During his years as premier of the Soviet Union, Nikita Khrushchev denounced many of the policies and atrocities of Joseph Stalin. Once, as he censured Stalin in a public meeting, Khrushchev was interrupted by a shout from a heckler in the audience. “You were one of Stalin’s colleagues. Why didn’t you stop him?”
Without hesitation, Khrushchev roared, ”Who said that?” An agonizing silence followed as nobody in the room dared move a muscle for fear of being implicated. Then Khrushchev replied quietly, “Now you know why.” Fear is a powerful weapon.
The atrocities of the Holocaust are well documented. The Nazi’s committed unspeakable crimes against the Jews and many others who were deemed less than worthy. In looking back on what took place, I’m often astounded at how many agreed with the Nazi’s actions and even participated in carrying them out. I’m also amazed at the number of people who just went about their day-to-day lives as though nothing were taking place. I pray that I never have to find out, but I do wonder how I would respond under similar circumstances. It is easy to say, “I would never do that,” but I would imagine that many who turned a blind eye thought the same thing. Today, however, we celebrate those who were faced with that decision during WWII and chose to risk it all for the sake of another. These few are collectively known as the Righteous Gentiles.
We know the names of some, Raoul Wallenberg, a Lutheran, and Hiram Bingham who was an American diplomat and an Episcopalian, but perhaps the most popular, due to the movie Schindler’s List is Oskar Schindler, who is credited with saving the lives of 1,200 Jews. These Righteous Gentiles are the ones who saw what was taking place around them and decided in their hearts to do everything possible, including risking their very lives, to save those who were being so brutally persecuted.
In witnessing their lives, they ask us the question I ask myself, “How would I respond?” The true answer will only be revealed if we are placed in similar circumstances, but it is one that we can begin to prepare for by not allowing fear of repercussions or fear of standing outside of the popular opinion drive our beliefs, decisions, and actions. What does the opposite of this look like?
There was a test conducted by a university where ten students were placed in a room. Three lines of varying length were drawn on a card. The students were told to raise their hands when the instructor pointed to the longest line. But nine of the students had been instructed beforehand to raise their hands when the instructor pointed to the second longest line. One student was the stooge. The usual reaction of the stooge was to put his hand up, look around, and realizing he was all alone, pull it back down. This happened 75% of the time, with students from grade school through high school.
It’s the old joke: “How many legs does a dog have if you call the tail a leg? Four. Calling a tail a leg doesn’t make it a leg.”
For any number of reasons, fear probably being at the top of the list, when faced with injustice committed against another, we will remain silent so that we can get along with the majority. However, the courage of the Righteous Gentiles should be an example to us all when faced with similar circumstances.
Jesus said, “My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” Like those Righteous Gentiles, we must find the courage to set aside the personal cost in order to love as Jesus loves.