The Holocaust and Forgiveness

17th Sunday in Ordinary Time (February 19, 2017)

Leviticus 19:1-2,17-18

Psalm 103:1-2,3-4,8,10,12-13

1 Corinthians 3:16-23

Matthew 5:38-48

“Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” This could very well be one of the toughest actions Jesus teaches us to do.

About a month ago, I was able to see this teaching in real life in an extremely graphic way. Along with others from St. Andrew’s, I went on a pilgrimage to Washington, D.C. as part of the March For Life trip this past January. During the pilgrimage, our group was able to tour the Holocaust Museum. It contained four floors of photos, images, videos and actual items that were used during the Holocaust. The museum tells the story beginning with the uprising of the Nazi Party and all of their propaganda, to the rounding up of the innocent victims, to the death camps, to the eventual liberation of the prisoners after the defeat of the Nazi’s. It paints a vivid picture of what hate and persecution looks like in real life.

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Before going to the Holocaust Museum, I previously read stories of people who had survived the concentration camps. I knew the history and how much evil went on there. I even remember hearing a survival story straight from the mouth of a Jewish survivor when I was in middle school. But standing in the midst of the Holocaust Museum, surrounded by all of the memorabilia, it just seemed… I don’t know…thick with heartbreak and unimaginable agony. Literally… hell on earth.

It especially took my breath away when I entered a room that contained hundreds of pairs of shoes piled up on either side of the room. You see, the Nazi’s didn’t like to waste material goods. So before they killed prisoners in the gas chambers, they would strip them naked and either sell their clothes for profit or reuse them. A quote on the wall of the shoe room reads, “We are the shoes, we are the last witnesses. We are shoes from grandchildren and grandfathers from Prague, Paris and Amsterdam. And because we are only made of fabric and leather and not of blood and flesh, each one of us avoided the hellfire.”

As I stood in that room, I couldn’t help but wonder how in the world does one who lived through this nightmare firsthand ever get over it? Furthermore, how does one forgive anyone who willingly participated in these evil events?

I bring up the Holocaust as an extreme example of what hate and evil can turn into. Many of us, thankfully, won’t have to deal with persecution to that extreme. But if there’s even one story of healing or forgiveness that comes from this pit of Hell, then I believe it can help us put our own personal struggles into a better perspective and give us the courage to overcome them.

I came across such a story last week about a Hungarian Jewish woman who was a survivor of the Auschwitz concentration camp. Her name is Eva Kor. In April of 2015, Eva traveled to Germany to give evidence and testify against a former SS Sergeant named Oskar Groening. Oskar was accused and later found guilty of being complicit in the murder of 300,000 people at Auschwitz (including Eva’s father, mother and two older sisters). In the courtroom, Eva approached Oskar and publicly forgave him for the sins he committed against her family and then shocked everyone when she embraced him with a hug. When Eva was asked how she could have possibly forgiven such a man, she replied, “Why survive at all if all you want to be is sad, angry and hurting? That is so foreign to who I am. I don’t understand why the world is so much more willing to accept lashing out in anger rather than embracing friendship and humanity” (www.telegraph.co.uk, 20 Jan 2016, “Why I forgive the Nazis who murdered my family” by Joe Shute).

This strong woman, lived out what Jesus says in today’s Gospel, “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” By our human standards, Eva had every right to curse, spit on and assault that man. But she chose differently; she chose a better way. A way that lead to the healing of her own soul. This Jewish lady was living out a core Christian teaching that many of us Christians, all to often, chose to ignore.

I am 100%, fully aware with how hard it is to pray for people you don’t like. I am also 100%, fully aware of how hard it is to forgive people who have persecuted you or committed a hurtful act against you. But do you realize how much damage you will continue to cause in your own life, to your own soul, if you cling to the hate?? When you attach yourself to hate, it will eventually overflow into other areas of your life. That will eventually spill out on relationships that you thought were good. Before you know it, your stubbornness to forgive has lowered your quality of life and those around you as well. It quietly consumes your soul.

Remember, Jesus didn’t say, “Come and follow me for I will show you an easier way.” He did, however, offer to show us a “better” way. He wants you to be happy. He wants your soul to shine. Praying for those frustrating people in your life, forgiving those who have wronged you, not lashing out in anger… these are the things Jesus Christ asks us to do.

As I’ve said many, many times before… our time on this earth is temporary. So don’t be tempted to harbor anger and hate in your soul during your short, mortal life. Focus instead on the eternal love waiting for you in heaven.

Forgive often. Pray constantly. Love always.

Letting Go of the Bell Rope

7th Sunday Ordinary Time (February 23, 2014)

Lv 19:1-2,17-18

Psalm 103

1 Cor 3:16-23

Matthew 5:38-48

Today’s readings are tough to hear…at least for me. I have personally struggled to develop this homily because I know I fail in some way with each point being made in today’s Scripture readings. Here’s the highlights in cased you missed them: Be holy. Do not hold grudges. Our bodies are temples of God. Take no revenge. Give to the one who asks of you. Turn the other cheek. Love your enemies and strive for perfection like your heavenly Father. I fully realize that I don’t like these readings because they call me to constantly examine and change my heart and therefore my actions. And change can be very hard.

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Seriously…many of us struggle to love our own friends and family, so how are we supposed to love our enemies?? And to turn the other check?? Our culture tells us that only the tough survive and that if someone pushes us, we need to push back even harder! And you can forget about perfection! Every time I sin I’m reminded of how imperfect I am. So how can I possibly be holy?

It was in a moment of prayer that I realized that line of thinking is precisely the problem. I was confusing the world’s definition of perfection with God’s definition of perfection and how it all relates to holiness. Allow me to try and clear this up with a true story.

A Dutch Christian family by the name of Ten Boom was living in the Netherlands when the Nazi regime invaded their county in 1940. The Ten Booms had made a secret room behind a closet wall in the upstairs bedroom to hide Jews if Nazi soldiers ever searched their house.

The secret room behind the closet wall

The secret room behind the closet wall

Corrie, the youngest daughter of four, would go out and bring back food rations for the people they hid in their house. On February 28, 1944, a Dutch informant told the Nazi’s about the Ten Boom family and they were all arrested. Corrie spent 10 months in a Nazi concentration camp in Germany. After her release, she returned to the Netherlands and set up a rehabilitation center to help concentration camp survivors and even the Dutch informants who turned in their fellow countrymen to the Nazi’s. In 1946, she began traveling the world as a public speaker and wrote numerous books. One very powerful story she wrote about happened when she was teaching in Germany in 1947. One of the former Nazi concentration camp guards, known to have been one of the cruelest, approached her. Corrie was very reluctant to forgive him for obvious reasons. But she turned to prayer and described the encounter by saying, “For a long moment we grasped each other’s hands, the former guard and the former prisoner. I had never known God’s love so intensely as I did then.” Corrie went on to say that in her post-war experience with other concentration camp survivors that, “those who were able to forgive were best able to rebuild their lives.”

“Forgiveness is letting go of a bell rope,” Corrie further explains. “If you have ever seen a country church with a bell in the steeple, you will remember that to get the bell ringing you have to tug awhile. Once it has begun to ring, you merely maintain the momentum. As long as you keep pulling, the bell keeps ringing. Forgiveness is letting go of the rope. It is just that simple. But when you do so, the bell keeps ringing. Momentum is still at work. However, if you keep your hands off the rope, the bell will begin to slow and eventually stop.”

This story is what holiness is all about. Corrie held no grudge against the former Nazi guard. She could have punched, yelled or spat at him. But instead of hating this enemy, she extended her hands and offered a forgiving embrace. She let go of the bell rope. And in doing so showed us an example of perfect love through her holy actions.

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Isn’t this what Jesus did for all of us? The Jewish people at the time were waiting for their messiah. They assumed he would be a great military leader that would destroy their oppressors with force. Instead, God sent his Son to teach us how to live and love in an entirely new way. Ultimately, when faced with evil, Jesus did not fight back with violence or run away. Neither would have done the world any good. Rather he stood His ground and taught people how to live rightly. This eventually led to his death. A death he willingly cooperated with and by doing so changed the world by showing us a more perfect way.

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To drop a grudge, offer forgiveness or to love an enemy is, in my opinion, about as close to perfection as we can get. Why? Because it means you are not worried about yourself. You are not expecting repayment or trying to get approval from someone else. You are simply respecting and loving the other person as God loves. So it is in our holy actions that we achieve moments of perfection.

Granted there will be days when we sin by choosing evil over good. But God, in His infinite greatness, gave us a way to receive His grace and start over when we fall short through confession and penance. The sacrament of reconciliation gives us a clean slate. It is the perfect response in the face of sin.

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So perfection in the eyes of God is not having the perfect car, the perfect family or even a perfect credit score. It’s not about making perfect choices every time we’re faced with a decision. The perfection God is calling us to involves making right choices and repenting when we don’t. It involves forgiveness and willing the good of others, even if you don’t like them all that much. God is asking you to be holy because He made you and knows that you are capable of it. You are, after all, created in His image and likeness. And if we will just let go of that bell rope long enough…all of the anger, hate and confusion of this world will one day stop…

So don’t focus on being perfect according to worldly standards, but rather focus on being holy through good actions. That is all God is asking of you. The more you fill your days with holiness, the more perfect you will be in the eyes of God.

Be holy