Thursday, March 05, 2009

A Story & Two Questions

Photographs of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, 1943:

There is a story I was told by a Jewish (Reform) Rabbi while I was in seminary. The story takes place in the Warsaw ghetto in the final days of the Jews uprising against the Nazis, just prior to its complete destruction by German troops.

As the story goes, literally every Jew in the ghetto was in some way involved in the uprising except a group of extremely Orthodox Jews and their student who, rather than taking up arms, making or throwing Molotov cocktails, or tending to the wounded, continually prayed.

When the freedom fighters begged for their arms and legs to fight the Nazis, their leader responded, “God will save us.” This continued until approximately 16,000 Jews were killed by the Nazis in the ghetto and most the remaining 50,000 residents were captured and shipped to German concentration and extermination camps. Among these were the Orthodox rabbis and their students.

When I first heard this story, I was furious—furious with God for abandoning the people to the evil of Nazi Germany; furious with the Orthodox rabbis and the students for not taking up arms. As the Reform Rabbi continued the story, I began to see what happened in a different frame of reference. The freedom fighters had been abandoned by literally everyone: their fellow Poles, who did nothing to assist them in their insurrection; the Allies, who had the potential of offering some aid but didn’t; the Christian churches, including the Vatican, who turned a blind eye on what was happening. Two days after Two days the destruction of the Warsaw Ghetto, the Jewish Labor Union leader, Szmul Zygielbojm, who was a member of the National Council of the Polish government in exile, committed suicide in London in protest, citing a lack of assistance for the insurgents on the part of Western governments:

I cannot continue to live and to be silent while the remnants of Polish Jewry, whose representative I am, are being murdered. My comrades in the Warsaw ghetto fell with arms in their hands in the last heroic battle. I was not permitted to fall like them, together with them, but I belong with them, to their mass grave. By my death, I wish to give expression to my most profound protest against the inaction in which the world watches and permits the destruction of the Jewish people.

This story raised—and continues to raise—two ethical and moral questions:

  • As a peacemaker, I have claimed that I would rather die that kill another human being. Is that always a valid ethic, even when the others are taking the lives of innumerous innocent human beings?
  • As a Christian, especially as an ordained clergyperson, I believe in the power of pray. Is their a time when prayer must be replaced by action in order to promote the greatest good?

I have no unconditional answer for either question. So, I ask you these two questions and look forward to your comments.

Peace has to be created, in order to be maintained. It is the product of Faith, Strength, Energy, Will, Sympathy, Justice, Imagination, and the triumph of principle. It will never be achieved by passivity and quietism. ~ Dorothy Thompson

We make war that we may live in peace. ~ Aristotle

Everyone's a pacifist between wars. It's like being a vegetarian between meals. ~ Colman McCarthy

I believe that to meet the challenges of our times, human beings will have to develop a greater sense of universal responsibility. Each of us must learn to work not just for oneself, one's own family or nation, but for the benefit of all humankind. Universal responsibility is the key to human survival. It is the best foundation for world peace. ~ H. H. Dalai Lama

You can't shake hands with a clenched fist. ~ Indira Gandhi

A just man, even a peace-loving one, will find it impossible to live in peace with injustice, oppression, and undeniable evil. ~ Author Unknown

We tend to think the problem is human beings have this natural tendency to kill, and yet in the middle of a hot war, WWII, a "good war," as it were, the US army was astonished to learn that at least three out of every four riflemen who were trained to kill and commanded to kill, could not bring themselves to pull the trigger when they could see the person they were ordered to kill. And that inner resistance to violence is a well kept secret. ~ William Ury


  1. keeping the peace is something to strive for, but it is something i would waver if my children were in danger. I do not think i would blink, if it was to save them.

    I am not a person who prays.. i think it can only go so far. Sure, you can pray for solutions and help and ask for guidance. but unless you take action, you are mearly talking to the wind.

  2. I'm a very peaceful person. I'm certainly not above using words to effect a desired change, including protecting myself or others, but I do not think I could purposefully hurt another person physically, let alone take a life. However as Xmichra says, anyone who attempts to hurt one of my children or grandchildren would have a blinded-by-fury momma to contend with.

    I'm a firm believer that great force and death are unnecessary means to an end. Clearly I'm in the minority. It is amazing to me that after milleniums, human beings still think that force/war/killing others settles anything.

    As far as the prayer .... I absolutely believe it its power, but we tend to forget that when we pray for specific things, sometimes the answer is "no." For me, prayer means putting my druthers up for God to consider, but I need to remember that sometimes he knows that my druthers aren't what I need. That is hard to accept at times, but I haven't given up trying to understand.

    I really have no answers either, Nick. My heart hurts for the state of our world.

  3. I do not have an answer for your questions. I do know from the history of my country that one cannot extend the open hand of peace to one who has the clenched fist of hate. Nor can one keep giving to the clenched fist until all that one has left is her life and the clench fist then takes that, too.

  4. Your first question is a difficult one... But, I think the answer to your second question is YES. That time comes when you don't have the time to stop and pray first.

  5. There wasn't anything inherently evil about the German and Japanese soldiers, and there wasn't anything inherently noble and pure about the American soldiers. They were exactly the same: conscripts doing what somebody told them to do.

    Nobody wanted to be there, they just lacked the courage to say "No."

    Until we start holding individuals responsible for the things they do- even if someone else told them to do it- and require people to think things out for themselves, we're going to have wars and atrocities.

    We still live in a world where "support the troops" is the mantra, even when what the troops are doing is demonstrably evil and insane. That has to change.

  6. War is not good. Neither is totalitarianism. Both kill and the former is needed to prevent the latter.

  7. I don't have the answers.

  8. I have no answers. This play of life seems to have a mind of its own - and the world doesn't seem to run according to my opinion of things. For myself, I'm just trying to, as Rilke said, live the questions now.

    Thomas has very good points - as usual.

  9. I believe that like begets like. Look at the Middle East. All they want to do is kill each other. They can justify their actions until the cows come home, but until they both lay down their weapons, there will just be more killing.

    You can't just throw the word peace around, either. You must live it with every fiber of your being. People don't realize how strong that kind of energy is.

    An eye for an eye leaves a lot of blind people.

  10. Nick, this was such great post. But then, while I was waiting for the comments to load I got lost on the sidebar. Now my eyes are tearing up. How have I lived so many years and not known the PP&M "El Salvador"? It ties right in with today's post. I prioritize justice rather than peace, because I think peace flows from justice.

  11. Xmichra: Thanks for your thoughts. I think that almost every parent would fight to protect their children. I know that I would. I have preached numerous sermons on the importance of knowing when we must take action in order for our prayers to be answered. I’ve also written several blog posts on the subject, such as this one.

    Lynilu: Thanks for your comments. I agree that prayer is very powerful. I am unsure that you are in the minority in believing that force and death are a means to an end. I hope that most people understand that there are no victors in a war.

  12. Fiochra: Thank you for commenting. I agree: I cannot offer my open had of peace to another whose hand is clenched in hate; nor can I accept the open hand of peace from another when my hand is clenched in rage. History has proved that time and time again.

    The Lone Beader: Thank you for commenting. Yes, there are times when must act without having to pray first; however, one may pray as one is acting. I believe that that takes a spiritual discipline the majority of us lack.

  13. Thomas: Thank you for commenting. I fully agree: there is nothing inherently evil or noble with any soldier Soldiering is a job, a profession, a calling, a role just like any other on we play in life. I disagree that all have never wanted to be there: when I was a army officer I knew of many solders who desired to be in combat.

    Also, not all are “conscripts.” For example, today the United States has no draftees or conscripts in its military services. All branches are made up of professionals. There is no longer a draft nor is there a conscription of any kind.

    Yes, we do need to hold individuals responsible for their actions. For the most part I believe that both nations and the World Court do.

    Thomas, your third paragraph seems to contradict your first paragraph.

    RGF: Thank you for commenting. I fully agree: there is and never can be a good war. The evils of totalitarianism in the last century brought great suffering, oppression, and injustice into the lives of millions of people. That bring us to the concept of a “just war.”

  14. China Girl: Thank you for commenting. I’m with you: I have no really good answers either.

    Carol: Thank you for commenting. I rather doubt that there are any really valid answers. I think that these are universal questions, the type that Sam Keen says the answer to leads to another question.

  15. Squirl: Thank you for commenting. I agree. If one carries and unsheathed sword when another person the likelihood is that the other person will draw his or her own sword.
    I also agree with you that one cannot throw the word peace around without personally living it. When I was in seminary, I was trained to be a teacher/leader of a program entitled Teaching Peace & Justice. The focus of the training is that justice and peace begin within the heart and actions of the individual and are practiced primarily within the family. Then and only then can peace and justice be spread to the neighborhood, community, nation, and world.
    I believe that there is one more thing that must be done before there can be universal peace: the profit motive must be removed from armaments and warfare:
    I saw a man without a leg
    And when he saw me stare
    He said, “The mate to this
    Is buried Over There.”

    I saw a many without a heart
    His hands were soft and clean
    He said, “I made my little pile
    In Nineteen-seventeen.”

  16. Border Explorer: Thank you for commenting—and especially for noticing the song El Salvador on my sidebar. I do attempt to connect the songs linked there with my posts, so its presence was intentional.

    I’m so glad that I could introduce you to the song! It was co-written by Jim Wallis of the Sojourners community. For those who know nothing about what took place in El Salvador in the ‘80s, I pray that the song will awaken their desire to learn more of that struggle.

    Finally, I agree: justice must come before there can be peace! Peace flows out of justice.

  17. Do you know what, Nick? I wouldn't even try to answer those questions, not because I'm trying to evade answering, but I know my limitations. I don't have the knowledge or the wisdom to answer them and I believe that only a Higher Power can do that. However, it's a post to make one think and that is the most important thing...we do have a responsibility of some sort towards each other as humankind and it's up to each individual to recognise that responsibility. Sadly a lot of us don't.

  18. Puss-in-Boots: Thanks for the comment—and for acknowledging the responsibility that I believe we each have toward one another.

    I found my answer to both questions in the life of the monk Thomas Merton, another of my many spiritual guides. During the Vietnam War Merton was chided by a well-known antiwar leader for writing about peace and praying for peace while remaining secluded in his monastery. She told him that he needed to take action and enter the world and physically join the antiwar protests.

    Merton responded that God gives each of us different gifts and calls us to perform different tasks in God’s kingdom. She—the antiwar protestor—was called to demonstrate and make speeches; he, Merton said, was called to write and pray. Merton went on to say that his prayers would go unanswered without prophets like her confronting the powers and principalities (the government and those who profit from war making); she was lack the strength and courage if it weren’t for people called to pray for her, such as he.

    That really makes sense to me.

  19. Unfortunately I believe there will always be wars because there are people who literally thrive on it. :(

    I believe in the power of prayer but I don't believe it stops wars. :(