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 1930s 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.