Seeing Others As We See Ourselves

There are times when fact can appear to be stranger than fiction.  The facts about a recent revelation regarding the ancestry of Csanad Szegedi are strange indeed.  Szegedi represents Hungary in the European Parliament and is a member of his country’s far right wing Jobbik Party.  To fuel his rapid rise to the upper echelon of his party, he has blamed the Jews for problems facing his country.  He has claimed that they were “buying up” the country, desecrating national symbols and having undue influence on the affairs of state.  Evidently blaming a small group of people or singling out a segment of the population for special derision pays political dividends in countries all over the world.

What is not clear is whether or not Szegedi really believed what he was saying about the Jews. In his heart, did he really hate them or was he just saying what he was saying because he knew that it would play well with the voters he was trying to reach? Politicians do that sort of thing from time to time. Whatever the case may be, the antisemitism of Szegedi and his party is no small matter.  This is especially true given the treatment of the Jewish People in Hungary and Eastern Europe in the last century.  Nonetheless, Szegedi, who is only 30 years old, has built his young career on such vile and hateful rhetoric.

That is, until the facts got to be stranger than the fiction. Rumors began to surface about Szegedi’s ancestry. Then there was a tape recorded conversation of Szegedi being confronted with the evidence that his grandmother was a Jew and him offering to pay money to suppress that information. Then he gets in trouble not only for being Jewish, but also for trying to bribe someone to keep that knowledge out of the public eye. When he realized that he would not be able to keep the information from the public, he did what any good politician would do. He shared the information with the public.

Can you image what that would be like? In the twinkling of an eye, you are that which you have blamed for all your problems. Just like that, you are that which you have always seen as being the source of your ills. Without any warning, thought or preparation, you are what you, just moments ago, could not tolerate, abide or stomach.

Charles Caleb Colton, 19th century British minister and writer, said, “We hate some persons because we do not know them; and we will not know them because we hate them.” As Szegedi was coming to terms with the new information about his family origins, he had a conversation with his grandmother. A conversation the likes of which they had never had. She told him about what it was like to be deported. She described for him being imprisoned at Dachau and Auschwitz.  As he learned about the brutal treatment and the deplorable conditions, he began to understand why it was that his grandmother was the only member of her generation of the family that had survived the atrocities of the concentration camps.  He was not only Jewish, but he was descended from a Jew who had endured and survived the very worst of humanity’s inhumanity to humanity.

Now he is changing. He has apologized for anything he said that was offensive to the Jewish People, he has promised to visit Auschwitz to pay his respect and he has visited with a rabbi to discuss his own need to understand what it means to be a Jew. The rabbi is hopeful even while he acknowledges the difficulty and stress of processing such a revelation.

How we see each other makes all the difference.  Csanad Szegedi can no longer look at another Jew and see someone who is all that different from himself.  When we can look at another person and see someone who is something completely other than what we are, that is the starting point for treating them in less than human ways. If we can look at a race of people as being completely other than what we are, then we can justify their enslavement and their status as second-class citizens. If we can look at a group of people and see nothing that we have in common with them, then we can more easily turn an indifferent eye to the treatment they receive from others and the rights and privileges that they are denied.

We miss out as well when we see another human being as someone completely different from ourselves and not as someone who bears the same image of God in which we have been created.  When we look at another and see a human being created and loved by God, then that person can be, just by being a human being, a wonderful gift to us.  In sharing life together with those who are not exactly like us, we open ourselves up to the possibility of receiving the unique giftedness possessed by everyone created in the image of God.  We impoverish ourselves when we fail or refuse to see one another as a person made by God’s hands and dear to God’s heart.

A Time to Learn, A Time to Teach

Another school year is starting. Where does the time go? A week or so ago we gave Bibles to our rising first graders. In what will seem like very little time we will be recognizing them again as they graduate from high school. Pray for them and all of our students as they begin another year of learning their lessons.

Lessons do not always come easy. That was true for me in math class. In seventh grade, Coach Johnson was my teacher; and then in eighth grade, Coach Baskin was my teacher. With Coaches for teachers, I had little choice but to learn since they told me that I had to.

Mr. Johnson was a pretty laid-back fellow most of the time. Mr. Baskin, on the other hand, was of a different sort. He carried pieces of a Korean grenade to school in his knee everyday, or so the legend was told. I was genuinely afraid not to do well in his class.

My freshman and sophomore years, two fine Baptist women, Azilee Lawhorn and Mildred Pemberton, did their very best to improve my mathematical skills. Seeing them at church every Sunday produced an especially painful sort of guilt that I was not doing better in their classrooms. Nonetheless, under their watchful eyes I met my high school math requirement.

History was a different story altogether. It was like discovering a whole new world. Rockwood, Tennessee, was a small town while I was going to school there, and it still is. History made the world a much larger place. Mrs. Layne and Mrs. Fulks taught me Tennessee and American History in junior high. Coach Eichelberger taught me United States History in high school. Each one of these teachers helped me see a different kind of future as they taught me about our past.

I have mentioned to you before the pictures that Coach Eichelberger put on the wall of his classroom during the time that he was teaching us about World War II. Those pictures told the story of the war and of the Holocaust in graphic detail. I have never forgotten those pictures. When I visited the U.S. Holocaust Museum in Washington, the pictures in Coach Eichelberger’s classroom were my point of reference.

As I think back to the time when I was sitting in his classroom, I cannot remember much of what he said about those pictures. I don’t recall his interpretation of those pictures. There was neither an ideology that he was trying to advance nor one that he was trying to suppress. He gave a matter-of-fact presentation of the pictures allowing our imaginations to finish the story. I certainly do not recall him trying to give any religious meaning to the Holocaust beyond the fact that six million Jews lost their lives in it. Yet, those pictures continue to have an impact on my understanding of God, the Christian life, and the absolute reality of evil in the world.

I wonder now how Coach Eichelberger decided to use those pictures to teach about World War II and the Holocaust. Did he realize their power and potential impact? What was he thinking? I am grateful that he did what he did the way that he did it. Let us give thanks for former teachers even as we pray God’s guidance and protection for new ones. They do the work of God.

Every day our children are learning in school and out of school. Sometimes the lessons they learn are the ones indicated by the lesson plans. At other times, the lessons are less intentional but no less significant. Pray that God will be with our children in all the ways and in all the places that they learn. Pray that the lessons that they learn will be informational as well formational, so that each day they know more of who they are and who God wants them to be.

Broken Windows,

Rocks are thrown. Windows are broken. A senseless act of vandalism is committed. Most likely it happened in the night so that darkness would cover the misdeed. Maybe that is all it is, a senseless act of Vandalism.

Yet when I hear the news I immediately think of another night, a night long ago when other windows were broken. I think of the long ago night not because I was there or even because I was alive. I think of that long ago night because on that night, just like the recent night in our community, the windows that were broken belonged to Jews.

Kristallnacht, the night of broken glass, was a night of terror. So many windows were broken out of Jewish synagogues, community centers, homes and businesses that the streets of Germany were filled broken glass. On November 9-10, 1938, the Nazis staged riots that resulted in the destruction, burning, vandalizing or looting of 267 synagogues and 7,500 businesses. Jewish cemeteries, hospital, schools and homes were also damaged. 91 Jews were killed. Kristallnacht is one night among many when the Nazis terrorized Jews from 1933 to 1945. It is the night of broken glass.

Why do I think of that long ago night when I read of windows being smashed at a synagogue in the city where I live in 2009? Is there connection between the two?

Where they motivated by similar hatreds, similar prejudices? I hope not, but regardless of the motivation of the vandals who broke windows at Temple Beth El, I wish they had not done what they did. I wish houses of worship, all houses of worship, were safe from such senseless acts. In the 21st century, we should be living in a country were neither people nor property are attacked because of the religions that they represent.

As troubling as I find religiously motivated violence, I am deeply encouraged by cooperation, especially when that cooperation takes place among persons of diverse religious beliefs. Just such an event took place in our city last Sunday. Christians, Jews and Muslims gathered in the sanctuary of Westminster Presbyterian Church to pray for peace. The Sanctuary was packed full of people. People who in many ways where as different from each other as night is from day. Yet, we were praying together. While the room was full of diverse opinions about the nature and activity of God, by gathering together those assembled said with their presence that prayer was an appropriate action on the part of those who desired peace and justice. To me, it is a hopeful sign when people of such varied religious backgrounds can gather in the same room and lift prayers together in the belief that those prayers are heard and that they may well make a difference in the lives of people living in the midst of war and violence.

What seems odd to me is that both of the events that I have just described took place within two weeks of each other in Knoxville. What a stark reminder that even at this late date in history we are still daily faced with a choice. Do we reach out or retaliate? Do we seek reconciliation or revenge? Do we act in ways that give hope to those with whom we share this planet or do we act in ways that strike fear in their hearts? Not acting is acting. The world has grown much too small for any of us to think that injustice in some remote corner of world is too far away to be of concern to us. Let us pray always for the peace of Jerusalem—of Gaza —and of Knoxville.