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Interreligious Responses to the Holocaust:
Sixty Five Years After Liberation

Statement by Michael Kinnamon, Gen. Sec., National Council of Churches

Michael Kinnamon, General Secretary of the National Council of Churches. 
Photo: Julian Voloj
Michael Kinnamon, General Secretary of the National Council of Churches.
Photo: Julian Voloj

I am honored to be invited by friends at B'nai B'rith to offer these brief remarks on "interreligious responses to the Holocaust." Throughout its history, B'nai B'rith has been devoted to promoting at least two things: a) respect for religious diversity and b) moral backbone that, by remembering the past, stands firmly against radical evil in the present. I obviously, wholeheartedly, applaud both of these goals. But, in my judgment, it is the tension between them that may well constitute the major challenge facing religious communities sixty-five years after the end of World War II. It is this challenge, and how we might respond to it, that I want to explore, beginning with a personal story.

I had just turned twenty years old, a junior in college, when I went for a year of study at the Tel Aviv University, my first time outside North America. I understood myself to be a Christian, but in an unfocused sort of way - mainly, I suppose, because my father was one. There in Israel I met Arnie, who became a very close friend. Arnie might have said he was a Jew because his mother was one, but what I experienced in him was a deep-seated conviction of God's presence in his life that I found enormously attractive.

At the same time I was getting to know Arnie, I was also starting to explore my own Christian roots - quite literally explore them by spending days and days in the Old City of Jerusalem or along the Kinereth (the Sea of Galilee). And sometimes Arnie went with me, which forced me to see this newly-discovered heritage through the eyes of one who looked at Christians with considerable mistrust. Arnie had grown up in the middle of Queens and had never before had a close Christian friend, just as I had grown up in rural Iowa which, to let you in on a secret, is not the center of Jewish life in America. Arnie associated Christianity with boys who occasionally made fun of him and his friends because of their yarmulkes, and one time beat him up.

Sometimes we did the reverse: I would go with Arnie to visit Jewish sites or communities, including the ultra-Orthodox section of Jerusalem, Mea Shearim, where he passed me off as a Reform Jew with no Yiddish or bad Hebrew. This is clearly a God-saturated community, but religious in a way I had never experienced - never imagined. Finally, after several months of growing friendship, I went with Arnie to a kibbutz near the Lebanese border that has a small museum dedicated to the Holocaust; and there, surrounded by pictures of crematoria and inhumanly-crammed boxcars and piles of emaciated bodies, he revealed to me that his mother was a survivor of the death camps.

Openness to genuine diversity opposition to genuine evil. The story of Arnie and me reminds us that we now live side by side, even in Queens and rural Iowa, with persons whose faith commitments and perspectives on life are unlike our own, persons whose claims about the world and God's will for it demand at least our attention and respect. Arnie and I were partners in an often-passionate conversation (you know how passionate twenty-year-olds can be!) about ultimate things, not competitors in some religious contest. He and I had very different backgrounds. But it quickly became apparent to us that our differences were not a threat to the other's faith; they were an enrichment of it.

But the story of Arnie and his mother also reminds us that we live in a world that is filled with violence, often perpetrated in the name of some faith - violence that I do not hesitate to call evil. Please hear me: The Holocaust is unique, monumental; but it is by no means the final word on human atrocity. On September 11, 2001, several students in the seminary where I was then teaching wanted to know how God could allow such unimaginable horror; and I wanted to scream, "Are you really so historically unaware?! Don't you know about the Middle Passage or the destruction of Native Americans or Cambodia or Rwanda - or the Holocaust?!"

Let me confess the obvious. Christians, including leaders of the church, have often been narrow-minded, claiming that God is ours rather than that we are God's, and thereby refusing to take seriously persons of different religions and cultures. Surely, we who live in a post-Holocaust universe must resist this tendency. On the other hand, Christians, including leaders of the Church, have often been timid, fearfully refusing to name evil for what it is. Surely, we who live in a post-Holocaust universe must resist this tendency.

But it is the intersection of these things that defines what may be our greatest challenge in this era: to be both open to legitimate diversity and firmly opposed to diversities that are demonic.

The complexity involved in this was underscored for me more than a decade ago by Deborah Lipstadt in her well-known book, Denying the Holocaust. Dr. Lipstadt writes that during her research she was frequently asked by news organizations "to debate" persons who deny that the Holocaust ever happened. She consistently refused, which often led to this question: "Don't you believe that all voices deserve to be heard?" Well, no. I am certainly willing, she said, to engage in dialogue with people who disagree with me. After all, the destruction of those who are different was the essence of Nazism. But, she added, I will not give any legitimacy or support to ideas that reinforce evil. And I think I know how to tell the difference between the two.

You see the problem. The very experience of religious and cultural diversity has led many in this generation to conclude that religious beliefs and moral values are a matter of personal preference. Live and let live. Such relativism has the benefit of opening us to differences, but it won't stand the test of modern evil. If one belief is really as good as the next, if all voices deserve to be heard, then how do we say "No!" to Nazis in our midst with sufficient force and clarity? Let me come at this as a Christian theologian. As I see it, Christians have frequently been guilty of two distortions of the commandment, "Love your neighbor." First, we have restricted the boundaries of our ethical obligation. One of the most haunting questions in the Christian scripture is surely, "Who is my neighbor?" When that question is put to Jesus, he responds by telling what we call the "Parable of the Good Samaritan" in which need and common humanity - not race, nationality, class, or creed - define the universe of obligation (a point made forcefully by Martin Luther King, Jr. in one of his finest sermons)..

The second distortion is the tendency to think that the command to love one's neighbor is fulfilled if we refrain from doing them hard. But in a world such as ours, it is simply not enough to say "yes" to others; we must also say "no" to all that threatens them. It is not enough to aid the victims of racial bigotry or religious persecution; we must actively resist these things themselves. It is not enough to be tolerant; we must (dare I say it?) know how to be intolerant of intolerance. In short, Christians (I won't speak for other religions) are called to love all those whom God, the universal Creator, loves. And we are called to oppose (even hate) those ways of acting, that meanness of spirit, those attitudes of mind that threaten those whom God loves. Neglect of the former makes us dangerously narrow. Neglect of the latter makes us untrustworthy friends in a dangerously narrow world.

For the quarter century before I was General Secretary of the National Council of Churches, I was a seminary dean and professor. It is not always easy, I would tell students, to live in this tension, welcoming those who are truly "other" while standing firmly against evil. But there are four disciplines that I think you (all Christians, for that matter) should practice in this post-Holocaust world.

  • Immerse yourselves in the study of something that feels intolerable. For me, in part because of Arnie, that has been the Holocaust - and, in fact, all Christians should know about it. But I also encouraged students to study in depth the horrors of slavery or the killings in Darfur or the Congo.� Think about these things until you know the fact of evil and won't be caught off guard by it.
  • Discover models with whom you can identify. This may mean studying the lives of persons - Dr. King, Elie Wiesel - who have managed to balance openness to others unlike themselves with outrage against injustice; but there may well be models, I would tell them, closer to hand. Arnie became deeply attached to a wise rabbi we met in 1969. Two years later, Arnie was back in Israel, marching with the rabbi to protest discrimination against Yemenite Jews.
  • Develop the practice of dialogue - not dialogue as an abstract exercise but dialogue with persons for whom a faith that is not your own is a living reality. Ironic as it may sound, my own Christian identity was decisively shaped by Arnie's Jewishness.
  • Insist on looking critically at your own religious community. On the communal level, it is gratifying that nearly all of the mainline Protestant churches in this country have issued statements over the past two generations repenting of the church's complicity in the age-old persecution of the Jewish people and repudiating those teachings that helped set the stage for the Holocaust - especially "supersessionist" theologies which argue that the church has replaced Israel in God's favor. We still haven't done enough, sixty-five years after the liberation of the camps. But is it a start.

Thank you, again, for the invitation to think with you about these things. We live, thankfully, in an age of growing interfaith relations. And we live, lamentably, in an age of continuing genocide. It is imperative that the human family learn how to affirm the former and reject the latter with consistent, passionate conviction. May our time here today be a contribution, however modest, to this end.

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