I’ve been thinking recently about several people: Dietrich Boenhoeffer, Irina Sendler, Oskar Schindler, Corrie ten Boom, Immaculee Ilibagiza…ordinary people who made extraordinary decisions that changed not only their lives but the lives of many others as well.
Were they perfect people? No. They were like us–they had flaws. But when they saw something wrong, they made decisions to do something about it. Would I have done what they did? I don’t know…
They all lived during extremely difficult times…times when many others hunkered down to protect themselves. Why didn’t they?
They’re not particularly household names. Many have probably never heard of at least some of them.
Dietrich Boenhoeffer was a German pastor during World War II. He saw the glorification of Hitler and the rise of the Nazi party as a danger to the Christian church–and preached loudly and strongly against the church’s cooperation with the Nazis. To counter the nazification of the German church, he started a movement that ultimately became known as the Confessing Church. He had opportunities to live safely abroad, but he felt that his calling was to be with his people…to lead them in opposition to what he saw as fundamentally evil. He eventually became involved underground activities against the Nazis, culminating in a failed plot to assassinate Hitler…a decision that led to his capture, internment in a concentration camp, and ultimate death at the age of 41. Do I agree with everything he said and did? No. I think that some of his theology was flawed–but at the same time, he saw the danger in the church becoming an arm of the government and did what he felt necessary to try to bring the church back to its mission.
Irena Sendler was a young Polish nurse and social worker. Hallmark made a movie of her story–The Courageous Heart of Irena Sendler. When the Nazis came to power, she began doing what she could to help isolated Jews–offering food and shelter. But when the Warsaw Ghetto was created, she saw the future for Poland’s Jews–a dark future–and began doing what she could to change that. She (and others) began smuggling children out of the ghetto, finding them safe places to live until they could hopefully be reunited with their parents…a hope that could not be realized. She was eventually captured and tortured–her legs and feet fractured–but she did not give up names of her compatriots. Although she was sentenced to be shot, she was rescued and remained hidden until the war was over. At a time when the Nazis were creating hatred and division–creating propaganda that called the Poles to see their Jewish neighbors as “other” and “less than,” Irena saw them as people who needed help.
Oskar Schindler has become known to us through the movie Schindler’s List. He wasn’t a particularly nice person–an opportunist and a rather shady businessman. But something got to him, and he ended up being an unlikely rescuer of Jews, using them as factory workers in various situations…giving them the opportunity to survive. I don’t know that I would have liked him. I know I would not have liked some of his activities…and yet, somehow he was touched and instead of simply feathering his own nest, he used his connections to save some who were seen as “other” and “less than.”
Corrie ten Boom was the unmarried daughter of a Dutch watch maker, a member of the Dutch Reformed Church whose story can be found in The Hiding Place. When the persecution of Jews started, she and her family started hiding them, because she saw that persecution as injustice and as an affront to God. She and her family believed in a principle that also guides my faith tradition–the worth of all people. Their actions ultimately resulted in the imprisonment of Corrie and her sister Bessie in a concentration camp, where Bessie died. Other family members also died as a result of their actions. After she was freed from Ravensbruck, she began traveling to countries that had been impacted by the war, trying to bring reconciliation and healing. She found herself coming face to face with her own biases when a former guard asked for her forgiveness–and she was only able to do that through the grace of God. In many ways, I like her…but could I lived through what she did with the trust and confidence in God that she had? I don’t know.
Immaculee Ilibagiza is definitely not someone most of us have heard of…because she lives in a part of the world that is outside most of what we are familiar with. She was 23 years old when the Rwandan genocide began. People who had been friends and neighbors began to see each other as sub-human and turned on each other in a murderous spree that lasted months. Immaculee was sheltered by a local pastor, along with seven other women. They lived in a 3×4-foot bathroom for three months, hearing the murders going on…hearing neighbors on the hunt for people they wanted to kill. When she was finally able to come out, she discovered that most of her family had been killed…many of them by a man who had been in their home as a friend. When he was tried and found guilty, she was given the opportunity to respond to him–and she chose to respond with forgiveness. She tells her story in Left to Tell…but I wonder…how? How does one find the strength to forgive someone who has killed your whole family? Could I have done that?
I have been fortunate in that I have spent most of my life living in safety. I have not had to worry about how others have seen me…I have not had to worry about family members being killed. I have not been looked at as “less than”…
And yet I’m living in a time and situation where that is true for many people. So what is my responsibility? How/when do I take a stand? I consider myself an ordinary person as did these people. Yet their faith called them to what could be seen as extraordinary decisions and they could not be silent in the face of injustice and cruelty…in the face of some being seen as “less than”…so how can I?