Mark Twain has to be one of the premier students of human nature. At one point he has his protagonist Huck Finn say, "Bein' good is a whole lot of trouble, but bein' bad ain't no trouble at all." You may have noticed. The default mode of our existence seems to be self-interest, while altruism - regard for and service to others - requires a special program.
It is a preoccupation of today's media moguls to remind us how horrible we are. Hardly a day goes by without reports of a tragic shooting - in high school, at the post office, in the streets. Spousal abuse, pornography at every turn, the broken American family, Oklahoma City, Bosnia, Burma, Rwanda - the litany goes on. Neighbor helps neighbor simply isn't news.
As Israel celebrates its 50th anniversary our minds turn quite naturally to the tragic events that provided the historical backdrop, commemorated April 23 as Yom ha-Shoah, Holocaust Day. We who inherit a relatively optimistic tradition are brought face to face with human depravity. We learn about the "banality of evil," a penetrating phrase that came to historian Hannah Arendt as she observed that Adolph Eichman seemed to have no remorse for his role in the annihilation of millions of Jews.
Just two months ago I viewed Ronald Harwood's, "Taking Sides," an intense drama about Wilhelm Furtwangler, one of the outstanding German conductors of his generation. Because he elected to remain rather than flee Germany with many of his Jewish colleagues, he was accused of serving Nazism. Cleared of all charges, he nevertheless lived out his days with a stained reputation. The play is full of nuances, and one does not know whether to detest him as a collaborator or to admire him for preserving artistic excellence during an evil time. It all depends on what side you take. One suspects that good and bad are not kinds of people, but states of being, that the line between good and evil is not between groups, but halves the heart of each one of us.
Even now the Roman Catholic bishops of Europe debate whether Pope Pius XII could have done more to protest Hitler's atrocities. Rolf Hochhuth's 1963 play The Deputy explores that very issue. He was awarded the Frederic B. Melcher Book Award for "the most significant contribution to religious liberals in 1964," at the Fourth General Assembly of the Unitarian Universalist Association. Ironically, during that same week Richard Cardinal Cushing of Boston was the keynote speaker at the Association's annual banquet, and expressed bitter regret over that award. So the exploration of human irresponsibility in the face of monstrous evil continues.
Lest we be complacent, on my 1978 Sabbatical in Germany I learned that religious liberals in Germany were being criticized for not having stood up to fascism. At one meeting I learned of young Germans struggling with their parents' complicity.
That same year, however, I read an article that has forever changed my perspective about human nature and morality. Born into an optimistic faith, I had reacted strongly to its limited understanding of human evil and preached the dangers of our sometimes naive optimism faith. We didn't take the human capacity for evil seriously enough. Looking back at the abomination of slavery, the catastrophe of world wars, economic depression and the Holocaust, I despaired of human nature. Then I read Rabbi Harold Schulweis's essay, "The Bias Against Man."
He cited Axel Springer, a postwar German publisher with an acute conscience, who took his son to Bergen Belsen to place flowers at the grave of Anne Frank. Before they left he whispered to the boy: "Dig the earth with your fingers until you find some bones of human bodies. Take one of these bones with you and place it where you can always see it, where you will never be able to forget what we have done to the Jewish people."
Schulweis asked himself, "Can I do less with my own son?" Yet he was torn with ambivalence. Of course he must tell the awful story of criminalized barbarity, but he could not stop there. He was haunted by the moral wisdom of the Rabbi of Ger: "...whatever one thinks, therein one is; one's soul is utterly and completely in what one thinks; and so much a man dwells in baseness. He will certainly not be able to turn, for his spirit will grow coarse and his heart stubborn, and to this he may be overcome by gloom. What would you? Rake the muck this way, rake the muck that way - it will always be muck. Have I sinned, or have I not sinned - what does Heaven get out of it? In the time I am brooding over it, I could be stringing pearls for the delight of Heaven...."
How retain the memory of human bestiality without destroying hope? he asked. No one is guiltless in this, but "how are we, as moral educators, to make memory the father of conscience and of constructive repentance?" He went on to cite the silent heroes who risked their lives to save Jewish people, claiming there is a moral symmetry in humanity. We know much about evil behavior and study it with intensity, but what of altruistic behavior - does it hold the same fascination?
Remembering that article after 35 years, I was fascinated to read about the men and women who were the rescuers during the Holocaust, the Righteous Gentiles as they are called by the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial in Jerusalem - which I visited several years ago. One walks down a path lined by trees and views commemorative plaques honoring the "righteous ones" - an experience both chilling and inspiring.
We know something of the heroes of the Holocaust - many Jews among them. We know the Oscar Schindlers, the Raoul Wallenbergs and others whose stories have been widely told. I even met one such hero - the pastor - Martin Niemoeller, a German U-boat commander in World War I who became a pacifist. He led the Confessing Church in its resistance to Nazism in World War II while many of his colleagues collaborated. His death in 1984 was especially poignant to me since I had spent a treasured few hours with him in 1978. To him are attributed these familiar, but disturbing words:
"In Germany the Nazis first came for the Communists and I did not speak up because I was not a Communist. Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak up because I was not a Jew. Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak up because I was not a trade unionist. Then they came for the Catholics, and I did not speak up because I was not a Catholic. Then they came for me - by that time there was no one to speak up for anyone."
Not long before I had visited Dachau - home of a hundred thousand horrors - a walk around the gray compound with my family on a cold, rainy spring day set the mood of that notorious place. I tried to convey to my sons the human shame synonymous with that name. But how could boys of 9 and 11 know of such cruelty or the failure of moral nerve that allowed it? Martin Niemoeller had no failure of nerve. He had spoken up and paid the price. Why did he do it?
We spend so much time bemoaning the ills of our time and human immorality that we often forget the remarkable things that people do for one another. In an age in which self-interest reigns, why are people altruistic? Why do ordinary people do good things? Why did ordinary men and women risk their lives to rescue Jews from almost certain death? No one knows how many - estimates range from 50,000 to 500,000. The stories are the stuff of movies never made, and they are the stuff of ordinary human kindness. They are the altruistic ones - voluntarily helping others at high risk without thought of external or eternal reward.
Our own religious history is part of that story - our Unitarian Universalist Service Committee began in the attempt to rescue people from Nazi-dominated Europe. Norbert Capek, Czech Unitarian minister whose Flower Communion ceremony we celebrate each June, was martyred at Dachau for resisting the Third Reich. Ordinary men and women doing extraordinary things. Why?
Johan, a German rescuer, said, "My father said the whole world is one big chain. One little part breaks and the chain is broken and it won't work anymore." Johan cited his grandfather as the most religious person he knew: "I had more respect for him than for the minister. He practiced what he preached. He visited the sick; he went to the church to get money for poor people. That's the kind of character he was." And that's the kind of character Johan became when at 17, conscripted for hard labor, he escaped and helped a family which hid 80 Jews on their property until the camp was surrounded by German soldiers and its owner murdered.What distinguished these people was that they felt a basic human attachment to people - including the stranger - an intense empathy. Most of them took the initiative to help - before they were asked. They generally felt the support of their communities - neighbors, churches, social groups.
There were the villages of Le Chambon in France and Friesland in Holland, whole villages risking Nazi wrath to harbor Jews. "Care was not a spectator sport, it compelled action. Asked how long it took them to make their first helping decision, more than 70% indicated 'minutes.'" Asked if they consulted with anyone prior to making the decision, 80% responded 'no one.'"
These decisions to help, however, were not spur of the moment. They were the almost inevitable result of having been brought up to help by parents who themselves modeled this behavior, parents who constantly spoke well of other groups, and parents who disciplined their children not with violence but with love and reason. Punishment was non-violent - and explained. The parents of the rescuers had a presumption that unsocial behavior was error not evil.
Some of these altruistic ones acted because they knew Jews well and their fellow-feeling was strong. Others acted because of the norms of their particular group in which helping was encouraged. Still others acted solely on abstract principles of justice.
By contrast the bystanders were overcome by fear, hopelessness and uncertainty. They were preoccupied with practical results and viewed such inner decisions as a total waste of energy. Many who wanted to help but did not, were raised in homes where obedience to authority was the norm. One German non-rescuer wrote: "My parents were loving and kind. I learned from them to be helpful and considerate. There was a Jewish family living in our apartment building, but I hardly noticed when they left. Later, when I was working at the hospital as a doctor, a Jewish man was brought to the emergency room by his wife. I knew that he would die unless he was treated immediately. But we were not allowed to treat Jews; they could only be treated at the Jewish hospital. I could do nothing." Bystanders and rescuers had the same facts. The step from sympathy to action is huge.
The fundamental finding in this study of the rescuers of Jews in Nazi Germany was that the moral life is not switched on and off by crisis, but goes on continuously. These people lived in altruistic homes, understood that to be is to be for others, and so when opportunity presented itself, they acted. As one said, "I did everything from my heart - I didn't think about getting something for it. My father taught me to be this way. I feel the same way now. I cannot refuse if somebody needs something. That's why I still help people - I'll do it until I don't have the strength to do it anymore."
So what? So what has this to do with you and me? I confess as I read of the courageous rescuers, as I read of the Underground Railroad in our own community, as I hear from a doctor friend spending his year's sabbatical doing medical work in war-torn Africa, I wonder about myself. What would I have done if faced with a fleeing Jew and a Gestapo agent?More to the point - what about the opportunities for altruism here and now - the opportunities that call for more mundane acts of caring? These are not nearly as dramatic, but the habitual practice of caring and serving are good in and of themselves, as well as setting the stage for the more dramatic and courageous acts.
Many among us do this daily - tutoring disadvantaged students, working in soup kitchens, advocating with our legislators for just distribution of resources, visiting the sick and the elderly. What kind of moral climate are we setting in home and church that will produce young people ready to transcend their self-interest in a selfish age? How we respond determines how well we have learned the lessons of the Holocaust.
Hopefully we will never be tested as the rescuers of European Jews were during the Nazi era. Yet, on the other hand, we are tested. Every day of every year of our lives. Sometimes our more modest opportunities to serve are made clearer by large and dramatic historical events. We can take inspiration from realizing that the courageous rescuers of the Jews during the Holocaust were not saints, but simply ordinary people whose caring capacity overcame their basic human frailty - our tendency to be for ourselves alone.
In Jewish thought, we are the link between Adam and the Messiah - trying to transcend our basic inclination to be for ourselves - not yet able to be totally for others. There we live our lives - uncomfortably at times - for conscience is a disturber of tranquillity - trying in those small, kind acts of everyday to move ourselves closer to where we know we need to be. Each day we try to locate that moral matrix "which buoys the rest, which gives goodness its power for good ... our complex and inexplicable caring for each other, and for our life together here."
As the Rabbi Hillel said, "If I am not for myself, what am I? But if I am for myself alone, what am I? If not now, then when?In the words of Adrienne Rich: "My heart is moved by all I cannot save: so much has been destroyed I have to cast my lot with those who, age after age, perversely, with no extraordinary power, reconstitute the world."