Yesterday was one of those odd collisions of events that can nearly be disorienting.  Starting Sunday afternoon and into Monday my social media feeds were clotted with tributes to NBA star Kobe Bryant who died with his 13-year-old daughter and seven others in a crash of Bryant’s private helicopter in California.  But weaving in and through all of those posts were also just a handful noting yesterday’s 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz in Poland.  There is no question that the death of Mr. Bryant and his daughter and the others is tragic and so very sad.  There is also no doubt, however, which of these two stories is of greater historical moment.

Mr. Bryant was a superstar on the court.  And since we are a society that honors stars of this sort far and beyond the value we put on so much else, Mr. Bryant was able to earn a stupefying amount of money: $328 million in salary across his 20-year career and another $350 million in endorsements across that same time.  One source said his net worth was $680 million when he died.   But his legacy was also tainted when around seventeen years ago he was accused of sexual assault or rape.  He later claimed he thought it was consensual and apologized to the woman who clearly thought otherwise.  He settled out of court with her for an undisclosed sum.  But the incident did not taint his bottom line nor derail a career in basketball that continued until 2016.

At the same time we were mourning Bryant’s sudden death, the few survivors of Auschwitz were trying to help the world remember a singular historical horror.  Alina Dabrowska and Janina Iwanska were two survivors interviewed for an NPR story on the 75th anniversary of the camp’s liberation.  There are not many such survivors still alive.   And, of course, there were not many who got out of Auschwitz alive to begin with since a staggering 1.1 million people were exterminated in this one camp alone.   Those still alive like Alina and Janina are not superstars, they are not known to anyone beyond small circles of family and friends.  They live modest lives in modest surroundings far from the glitz of those who earn hundreds of millions for movies or sports.  But their witness must endure.

Pawel Sawicki was also interviewed for the NPR story.  He is a guide at the memorial and museum of Auschwitz.  He worries that too often people come to the camp, light a candle, take some pictures, and then depart, satisfied that they now remembered something for at least a few minutes.  But Sawicki said that ought not to be anyone’s goal: the goal should be to recognize that we still live in a world that is capable of doing what the Nazis did.  Indeed, even places that seemed for a while to have learned the lessons of history where anti-Semitism and racism are concerned seem in recent years to be sliding backwards.  Since my daughter spent a semester studying in Budapest, Hungary, I pay a bit more attention to news out of Hungary.  And so I have been taking sad note of the rise of Viktor Orban and a return to the very racist attitudes that led so many in Hungary to help be a pipeline providing Jews to be sent to Auschwitz 80 years ago. 

We are very close to living in a world where there will be no living witnesses to the Holocaust or to the horrors of places like Auschwitz.  We need to find ways to keep their memories alive and vivid.  But again, it’s more than that: we need to find ways to make the world less likely ever again to do to a certain group of people what the Nazis did to the Jews.  But if the first two decades of the 21st century prove anything, it is that hatred among different groups of people seems to be waxing, not waning.

Fear of “the other” has manifestly spiked in places like the U.S. in recent years.  Although not true of all—maybe not even most—of those who support President Trump, there can be no denying the strong steak of xenophobia that fuels a lot of the fervor at altogether too many of the President’s political rallies.   Many of my Latino/a friends now feel unsafe in ways they had not experienced before and many of my African-American friends note that a dozen years after the startling election of our nation’s first black President, race relations in the U.S. are in many places worse and not better.  And then there is the spike in attacks on synagogues and Jewish cemeteries in recent years—the Anti-Defamation League reports that attacks, harassment, and vandalistic acts against Jews and Jewish sites remain at near-record historical highs.

As I write this on January 27, I am sad about the news of the deaths of Mr. Bryant and the others.  The fact that remembrances of a basketball player coincide with remembrance of a concentration camp does not mean the former just doesn’t matter or ought not even be much on anyone’s radar just now.  But in the long run, although we lavish vast sums of money and glitz and praise on celebrities in this culture, the far quieter remembrance of Auschwitz points us to other facets of our culture that we cannot ignore nor wish away nor be distracted from by flashy athletes or dashing movie stars. 

We have important work to do as a people, as a church, as communities of faith.  The fact that 2020 promises to be a year of rank divisiveness does not encourage me.  But it should bolster our desire to do what we can especially from within the church of Jesus Christ to break down the dividing walls of hostility that Jesus himself came to demolish.  The fact that the world keeps building those walls back up is tragic.   But take heart: Jesus said he has overcome the world.

Scott Hoezee

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

14 Comments

  • Rick DeVries says:

    There is a twitter feed called Auschwitz Memorial which includes pictures each day of a prisoner and a brief description like this: “28 January 1911 | Polish Jew Marceli Buttner was born in Krakow. Incarcerated in #Auschwitz on 5 May 1942 (camp no. 34709). He perished in the camp on 23 June 1942 at the age of 31.” I have found these difficult to follow, but it has taken it to a different level of remembering.

  • Ed Starkenburg says:

    It’s sad how quickly we are distracted from something we should never forget. Thanks

  • Daniel J Meeter says:

    Well said, Scott. One note to make it even worse: Viktor Orban is from the Reformed Church.

  • mstair says:

    “But take heart: Jesus said he has overcome the world.”

    Needed, encouraging words.
    Your mention of “overcoming” reminded me of Jesus’ teaching about a coming societal reversal:
    In twenty-first century America, certainly the most valuable members of our society are athletes, bankers, and C.E.O.s because our culture compensates them the most. If the meek are the kind of people to: “let others go first,” “watch out for the other guy,” and “take and use no more than is needed,” then they are assuredly in the minorities of our contemporary society. Yet, they are Our Lord’s choice for the heirs of creation.

  • Well said. The eye-witnesses are dying rapidly but we must never forget.

  • Henry Ottens says:

    Thank you, Scott for ‘adjusting’ our thoughts. A parallel coincidence happened on September 6, 1997, when the death of Mother Teresa the day before, along with recognition of her saintly work, was abruptly and forever minimized by a glamorous princess’ fatal flight from pursuing paparazzi.

  • Rodney Haveman says:

    On the whole, I appreciate this article, but I’d like to offer a little corrective (one I received recently, so please hear it from the glass house I live in). I’m not sure we’re going to get anywhere by trying to “overcome the world.” I get the basic point, but until we acknowledge that we are one with the world, a part of it, in all its good and shortcomings, we remain in the illusion that we are above or over our world. Given that the foundation of so much of this anti-Semitic thought and action are rooted in the NT and a particular interpretation of it, we have much to overcome in the church, as much as the world, which makes sense, since we are one. The divisiveness, racism, and anti-Semitism are not a “them” problem, it is an all of us problem. “Never forget” is not about overcoming the world. It is about overcoming together, what we all struggle with in our hearts and actions. Thankfully, our Reformed faith is well positioned to address these realities, but Orban’s church membership speaks loud and clear that it is not “us” and the “world.” It is all of us.

    • RLG says:

      Well said Rodney, except for the comment that the Reformed faith is well positioned to address these realities. Christianity, along with the Reformed mentality, has been as much a contributor to society’s woes as anyone. Just look back on history.

      • Rodney Haveman says:

        Fair enough but what people do with the Reformed faith and what it actually offers is usually a wide gulf. There are plenty of examples of people who have used the Reformed faith to do horrific acts, but there are also folk who have used their faith to do amazing work. Using history, which has a pattern of gathering the big examples, does not always do justice to the many other examples who worked hard to live out of their faith and serve with the world to bring healing and goodness.

  • Marty Wondaal says:

    Rev. Hoezee,

    I noticed that the upcoming Calvin Symposium on Worship is focusing on One Peter, and the challenges that so many of the churches who attend The Symposium are facing today. In the CRC news release promoting The Symposium you are quoted as saying “…and [there are] political and social fissures and fractures of the wider society going through the church today.”

    Today, two days before The Symposium, your essay is about Auschwitz….then Victor Orban… then, inevitably, about Trump and Trump supporter (Trump supporters are literally Nazis!!!) I’ll ignore the ineffectual arguments you make based on anecdotal evidence. What compels you to consistently be so partisan in your writing?

    Suggestion: use Philippians 4:5-7 for next year’s Calvin Symposium on Worship.

    • Scott Hoezee says:

      Respectfully, Mr. Wondaal, I made ONE passing reference to a certain xenophobia animating some of Trump’s political rallies. But I qualified that to say that this attitude is likely NOT true for all, and probably not even for most, Trump supporters. To say I claimed ALL Trump supporters are Nazis is absolutely untrue, unfair, and a blatant misrepresentation of what I wrote. I did not even claim there was one single Trump supporter who is a “Nazi.” Further, when I went on to note racial divides and a recent spike in anti-Semitic attacks, I made no reference to any one group of people or to any one political persuasion to account for such things. We are ALL called to examine our hearts, to do what we can to combat hatred of “the other” and that includes me and all of us in the church, as I think I also made clear at the end. I don’t mind disagreeing with someone politically. I very much mind being lied about in terms of what I actually wrote.

      • Marty Wondaal says:

        I did not lie about anything you wrote. If you can’t at least empathize with the argument I am trying to make regarding how your essay is offensive to someone who disagrees with you politically, then you may need to work on your self-awareness. But please don’t call me a liar.

  • Pam Adams says:

    Scott, What you say is true. It is true about the Jewish people but also true for black Americans. It should be better but it in not. This is sad to say in a time where we know what happened to blacks and Jews and it should be different. Some even deny that these events took place. That is so awful to contemplate.

  • Dale Hulst says:

    Thank you Scott for your thoughts and for your call to join with Jesus in “breaking down the dividing walls of hostility that Jesus himself came to demolish,” something we are empowered to do because Jesus overcame the world and sends us his Spiritus Gladius as part of our armor, for a fight not against flesh and blood.

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