Thursday, May 5, 2011

An Interfaith Gathering

May 1 was Holocaust Remembrance Day. We have a synagogue in our city. When I first moved to Hot Springs, the local rabbi and I became friends. He asked two or three times to come to the synagogue and do a reading for their Holocaust Remembrance Service. I was happy to do it. Not having become acquainted with any of the rabbis since my friend moved away, I haven't taken part in one of those services in a long time.

But a few months ago I got a call inviting me to participate in this year's remembrance. It was going to be different—more of an interfaith service. The meeting place would be the chapel at Garvan Woodland Gardens. The rabbi and five Christian pastors would be asked to speak for five minutes each. The whole community would be invited. The service would be called Commemoration, Hope, and Peace: A Coming Together. And though I'm a little uncomfortable in that kind of setting, I agreed to take part and was honored to do so.

But what does one say at such a service? The service was about the holocaust; yet it was about more than the holocaust. It was an effort to bring people of diverse backgrounds and faith together in unity and respect. After praying and thinking about it, I came up with the comments below. I don't know why I'm posting them on my blog, really. Other participants had better things to say. But if my remarks help foster understanding and respect for one another in spite of clear differences, then that would be a good thing. So if you're interested, read on.


In Pierre Van Paassen’s book about the rise of the Third Reich, he describes a day when a group of Nazi Brown Shirts captured a rabbi in his study as he was preparing his Sabbath sermon. They mocked and humiliated him, then they stripped him and beat him. As they did, they laughed and said, “This lash is for Abraham; this one is for Isaac; this one is for Jacob.” After they tired of beating him, they took scissors and sheared his locks and his beard and mocked him some more.

“Say something in Hebrew,” the Nazi Captain ordered.

“Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart,” the rabbi slowly pronounced the Hebrew words. But one of the other officers interrupted him. “Were you preparing your sermon this morning?” he asked him.

“Yes,” said the rabbi.

“Well, you can preach it here to us. You’ll never again see your synagogue; we’ve burned it. So go ahead, preach the sermon! All quiet now, everybody; Jacob is going to preach a sermon to us.”

“Could I have my hat?” asked the rabbi.

“Can’t you preach without a hat?” the captain asked.

“Give him his hat!” he commanded. Someone handed the rabbi his hat and he put it on his head. The sight made the Nazi thugs laugh all the louder. The man was naked and shivering as he spoke: “God created man in his image and his likeness,” the rabbi said. “That was to have been my text for this Sabbath.”

Talk about a moment thick with irony. We human beings wreak so much destruction on each other in the name of power and greed and God, and when we do, it’s not just an attack on a fellow human being; it’s an attack on the image of God in each of us.

It’s not news that there are great differences among us—even among those of us in this room. We don’t all believe the same things and we are kidding ourselves to profess otherwise. We probably have different views of reality and morality. I’m sure we have different views of God and how one comes to God and knows God. I read not long ago of a Christian minister who attended an interfaith gathering in a large city. The group was composed of a Muslim imam, a couple of Jewish rabbis, and a handful of Christian ministers from a variety of denominations and nationalities. They had gathered to talk about how they could work together to build bridges among the diverse religious and ethnic groups in their city. As these leaders took turns talking about such things, it was obvious that everyone was dancing around the issue, walking on eggshells, trying carefully not to offend anyone or say anything someone might disagree with. And that was taking that meeting to the same place most all of those meetings go—which is nowhere. Finally, one of the Christian ministers took his turn. He said something to this effect. “Honestly, I’m a little uncomfortable in this setting, and here’s why: my faith compels me to try to convert all of you.” As you can imagine, there was an uneasy silence; the elephant in the room had been exposed. Then the Muslim imam spoke up and said, “You know, I feel the exact same way.” I don’t know what they accomplished in the meeting, but it became a lot more honest, and I suspect, a lot more productive.

We acknowledge our many differences. That’s okay. That’s healthy. But I think we can at least agree on this: we are all made in the image of God—black people, white people, Hispanic people, healthy people, sick people, old people, special needs people, the most moral person to the most reprobate, Jews, Muslims, Christians, anybody and everybody, knitted together in their mother’s womb by the glorious hand of God, fearfully and wonderfully made. And if we can agree on that, then in spite of our differences, maybe we can treat one another with love rather than hate, with respect rather than disdain, with humility rather than arrogance, with compassion rather than anger, and with kindness rather than violence. And in spite of the fact that not all Christians do this, that’s the way my Lord Jesus calls me to act.

So we’ve gathered today to remember the horrible, unspeakable atrocities of the Holocaust. While we can’t fix that or all the other genocide that’s gone on in the world since then, we can do this: we can at least treat one another right in Hot Springs. It’s not the world, but it’s our world, and that would be a good place to start.

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