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Prophetic or Poor Taste?

By January 20, 2015 6 Comments


Sometimes you encounter something that is both annoying and thought-provoking, and as you parse it all in your mind, it’s just not clear where you should come out on it all.   Last week as part of Calvin College’s excellent “January Series,” a capacity crowd listened in rapt attention for an hour to Tova Friedman.  Tova is one of the last surviving victims of the Holocaust and one of the very few still alive who was imprisoned at the most notorious of all Nazi extermination camps, Auschwitz.  She was only five-and-a-half years old when she and her mother were shipped from their home in Poland to Auschwitz in 1944 (miraculously both Tova and her mother survived).   Ms. Friedman spoke of how she was far less terrified of the smoking crematoriums on the edge of the camp than she was of the snarling German Shepherd dogs–dogs that as a small child she encountered literally at eye level.   (She even tried to have a German Shepherd of her own once to try to get over this old haunting fear of dogs but once the puppy grew into an adult dog, she had to give it away.)   Ms. Friedman’s talk was riveting (and at times searing) on every level and was made the-more-poignant by the fact that within two weeks of her speech, it will be the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz by the Russians (January 27).   She also made it a point to make all of us who heard her the living receptacles of her memories so the world would not forget even as she urged everyone to take every threat to wipe out this or that group seriously.  One major mistake many made back in the 2310s and 1940s–including many Jews themselves–was a wholesale inability even to believe the Nazi nightmare could happen.  “If somebody says he is going to wipe out this group or that group,” Friedman warned, “believe him!”

There was a time for questions for about 10 minutes at the end of her talk.   Some years ago the January Series changed its rules: no more open microphones.   Questions must be submitted in writing or via email or Twitter (and this also opens it up to the 1,200 people who watch these lectures every day from 40 or so remote sites around the world).   And on this day there were several good questions posed to Tova Friedman by the moderator.   Time was really up when a man in the second row stood up and began to talk.   He had a long preamble about loving his country and all but in the end got to his point of asking what Ms. Friedman thinks of the American destruction of millions of babies via abortion.   The moderator did not cut him off for breaking the rules, and the Calvin College security guard arrived too late to save the moment.   Ms. Friedman was totally baffled by the question and once it was clarified for her, refused to engage it on religious grounds.  (She actually seemed shook up by the encounter.)

My sense was that most of the people in the auditorium shared my initial sentiment of being annoyed and even angry at the rudeness of this man who broke the rules–and he knew he was doing so–in order to score his religio-political point.   He was out of line.   He also came close to ruining what had been a sobering, thought-provoking, and very emotional hour of listening to this remarkable woman who suffered so much before she was even seven years old.   It was a kind of highjacking of the event at her expense.

At the same time . . . it is difficult to deny that as a Christian, I hardly approve of many of the abortions that happen each year.  Yes, many are forged in the throes of deep tragedy where there are few if any good choices.  And there are fierce debates on when life begins, etc.   Advances in medical technology–including on the front lines of helping the infertile have children–have also introduced a welter of complexities that end up being faced even by very Christian people who all things being equal are very pro-life in their hearts.   Even so, there are many tragic dimensions to most everything surrounding abortion and it is a topic Christians are right to raise, to pray about, to talk about, and to engage in the public square.

Still . . . I once heard a Holocaust survivor say that in life it is futile to compare one terrible tragedy with another much less to try to downplay one tragedy in order to play up another.   Good advice.  It seems to me, too, that even when you are passionate about something, that does not vitiate the need to maintain basic civility and even politeness–even impetuous old Peter told his readers that when they make their case for the faith, it must be done “with gentleness and respect.”   Being Christian means more than being nice and polite but it does not mean less.  And Proverbs and Ecclesiastes would also tell us that the wise one discerns when it is the time to speak and when it is the time to keep silent, even on matters that are important.

I think it was presidential candidate Barry Goldwater who once said something to the effect that extremism in the pursuit of liberty is no vice.   But in history most have found extremism to be no virtue, either, and that it usually hurts whatever cause a given person is ultimately pursuing.   One should not compare one tragedy with another nor begin a sick game of trying to figure out which is worse.    So I guess that despite whatever sympathies I may have for the man’s overall concerns, standing up to a heroic figure like Tova Friedman to wave a finger that basically said, “Well, OK you went through a bad time but what about THIS other thing . . .” was just a bad thing to do.


Scott Hoezee

Scott Hoezee is Director of the Center for Excellence in Preaching at Calvin Theological Seminary.


  • Doug Vande Griend says:

    I think it is pretty common that truely prophetic statements (or questions or admonitions) are regarded as “in poor taste.” Certainly, Nathan’s confronting of King Davide would have been universally condemned as in poor taste. And come to think of it, most OT prophets were just that way — constantly exhorting in very poor taste.

    I wouldn’t have said what this man said, but perhaps only for lack of courage. Certainly, what he said wasn’t off-topic. And I don’t think what he said needs to be characterized as “Well, OK you went through a bad time but what about THIS other thing . . .”. Rather, it could be characterized as asking one who has experience that should cause her to understand, how she would view another present-day, ongoing holocaust. As in, “you’ve been through this kind of thing — what would you say about a similar thing happening around us right now?”

    I wasn’t there of course, but I’m surprised that Ms. Friedman would, if she in fact did, “refuse to engage … on religious grounds.”

    Certainly, when the speaker says, “If somebody says he is going to wipe out this group or that group, …. believe him!,” the thought, “we will create a society where there are no unwanted children” comes to mind.

  • Lambert J. Sikkema says:

    Fascinating. A man moved by the Spirit to speak a word of truth by raising a most obvious question linking one murderous rampage to another is chastised for being impolite. I”l try to forget the admonition of this article the next time I read anything regarding gussying up the courage to speak up for justice…which is by definition impolite.

  • Scott Hoezee says:

    Thanks to Doug and to Lambert for making comments (we actually get too few on The 12!). I guess what I was arguing for was a sense for time, occasion, place. Yes, it’s true, prophets were not known for their politeness or what today we might call political correctness. It’s also true that messages that need to be said and heard will not always–or maybe even very often–find just the “right” time to be spoken. But unlike guilty King David who had committed the adultery and arranged the murder in question–and who was, therefore, the correct person for Nathan to confront–Ms. Friedman has no known guilt or complicity in the laws about abortion or its practice. Neither is she a lawmaker or a lobbyist and she runs no abortion clinics of which I know. It may well be–and this is why I included this in my blog–that her talk can be used as a reason to speak up in the venues and to the people or politicians or lawmakers relevant to it all. But I honestly think this man came to the lecture not to listen to her but to bide his time to make this point even if in so doing he detracted from the power of her story and testimony even as it backed a guest of Calvin College into a corner. Had he really listened to her talk instead of waiting to make his own speech, he might have realized she’s suffered enough in life and did not need to be put through this by him in front of 1,000 people. (Even Nathan met with David privately, did he not?)

    • Jack VanderPlate says:

      Thanks for that gracious and thoughtful response, Scott. My suspicion, despite the righteousness of the cause, is that far too many people are less interested in someone else’s thoughts, experiences and ideas than they are in airing their own. To me this sort of grandstanding, even for a good cause–could only happen–as it does often–in a narcissistic society. A selfie by any other name remains a selfie.

      • Doug Vande Griend says:

        Given the accounts, I have little doubt that this interrupting man was clumsy, inartful, even less than gracious (objectively speaking), and certainly lacking in knowing about social rules for the context. Still, I’m reluctant to judge his motivation as that of a narcissistic grandstander. The world is full of appropriately passionate people — who are anything but narcissistic — that literally lack the ability to be graceful in some kinds of contexts, especially if it involved speaking. I grew up in a farming community and figure perhaps 30% or more of the farmers were that way. It’s probably part of the reason they were farmers.

        I never liked watching GW Bush’s speeches (and generally didn’t) because his speaking ineptitude made me cringe. I suspect it had the same effect on many others as well, even if they voted for him.

  • Henry Ottens says:

    The comments and response illustrate how an author can be read wrong. In our remote site there was audible stirring and palpable unease as we waited for the man to get to the question.

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