As we commemorate Yom Hashoah (Holocaust Remembrance Day), The Maimonides Institute for Medicine, Ethics and the Holocaust (MIMEH) proudly announces a new educational initiative that will explore how sports can serve to engage a new generation about the importance and relevance of Holocaust education and the promotion of human dignity for all people. This project was made by possible through a generous grant that will allow MIMEH to collaborate with other Holocaust education centers and universities throughout the world to amplify the message of remembrance, education and activism.
With recent studies showing a decline in the basic awareness of the Holocaust among young people and an increase among anti-Semitism worldwide, MIMEH is rethinking our approach to Holocaust education to preserve the legacy of those who perished during the Holocaust and fulfill our promise of “Never Again.”
The initiative will build off of the success of a pilot program that aimed to combat these disturbing trends with an innovative program targeting a broad, intergenerational audience. In partnership with MIMEH and CANDLES Holocaust Museum, the Davidson College men’s basketball team made a life-changing journey to Auschwitz in July 2018. Over the course of four days, the team experienced first-hand the horrors that took place during the Holocaust. A short film of the event documented the players’ reaction and increased motivation to take active roles in becoming leaders for social change.
Since returning home, the players and coaches have continued their efforts to promote Holocaust education, equality, dignity, and justice for humankind. Davidson guard Kellan Grady, an all-Atlantic 10 first team selection who recently entered the 2019 NBA draft stated, “Auschwitz taught me the importance of respecting the dignity of all individuals regardless of their background. On Yom Hashoah and every day, it’s imperative that we continue to honor and remember the victims of the Holocaust, while also making a concerted effort to continue to respect the dignity of all people.”
MIMEH is working to build on this foundation to create an innovative educational curriculum that incorporates athletics into Holocaust education to reach a broad audience and inspire a new generation to remember the past and protect the future.
The “Davidson College Basketball Journey of Remembrance” video is currently available to view online at www.mimeh.org For more information about this new initiative, please contact Stacy Gallin, Founding Director of MIMEH, at email@example.com
We are pleased to announce a special issue of Conatus Journal of Philosophy dedicated to the intersection of Holocaust Studies and Bioethics. This issue will be guest edited by MIMEH's Director, Dr. Stacy Gallin, and Educational Consultant, Dr. Ira Bedzow. Please see Call for Papers below and share with interested friends and colleagues.
A new book, Jewish Doctors and the Holocaust: The Anatomy of Survival, was published on January 15, 2019, by De Gruyter Publishing and Magnes Press. In this book, Dr. Ross Halpin discovered that Jewish doctors survived an average of twenty months, many under the same horrendous conditions as ordinary prisoners. Despite their status as privileged prisoners’ Jewish doctors starved, froze, were beaten to death and executed. Many Holocaust survivors attest that luck, God and miracles were their saviours. The author’s thesis is that surviving Auschwitz for long periods was far more complex. Interweaving the stories of Jewish doctors before and during the Holocaust Halpin develops a model that explains the anatomy of survival. According to his model the genesis of survival of extreme adversity is the will to live and persistent drive to survive which must be accompanied by the necessities of life, specific personal traits, such as resilience and defence mechanisms. For survival all four must continue to exist at the same time.
"This is a 'must read' book in medical and allied health professional schools." Avi Ohry, MD Professor of Rehabilitation Medicine at Sackler Faculty of Medicine, Tel Aviv University, Israel
"After meticulous research, Ross Halpin presents a pioneering study that intertwines fragments of testimonial accounts, documentary archival evidence and conceptual frameworks. What emerges is a compelling model of description and interpretation of the limited chances of survival of Jewish doctors in Auschwitz, one of the epicentres of the Holocaust." Konrad Kwiet, Emeritus Professor, Resident Historian, Sydney Jewish Museum, Sydney, Australia
"The author's description of Auschwitz's medical world is an illuminating and brilliant synthesis and his final chapter, 'Anatomy of Survival', a masterpiece where one can see his own contribution to research at its best." Etienne Lepicard, Bet Hagat and the Israeli National Council for Bioethics, Jerusalem, Israel (Prologue)
There are no words to convey the shock, horror, and grief that we are feeling in response to the senseless attacks that took place at the Tree of Life Synagogue.
There are no words that will bring back the victims who were murdered as they prayed during Shabbat services in a house of worship that is supposed to be a place of peace and comfort.
And yet, we must find the words. We must speak out against this kind of hatred and violence because as Elie Wiesel warned, “Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.” We cannot afford to be silent anymore.
The Maimonides Institute for Medicine, Ethics and the Holocaust was founded on a simple idea: “Remember the Past; Protect the Future.” Today, we remember a time not so long ago when anti-Semitism led to the murder of six million Jews. The impulse to divide humanity into “us” vs. “them” was at the root of the death and destruction that took place then, and it continues to haunt our society now. As we mourn the loss of life that took place at the Tree of Life Synagogue, we must realize that our only hope for protecting the future lies in our ability to learn from the past. Intolerance and hatred are our enemy. We must put aside our differences in order to create a better future where all people are treated with dignity and respect because that is the very foundation of what it means to be human.
In Judaism, there is a concept known as Tikkun Olam, in which we are encouraged to perform acts of kindness in order to repair the world. We have a responsibility to those who were murdered at the Tree of Life Synagogue and those have been persecuted and killed throughout history for no reason other than being Jewish to take action to try and heal this broken world.
We will not be silent in the face of hate. We pledge to stand up and speak out against anti-Semitism, prejudice and intolerance of any type. Only then can we fulfill our promise of “Never Again.”
This summer I had the incredible privilege and opportunity to travel with the Davidson Basketball Team to Poland and tour the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camps. The trip was set up by the the Maimonides Institute for Medicine, Ethics, and the Holocaust and CANDLES Holocaust Museum and Education Center. We were given tours of the camps by Eva Mozes Kor, a survivor of Auschwitz and the medical experiments on twins that were performed by Dr. Josef Mengele.
This first thing I noticed when walking into the camps is how large they are. It is difficult to comprehend the size and scale of the camps until you are actually there. The Birkenau camp held 100,000 people in it at one point. Walking down the selection ramp was particularly moving: that is where the majority of Jews in the camps were sent to their deaths. Train loads of people would come in and the Nazis would either point left, to the gas chamber, or right, to the labor camp where they would be abused, starved, and forced to work in inhumane conditions. Everything the Nazis did was geared toward stripping the Jews of their dignity, humanity, and ultimately their will to live. I remember talking with some of my teammates about how efficient it all was. The Nazis planned everything perfectly to where everything they did could be used to kill people as quickly as possible. Everything from the ghettos to the train rides to the forced labor and of course the gas chambers was all put in place to systematically erase a people group from the planet. They would tell the Jews that they were going to take a shower and get new clothes as they marched them to gas chambers. I kept asking myself: How could you do this to another human? Some images that I think will stick with me forever are small children being led directly to the gas chamber, Eva telling us about the moment she was torn from her mother, never to see her again, the scratches on the walls of the gas chambers, the children’s drawings etched on the wall, the rooms full of personal belongings, hair, suitcases, shoes, glasses, brushes by the thousands, and the pits where bodies were openly burned. These are just a few of the sights that will stay with me forever.
I think about the emotions I felt while I was walking through the camp. First, I felt incredible sorrow and grief for the victims of the tragedy that is the Holocaust, but shortly after I felt an immense amount of anger for the perpetrators, the Nazis. But the anger did not stop there. I also felt anger for those that were complicit, the ones that knew what was happening and let it happen. The United States can be grouped in with countries that would not accept Jewish immigrants when Hitler started rounding them up, as with the MS St. Louis: we turned away over 900 Jewish refugees who were forced to return to Europe. The Catholic Church did not even address what was happening. I am a Christian, and this was one of the things that hurt me the most. How could the church turn their back on these people? I do not know if I will ever be able to shake that feeling of anger. I cannot even imagine how survivors of the camps felt. I think that is what makes Eva’s story so special. She also felt immense anger, but she has gotten to the point where she can forgive those that wronged her and push a message of kindness, forgiveness, and a continuing fight to preserve human dignity.
It was very difficult for me to process an experience like that because of all the images and emotions that we were flooded with in a very short amount of time. As more time has passed since the trip, I feel like I have been able to gather my thoughts a little better and have gained a better understanding of how to apply the lessons we learned while we were over there. It helped me a lot to read the sermon by Pastor Kershner. The idea of having a strong and tender heart is one that I think is essential for us to make a difference. We must first have a tender heart to be able to empathize with those that are disadvantaged and persecuted, but then we must have a strong heart to be able to have the courage to act. I am sure there were countless people during the Holocaust that could have been charged with thinking it was wrong, but not doing anything to change it. While I was walking through the camps, all I could think about was what I would have done if I were an inmate, a guard, or a civilian of the surrounding town. I always pictured myself doing something to change the situation. I hope and I pray that when times like that come now, that I have the courage to do something that enacts change.
I think on very tangible level, I can be on the lookout for the language of dehumanization. The language of dehumanization and a culture that is okay with dehumanization is a breeding ground for violence and hate. I have now seen firsthand what that dehumanization and hatred can culminate in and I hope and I pray that I will never live to see an evil like that. I think we are always closer to repeating history than we think and that is why we must fight to never let something like the Holocaust happen again.
This article was written by Patrick Casey, a junior at Davidson College who visited Auschwitz-Birkenau with his fellow teammates and coaches this summer.
Lessons Beyond The Basketball Court
By Steve Lipman
This summer, a group of college students from North Carolina joined a new international movement in Holocaust education that involves visits to sites of Nazi concentration camps by teams of professional and student athletes.
The basketball team of Davidson College (14 players and five coaches) took part in a four-day trip to Poland, which included guided tours of the Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp and Auschwitz Museum, and time in Cracow, where the delegation was based. The visit, coordinated by the Maimonides Institute for Medicine, Ethics and the Holocaust (MIMEH), based in Freehold, N.J., and the CANDLES Holocaust Museum and Education Center, from Terra Haute, Ind., was part of the program of overseas training tours that the National Collegiate Athletic Association provides for its teams every four years.
But the Davidson team’s time in Poland was different.
“No basketball at all,” said Bob McKillop, the team’s Queens-born head coach. Guided by Eva Mozes Kor, the Auschwitz survivor who founded CANDLES, the players saw the gas chambers and railroad tracks of Auschwitz and heard Kor’s story of losing her parents in the Shoah and being forced to take part in one of Dr. Josef Mengele’s brutal experiments on twins. “It was non-stop and exhausting, physically and emotionally,” McKillop said.
The players returned to campus as changed persons, he told The Jewish Week in a telephone interview. “I’m watching the way they treat people. I see there’s a sensitivity, there’s a respect that maybe was not so apparent. That will shape their lives.”
As prominent members of the campus community, the athletes are likely to share their experiences during classes, in interviews and public speeches and in a forthcoming documentary, said McKillop, a church-going Catholic who served as a high school history teacher early in his career.
The fifth-longest-tenured head basketball coach currently in NCAA Division I, he is best-known to fans as the former coach of NBA superstar Stephen Curry, who played at Davidson in 2006-09.
Other sports teams that have made similar visits to concentration camps in recent years include England’s Chelsea Football (soccer) Club, the Duke University men’s soccer team, and the University of Tennessee men’s basketball team, under the leadership of Bruce Pearl, the Jewish head coach who now works at Auburn University.
“It’s a growing educational trend, and a valuable one,” said Michael Berenbaum, Holocaust expert and author. “A pilgrimage there is deeply important — it raises all the issues of the fundamentals of life.”
“We are glad that there are so many young people visiting the Auschwitz Museum. Among them are also sportsmen,” Lukasz Lipinski, a Museum spokesman, said in an email interview. “It is important that those that are leaders or idols visit Auschwitz. Their experiences … their thoughts and emotions after visiting Auschwitz-Birkenau reach a very wide group of people.”
The visit of the athletes from Davidson College, a small, private liberal arts school loosely affiliated with the Presbyterian Church, was the idea of Amanda Caleb, a 2002 graduate of the university who played field hockey there, and of Stacy Gallin, founder and director of MIMEH, which targets most of its activities to healthcare professionals. High-visibility athletes are poised to serve as informal Holocaust educators and an antidote to Holocaust deniers, Caleb and Gallin thought.
Caleb pitched the idea to McKillop, who immediately accepted. His players, members of various Christian denominations, “welcomed the opportunity to see history,” he said.
McKillop said fellow basketball coaches have approached him about conducting similar concentration camp visits for their teams. They share his vision that their athletes should learn lessons about life beyond sports, he said. “There’s a greater awareness.”
MIMEH is pleased to introduce Cal Freundlich, our Inaugural Emerging Scholar. Cal is a rising junior at Davidson College in North Carolina. He is a Music and Media major and a member of Davidson's Division I basketball team. Cal joined MIMEH on our summer 2018 trip to Auschwitz-Birkenau, where he was "reminded of the responsibility that we, as young people, have to be leaders of our generation and ensure that human dignity and equality are protected." Cal will be scoring the music for the documentary MIMEH is producing based on our trip. In addition, he will be contributing posts to MIMEH's blog and working with established scholars in the field to help foster his desire to become an active agent of social change.
As part of our trip, Dr. Amanda Caleb, MIMEH's educational consultant, provided each student and coach with a journal to be used for reflecting and processing this intensely emotional experience. Cal decided not only to use the journal, but offered to share his thoughts on camera and on our website.
"Here, there is an objective beauty -- the light, the sky, the grass, from a far even some of the structures -- it is painful. The more I think of it the more I feel it is a metaphor. The camp today means something different than it used to, and maybe it's displaying that. Today it means survival, triumph, mourning...the other side of the mountain of forgiveness (that Eva speaks about). But that is today, maybe tomorrow it storms and a whole different side is displayed. But nonetheless, I can't help but think that even in "hell on earth," one can still find beauty."
As I looked carefully through pictures in what was called "Canada," I came across a wall dedicated to a woman named Fela Roze. I looked carefully at all her pictures. She had family and friends all over the wall. One picture caught my eye, three people standing in a line smiling. I read the names and froze. "Fela Roze (left), Bernard Freundlich (middle)..." I walked over to our tour guide.
"Everyone on these walls, did they all, um, were they all victims?"
It felt like a wave. Now I'm sweating, itchy. Freundlich is a common german last name. I find myself wanting to search for more. I also find myself wanting to walk away. Four more pictures. Part of me is saying "don't be dramatic" but another part of me wants to feel. Most likely he's not related to me at all. But what if. But if not, does it even matter?
Seeing my last name under a photograph at Birkenau was perhaps the most important moment of my visit, but not because it created any connection to my past or my family. Seeing that name reminded me what losing someone feels like. What losing one person really feels like. ONE in six million. Numbers don't make you feel, people do, and too often do we focus on statistics when it comes to tragedies. We must not forget the value of one single life.
Written by Dr. Stacy Gallin
Published in the Jewish Link of New Jersey, July 26, 2018
Three years ago, I founded the Maimonides Institute for Medicine, Ethics and the Holocaust (MIMEH) with one goal: “Remember the Past; Protect the Future.” Three weeks ago, MIMEH embarked on a trip to Auschwitz-Birkenau along with the Davidson College men’s basketball team, Holocaust survivor Eva Mozes Kor, and CANDLES Holocaust Museum and Education Center. Having visited Auschwitz for the first time only a few weeks earlier as part of an academic conference co-sponsored by MIMEH, I anticipated that this experience would be incredibly powerful for these young people. What I was not prepared for, however, was the extent to which witnessing their journey would impact my own life, both as an individual and as a Holocaust educator.
Hope is not the first word most people think of when discussing Auschwitz or Birkenau. Standing on the selection platform and hearing Eva describe how she was ripped out of her mother’s arms and never saw her parents again; walking through barracks filled with human hair, shoes, luggage and other personal effects of those who were murdered merely for being Jewish; touching the scratches in the walls of the gas chamber and realizing the horror that people must have felt when they realized death was imminent—there is no hope to be found in these places. I fully anticipated that I would experience overwhelming feelings of sadness and anger at the end of this trip, just as I had previously. But this trip was different. This trip gave me hope.
None of these kids had any direct connection to the Holocaust or Judaism. Very few of them had more than a rudimentary knowledge of what took place in Auschwitz during World War II. Yet they all voluntarily decided to spend four days of their summer vacation immersed in an intense exploration of one of the most evil periods of human history. As an educator, it’s not often you can see the precise moment you get through to a student. However, from the first moment of this trip I had the privilege of witnessing these young men transform.
I watched as they tentatively met Eva Mozes Kor when they first arrived. Later that evening, I saw them begin to open up and ask Eva questions about her experience. Despite their jet lag, they were all rapt with attention as Eva told her story of survival and forgiveness. Over the next two days, as we toured Auschwitz and Birkenau, these young kids, whom I had watched laugh and joke with each other only a few hours earlier, were completely silent as they reflected on what they were seeing and hearing. I walked with them on the path to the crematoria in Birkenau, when the only sound you could hear was the crunching of rocks beneath their feet. I stayed with them inside the gas chambers as they struggled to comprehend how so many people had been killed in the spot in which they were standing. Some lagged behind, needing extra time to process what they were seeing. Some asked insightful questions and wanted to learn as much as possible. Many cried. All were deeply affected. I saw them break down as they realized for the first time the level of inhumanity of which humankind is capable.
But then I witnessed something extraordinary. I watched them build themselves back up, as individuals, as teammates, as friends and as members of humankind. I watched each of them process this experience in different ways: One young man wrote inspirational poetry in the reflective journals we had given them; another quietly placed several bills in the tzedakah box at the entrance to Birkenau; a group of friends rallied around a student who was having a particularly difficult time after hearing Eva talk about her parents. We lit candles to remember the victims of the Holocaust and took a Pledge to Preserve Human Dignity at the memorial site in Birkenau. The entire group—teammates and coaches alike—recreated the liberation walk taken by Eva 74 years ago, hand in hand, as Eva shouted, “We are free!” Simply put, I saw the best that humanity has to offer.
Since returning from our trip I have been in contact with many of these young men. They continue to process what they experienced three weeks ago in different ways, but the one unifying theme of our conversations is that this trip changed their lives. They now realize why learning about the Holocaust is relevant and important for everyone. In the words of one player, “It’s about human dignity and treating each other with kindness. It’s about standing up for people who need our help. It’s about making sure this never happens again. This is our responsibility, and we owe it to Eva and all the others who died during the Holocaust to keep telling their story and living this message.”
As we move farther from the events of the Holocaust, and first-person accounts of the horrors that took place become more scarce, studies have shown that it is becoming increasingly difficult to engage younger generations. A Claims Conference survey published this past Yom Hashoah in the New York Times showed that the majority of millennials do not possess a basic knowledge of the Holocaust, yet an overwhelming number of these young people believe that Holocaust education should be mandatory. Rather than viewing this as a dilemma, perhaps we need to take it as a challenge to rethink our approach to Holocaust education.
Giving these students the opportunity to experience firsthand the horrors of the concentration camps allowed me to witness the extent to which this trip impacted them both emotionally and intellectually. This knowledge will help MIMEH continue to develop and fine-tune programming for millennials that meets their needs as expressed by the leaders and influencers of their generation. More importantly, their experience gave me hope for the future of Holocaust education and humanity in general. Remember the past; protect the future. Mission accomplished.
On July 8, 2018, Pastor Shannon J. Kershner of the Fourth Presbyterian Church located in Chicago, Illinois gave a sermon in which she focused on the Davidson College men's basketball team's trip to Auschwitz. Holocaust education is a topic that transcends religious affiliation, and this sermon is proof of the power of interfaith education.
Stronger and More Tender “A Spirit Revolution”: A Sermon Series on the Acts of the Apostles
Shannon J. Kershner
Pastor, Fourth Presbyterian Church
Acts 10:1–17, 34–35
Faith, when it comes down to it, is an often breathless attempt to keep up with the redemptive activity of God, to keep asking ourselves, “What is God doing? Where on earth is God going now?”
Biblical Commentary for Preaching and Teaching: Acts of the Apostles
Have you ever had a surprising experience, good or bad, that caused your whole worldview to change or perhaps even caused your whole life to change directions—an experience that made your heart grow stronger and more tender at the same time?
That is exactly what Coach Bob McKillop hopes is happening right now to the young men on his team. McKillop is the head coach of the Davidson College men’s basketball team. Davidson is a Presbyterian-affiliated liberal arts college with an enrollment of around 1,800, located right outside of Charlotte, North Carolina. Those of you who enjoy college basketball would know it due to one of its famous alumni—Stephen Curry. Curry led the team to the edge of making it into the Final Four back in 2008, when he was a college sophomore.
During this week in 2018, however, what happened ten years ago is not the focus for either the coach or the current team. Rather, what matters to them right now is what happened beginning in 1940 and lasting until 1945. You see, Coach McKillop took his entire basketball team from Davidson College to Auschwitz.
In his own words, here is why he believed the pilgrimage was critical:
The volatility of our world right now requires a response informed by both a respect for human dignity and an understanding of what happens in its absence. . . . We are stepping into a moment in time when, for millions, evil seemed to have triumphed and humanity [had] vanished. . . . I want them to understand this experience, for life, and to bring it back here, not just as a lesson but to live what they learned. Our world needs leaders who aim to lead and to serve, . . . guided by human instincts and creative and disciplined minds. We need advocates for, and defenders of, human dignity. . . . That is why we are going. (Bob McKillop, “Grade Point,” Washington Post, 3 July 2018)
I would imagine that over the four days they were there the Davidson College men’s basketball team had some experiences that caused their whole worldview to change. Perhaps as a result of what they learned, what they saw, what they heard from their guide—who is a survivor of that very concentration camp—some of those young men might even decide to study something else or to go into law or advocacy or ministry or, please, politics.
My prayer is that God is using that moment in their young lives to make their hearts stronger and more tender at the same time. That God is expanding their vision about who is family and why that matters. That they are being immersed into the profound importance of both recognizing the dignity of every person and fighting for that dignity to be seen by every person. Now that their journey is over and after they have had time to debrief with each other and with their families, I hope they will write about their experiences, because, as their coach stated, quoting General Eisenhower, “the lessons of ‘indescribable horror’ [that they are learning] remain as urgent and timely as ever.”
The experience of serving in our nation’s armed forces during World War II had a similar effect on my theological hero, the late William Sloane Coffin. As he reflected in a sermon entitled “Why I Became a Minister,” Dr. Coffin claimed that the hellish experience of war, especially that war—the daily experience of seeing brutality up close and personal, of becoming immersed in, as he put it, “the sullied stream of human life”—is ultimately what made him ready for a religious experience. All of what he saw and did led him to begin asking the right kinds of questions—questions that helped him become more open to learn of a deeper reality. Yet as he preached, it still took him a while, even after all of that, to be open to the work of the church.
He said, “One thing I hadn’t realized is that Christians are always the best argument against Christianity.” (He had a way with words.) “I allowed myself to be put off by the churches. . . . It offended my understanding of the gospel to see the churches become protected and withdrawn islands of piety in a sea of social ills” (William Sloane Coffin, “Why I Became a Minister,” sermon preached at Riverside Church, New York City, 5 October 1986). But over time, due to the teaching of bright lights like Reinhold Niebuhr and James Muilenburg, he discovered that even through all of those difficult, demanding, and often awful experiences, God had still managed to tenderize Coffin’s heart and make it stronger. As a result, Coffin felt drawn deeper and deeper into the vocation of ministry, into being one of God’s hard hats for hope as his profession.
I believe Peter had a world-shaking, worldview-changing experience like the basketball players just had, like Coffin had beginning with World War II. Peter’s experience started that day on the rooftop in Joppa and continued when he showed up in Caesarea at the home of the Gentile soldier named Cornelius. As Auschwitz is not the normal destination of a college basketball team and ministering within the Christian church was not how a young William Sloane Coffin pictured spending his one wild and precious life, that Gentile soldier’s home was not at all where Peter had ever expected to travel. It did not fit with the way he was raised. It did not make sense with all that he had been taught about how the world worked. Until he had that strange, strange vision, he never would have conceived of making that kind of a journey.
Listen to how he tried to explain it to the church leadership after the fact, when he found himself in trouble for following it. This passage is later in Acts 11: “I was praying and saw a vision,” he told them.
The heavens opened and something like a large sheet came down, lowered to the ground by its four corners. When I looked inside it, I saw every kind of forbidden creature—camels, badgers, buzzards, bats, crocodiles, lizards, a pig—all the things on the “don’t eat” list in Leviticus 11, part of our holy law. And then I heard a voice that said, “Get up, Peter: Kill and eat.” I knew it was God’s voice. I recognized it. But I just could not do what God was telling me to do. It went against everything I had heard before. It went against everything I was taught, against all the Torah I had memorized and applied to my life, against everything my parents had ever said about faithful living. And then God said, “What God has made clean, you must not call profane.” This happened three times, and then the sheet went back into heaven. (Barbara Brown Taylor’s rendition of Peter’s dream in The Bread of Angels, p. 77, helped me put it into more contemporary language)
That is roughly how Peter himself summed up that strange visual experience. But then, as if that were not enough, after Peter had that startling vision, he came back to himself only to encounter strangers who had been sent by a soldier named Cornelius to take him, a leader in the Jewish Christian church, to Cornelius’s house, someone who was a Gentile, an outsider to the covenant. The whole thought of it made Peter’s knees shake and his stomach upset, and yet he went with them anyway.
Unfortunately we did not have enough time to read the rest of the story today, but know this: even until the very moment that Peter walked into Cornelius’s house, Peter still felt incredibly uneasy and scared about what he was doing. So much so that some of the first words out of his mouth to Cornelius and his family were words of judgment and fear: “You yourselves know that it is unlawful for a Jew to associate with or to visit a Gentile . . .” Yet something suddenly clicked in Peter, for immediately after he made that claim, the purpose of the vision became clearer. Standing there in Cornelius’s living room, surrounded by those he did not believe he was even supposed to be around, it was as if his heart grew more tender and stronger at the same time. His vision was not about food, he realized. His vision, his revelation, was about people. It was about those he could consider a part of the family.
With that new clarity in mind, Peter followed up his statement of distaste with the important gospel word but. Barbara Brown Taylor thinks the whole gospel might swing on that word, that conjunction but. “I was lost but now I’m found. I was blind but now I see.” That one word means that “things can change. [That one word] means we do not always know everything there is to know. [That one word implies] God can still teach us something” (Barbara Brown Taylor’s rendition of Peter’s dream in The Bread of Angels, p. 78).
In the African American preaching tradition, we would add one more thing, though, to that one word. We would add the name of the Holy One, so that the conjunction signaling change also might become a phrase of holy defiance. “But God” would be how we would put it, which is exactly what Peter said. “You yourselves know that it is unlawful for a Jew to associate with or to visit a Gentile. But God has shown me that I should not call anyone profane or unclean.” No, what God has made clean, who God has made clean through the self-giving inclusive love of Jesus Christ, I must never call profane. I must never treat them in a way that makes them feel they are unclean. I must never forget their dignity as people created in God’s image. Then do you know what Peter did? He baptized all of them and said, welcome into the family, and he stayed with them for several days. What a huge worldview shift!
Later he went even a step further. When all of those other church leaders forced Peter to defend his actions, Peter just shouted out “Who was I that I could hinder God?” Those words illustrate just how strong and how tender Peter’s heart had become through that world-shaking, worldview changing experience. And Scripture says when they (the good church folk who were upset with him) heard him say that, they were silenced. I’d like to think, and Scripture bears some witness to it, that because of Peter’s courageous actions, some of his adversaries might have also had a completely unexpected, world-shaking, worldview changing experience too. One that made their hearts more tender and stronger at the same time. An experience that made them change their understanding of what was faithful, that helped give them clarity that what we say about people really does affect the way we think of them and treat them.
Today, as you know, is July 8. I spent July 4 with my family down in Texas, but I have to confess to you that celebration was not my focus. Now, please hear me out before you decide you already know what I am going to say. I promise you I have been trying hard to fight the temptation of viewing the gospel through the lens of my politics in the hope that I can do a better job of viewing my politics through the lens of the gospel. I would invite all of you to join me in that spiritual discipline. It’s harder than it sounds.
But friends, as I fought that internal temptation, one thing that kept coming up time and time again in my soul was a deep grief over all the evidence that we, as a nation, are dangerously close to losing our dream of who we can be together. We might even use Coffin’s words that we are becoming both more immersed and more used to being immersed into a sullied stream of human life.
Down there in Texas I would study and pray over this passage from Acts and then turn on the news and learn just how many migrant children have still not been reunited with their families and how, as the PBS NewsHour put it, many of those who have been reunited are so traumatized by their experience they seem like different kids (PBS NewsHour, 5 July 2018: https://to.pbs.org/2ui9ZFV). With that going across the screen, I kept looking to this passage from Acts and back up to the news dumfounded. What in us, in our national ethos, is making it OK to see these little ones as profane enough that we can treat them that way? I understand that we have to keep our borders safe and strong, but God has told us, Jesus people, what God has made clean we must never call or treat as profane.
Furthermore—and I know our track record is spotty on this one—as people who follow Jesus, we must stop making it OK for anyone to refer to another human being, who is also created in God’s image, in a derogatory way as an animal or as an infestation or as somehow “less than.” If we let that become normal, we forget the lessons that Coach McKillop is trying to teach his basketball players about the critical necessity of advocating for and defending human dignity. I hope you can hear this: that is not viewing the gospel through the lens of anyone’s politics; that is viewing our politics through the lens of the gospel, the good news of Jesus Christ.
The lens of the Gospel declares to us that all the name-calling, all the meanness, all the outright demonization of each other is antithetical to how we have been made and who we are called to be. What God has made clean, which we Presbyterian Christians typically believe means everyone, we must never call or treat as profane, as unclean, as less than. That is the gospel truth, for Jesus went to great lengths to make sure that after he told us we are to love each other as siblings that we knew that commandment meant everyone—“including those most unlike us, those who do not fit, those who upset us and make us uncomfortable” (Walter Brueggemann, A Gospel of Hope, p. 86).
Perhaps we need to start praying for some Peter-like visions these days. Visions that will shake us out of our stupor of normalized apathy. Visions that could possibly change our entire worldview as to who is worthy of being included. Visions that would open up enough space in us for God to make all of our hearts stronger and more tender, more compassionate, more loving—all at the same time.
In the meantime, I think I will send a note to Coach McKillop at Davidson College and ask him if his players would please write up what they learned on their trip to Auschwitz so we might learn from their surprising experience and remember again what it means to advocate for and defend the human dignity of all and the danger that could come if we stop thinking that it matters. For in Christ, God was reconciling the world to God’s self. That is not fake news. That’s the gospel truth. So be of courage, church. And step up. Amen.
Author's Note: Some of the players did, in fact, write about their experience in Auschwitz. You can read their accounts on our blog. Thank you to Pastor Kershner for highlighting the importance of this trip. This sermon can be found on the Fourth Presbyterian Church website: http://www.fourthchurch.org/sermons/2018/070818.html?print=true
This week, we are taking the players we coach on the men’s basketball team at Davidson College to Auschwitz.
The volatility of our world right now requires a response informed by both a respect for human dignity and an understanding of what happens in its absence.
Life, sports, academics and experience have challenged these young men in myriad ways. They have never been tested like this.
On Saturday, we flew partway around the globe to Poland. We are stepping into a moment in time when, for millions, evil seemed to have triumphed and humanity has vanished. We will walk the gas chambers and railroad tracks of Auschwitz with a survivor of Josef Mengele’s inhuman experiments as our guide.
(We will not touch a basketball the entire trip.)
Our work as coaches transcends the field or court — or the classroom.
What keeps me so alive after 29 years of coaching Division I basketball is that our players are not just players. They are human beings and scholar-athletes at a college where we — all of us — nurture and value their development.
Four years ago, I visited Auschwitz on a cold, misty day. As a history major at Hofstra University and a high school history teacher early in my career, I thought I understood the Holocaust. But to smell it, taste it and see the gas chambers, the barracks and the barbed wire up close was life-altering.
We take this trip thanks to the Maimonides Institute for Medicine, Ethics and the Holocaust, and through the eyes of Eva Mozes Kor, a survivor of Mengele’s twin experiments. She will lead the way and tell the story, and our players will feel the incalculable weight of history.
A Davidson professor in German Studies, who is a Holocaust expert, cautioned in a pre-trip conversation with the team that each of them, at some point, will break down — in the camp, in the hotel room that night, on the trip home, back in North Carolina. The emotional tonnage is inescapable.
This is an opportunity for the players to coach — first themselves through this experience, then teammates, as they lean on one another, and then throughout their lives. They will depend on one another emotionally. The trip will require teamwork and togetherness of a new order for them. That is where we find our strength.
I want them to understand this experience, for life, and to bring it back here, not just as a lesson but to live what they learned. Our world needs leaders who aim to lead and to serve, as our college’s mission declares, guided by humane instincts and creative and disciplined minds. We need advocates for, and defenders of, human dignity.
Allied troops liberated the first Nazi concentration camps — what Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower called “indescribable horror” — 74 years ago. He called for members of Congress to come see it, as well as newspaper editors and British leaders. The lessons he sought to impart then remain as urgent and timely as ever.
That is why we are going.
Bob McKillop is head coach of the Davidson College men’s basketball team and the fifth-longest-serving active coach in the NCAA.