify it? Hating our enemies has often led to genocides—Armenia, Nazi Germany, Bosnia, Rwanda, and Darfur to name just a few. Hatred takes our humanity and leaves us cold and merciless.
Instead of nurturing our hatreds—whether personal or political—we should listen to Jesus’ words:
But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. (Matthew 5:44-45, NIV)
Are Jesus’ instructions possible? Only with God’s strength.