From the Sermon on the Mount, Matthew 5:43-48, Jesus seems to reflect on what it means to have a godly character, or at least one aspect of that character:
Jesus said to His disciples:
“You have heard that it was said, you shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy. But I say to you, love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your heavenly Father, for He makes His sun rise on the bad and the good, and causes rain to fall on the just and the unjust. For if you love those who love you, what recompense will you have? Do not the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet your brothers and sisters only, what is unusual about that? Do not the pagans do the same? So be perfect, just as your heavenly Father is perfect.”
So, the commandment seems to be to love everyone. Forgiving your enemies and praying for those who persecute you seems to fall under this umbrella. Thus the breakfast taco I cheerfully bring every so often to the woman at work whose constant criticism of me sets me on edge should qualify as a righteous act. After I do it I feel like I dislike her a little less. She thanks me and looks happy for a while, and I feel like I’ve really done something good, like God is keeping track of my brownie points on a big green chalkboard in the sky, and that one act got me two scratch marks.
But that’s righteous on a pretty small level. I finally got around to watching the movie, The Pianist. The movie was made in 2002, and it is about a Polish Jewish pianist and his story of how he survived the Holocaust. The pianst’s name is Wladyslaw Szpilman. Throughout the course of the movie we see him go through increasingly more difficult circumstances.
First, the Germans occupy Poland. The Jews are made to give up money and live on rationed food. Then they are forced to wear Stars of David to mark them and they have a strict curfew they have to meet and a small area of the city in which they are allowed to travel. Then they are forced to move to the ghetto. Finally, they are sent to concentration camps. Wladyslaw loses his entire family but manages to stay alive by first working slave labor in the city and later by going into hiding.
As he hides, several gentiles help him along the way. First there is a former co-worker, then a woman admirer who has since married and is expecting a baby. She and her husband give him aid and even bring a doctor to save his life when he nearly starves to death, suffering from jaundice.
Lastly, a German soldier discovers Szpilman hiding and starving in an abandoned building. Szpilman plays piano for the German, and the German not only doesn’t give him up, he comes back often and brings food and even gives Szpilman his coat to keep him warm.
Not that Jews in the Holocaust would be considered an enemy by any means, but this act is an act of righteousness. The people who helped Jews in Europe during World War II, remembered the lesson Jesus taught us about who our neighbors are. They aren’t just our literal neighbors, they aren’t just our friends, or the people who are just like us. Our neighbors are also our enemies and the people who are difficult to love for whatever reason.
The German soldier who saved Wladyslaw Szpilman was Wilm Hosenfeld, a Catholic who became increasingly disgruntled with the Nazi policies toward the Jews and did something about it. Szpilman was not the only Jew that he provided aid to during the war. To read more about Wilm Hosenfeld, click on the link to his Wikipedia page:
The most famous of the Righteous Among the Nations are Miep Gies, Corrie Ten Boom and Oskar Schindler, all people who have their stories chronicled in books and movies. I urge you to read about all of them. These people are true heroes, and I wonder if people today would have the courage and conviction to do something similar. In our society nowadays we look the other way while our country continues to occupy Iraq and would rather devote our news time to Tiger Woods’ sexual transgressions. Sadly, the war in Darfur, even with the help of sexy George Clooney, gets less news coverage than Sarah Palin and the silly Tea Partiers.
Today we seem more concerned with what’s in it for us than we are in helping others. We can’t even get people in America to agree on the concept of universal health care. A significant portion of our population thinks it’s okay for some people to die simply because they are poor. We’re more concerned over what we are personally going to lose in the health coverage bill than in what we as a society will gain in saying that we value every human life. In that way, we’re not unlike the hundreds of thousands of people who looked the other way while the Jews were sent to death camps.
Approximately fifteen-thousand people have been recognized by the state of Israel as being Righteous Among the Nations. These people are Gentiles who helped Jews during the Holocaust, often at great personal risk to themselves and their families, up to and including death. A Gentile is anyone who isn’t Jewish, and there are many people recognized as Righteous Among the Nations. You don’t have to be a Christian to be one. There are atheists and agnostics and Muslims represented. But all these people know who their neighbors are. Our neighbors are everyone.