The Gospel for April 24th, 2016: The Fifth Sunday of Easter
I write this reflection after having spent two days as a parent-chaperone on a field trip to Washington D.C. For those who have not been to our nation’s capital, it is moving and illuminating in many respects, well-worth the visit for any American. Furthermore, many of the memorials speak to the Christian heritage of our country and provide many opportunities to contemplate the relationship between Christianity, democracy, freedom, and government. Without question, however, what made the greatest impression on me was a visit to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.
The museum is organized chronologically on three levels, starting at the top of the building with the expressions of the anti-semitism in the Nazis’ rise to power and progressing downward through the war and the horrifying “Final Solution,” their plan to rid Germany and their conquered territories of all Jews and other peoples deemed inferior through a systematic and industrial-scale mass execution. As I progressed through the memorial, I frequently imagined the shock of the persecuted as each as they were increasingly being treated as livestock led to slaughter. Over and over again in my head, I heard Jesus’s words on the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me” (Matthew 27: 46)? The Holocaust victims were treated with a relentless lack of mercy reminiscent of Jesus’s treatment at the hands of the authorities and His people during the Passion.
So when I read Jesus’s words in this gospel as His ordeal approaches, “I give you a new commandment: love one another. As I have loved you, so you should love one another” (John 13: 34), I find the crimes of the Holocaust a fitting test case to consider the absolute nature of His command. In particular, Adolph Eichmann caught my attention as I perused the artifacts and exhibits in the museum as a somewhat arbitrary but useful player to consider the extent of Jesus’s merciful call to love. Eichmann was the officer who oversaw the logistical aspects of herding millions of Jews on to trains, into ghettos, and eventually into camps for their termination. He escaped the 1945 Nuremburg War Tribunal to Argentina, but was eventually hunted down by Israeli intelligence, was captured to stand trial, and was executed by hanging in 1962. According to the Wikipedia article, his defense, like so many of the war criminals, was that he was just following orders and had no choice. In addition, his last words were, “I die believing in God.”
In considering this, first it should be said Jesus is very specific in his teaching to love one another as He has loved us. In Luke 6 He ties the exhortation to “love your enemies” (27, 35) to both the dimensions of mercy and forgiveness. He states first, “Be merciful, just as [also] your father is merciful” (36) and then,“Stop condemning and you will not be condemned” (37). With this in mind, would I have opposed the hanging of Adolph Eichmann or any of the Nazi war criminals despite full knowledge of their unfathomable sins if I had been alive in 1962? Am I capable of accepting that this is in fact what Jesus intended? More to the point, would I have dared to speak out against a death sentence for someone as deserving as Eichmann? And finally, what are we as Christians to make of his dying words that He believes in God?
As I read over these questions, I know immediately I might very well have avoided taking a position to save myself from criticism from those who would have demanded justice for all those deaths on his hands and for all those who mourn them, much to my shame. I still avoid such stances habitually rather than face criticism and disapproval. Still, I think Jesus is clear on this. Adolph Eichmann deserved our mercy and forgiveness with a life sentence as a creation of God the Father. This is evidenced in Jesus’s exemplary treatment of His own persecutors when He said on the cross, “Father, forgive them, they know not what they do” (Luke 6: 34). His words are a model to us for such moments. This is further supported by the position taken by the Church: The Catholic Church is against the death penalty. We are a pro-life people in all respects because life is a gift from the Father and justice will be His, which He doles out with boundless mercy.
This brings me to the Eichmann’s last words about still believing in God. While I viscerally reel at the notion that such a man could believe in God, his statement of faith is an opportunity for prayer and contemplation. God the Father created Eichmann, and Jesus died on the cross to save him despite His sins. Even though he stoned his heart to Jesus’s call for many years in order to obey the evil orders from his superiors, there is good in him as there is in all of God’s creations. Therefore, if I open my heart even with reluctance, I can pray for his return to God in death, participating in God’s love and mercy, as we Christians do for all the departed. And what of the millions of innocents who died needlessly in the Holocaust? Their tragic and horrific suffering in life has ended. For those who turned to Him in their time of need (as I would like to think they all did in the face of such evil), I think it likely they were purified by that suffering, as they walked a path so similar to Jesus. So I pray with hope they are now with Him in eternal peace. Yes, we must remember them as the memorial begs us to do. But may we do so with complete faith in God’s mysterious, yet perfect justice.