At the Yad Vashem Holocaust Remembrance Center there is a special exhibit described as the “Righteous Among the Nations.” This unique exhibit commemorates those individuals who although not Jewish still risked their lives to save victims and speak out against the atrocities of the holocaust during World War II. The most famous among these righteous, to most western audiences, is Oscar Schindler whose story was told in the classic movie Schindler’s List.
Schindler’s List was not the first movie or experience that provoked this feeling in me as a young man but it was the most blatant. I wanted to be among the righteous. Like all good people, when we look at the atrocities of past generations and eras, we want to believe that we would not have been among those who were so easily swept up by the mob. We would have been among that small remnant who stood for what was right even though such a stance came at a personal price. If the time should come again where innocent people are again victimized, we will be among those who stand. We will be among the righteous.
The problem of course is that very few people actually decide to go the other away to be among the overwhelming mobs of oppressors, killers, and wrongdoers that contribute and accommodate the terrible and shameful events of history’s atrocities. It just happens. The mob is carried away by the times they live within. Fear and anxiety rule the day. We depend upon strong leaders and voices to save us and if some excesses are carried out on the fringes of society while we are being saved…well what can be done about that?
As the allied troops liberated holocaust concentration camps in World War II the German people living in nearby towns frequently responded in shock that such horrors had been taking place so near to their own homes. This shock stood in conflict to the odor and smoke that had filled the skies and air near their homes for years.
No one wants to be on the wrong side of history. But no one makes the deliberate decision to be among the wicked, the oppressors and the unjust. Yet time and again it happens when we fail to make the decision to stand for what is right. The movement from righteousness to wickedness takes place when we let the events, the circumstances and the pressures of the age we live in move us to personal positions where we would not otherwise have gone.
The righteous are those whose standards and posture toward life and the world they live in is rooted to specific values and principles that refuse to be moved by harassing pressures of their environments. Events and crises cannot move those standards. Neither can charismatic leaders, political parties and personal sacrifice. The righteous grow stronger and bolder when the world around them is retreating in fear.
But the righteous do not merely stand against their times, they put themselves at risk in the midst of those times to defend the weak, help the hurting, and remember those whom the rest of the world has cast aside as least important and esteemed. As Jesus said whatever is done for the least of those on the earth, it is like doing it for Him.
Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me. Matthew 25:40
The righteous stand up for what is right because their principles and values demand such a response. They stand for those who are not like them. They stand for those of different nations, different religions, different ideologies, different beliefs…they stand because their understanding of the compassionate heart of God supersedes their politics, their nationalism, and their concerns for personal preservation.
Schindler wasn’t a Jew but he is reminded as righteous because he defended those who his times and culture would have allowed to be forgotten. The Good Samaritan that Jesus talked about was similarly considered righteous and a good neighbor not because he protected his own interests and people – but because he his heart went out to those who were not his own.
The righteous are those who are more concerned with having the right heart than the right answers. In the face of a huge refugee and displaced person crises around the world today; in the midst of the growing threats of war and terrorism; in times when demi-gods and charismatic leaders are able to put personality and passion ahead of policy and values; we would do well to remember the desire that exists in most of us to be counted among the righteous.
We don’t have to turn our brains off to maintain postures of compassion and concern. But being right is not the same as being righteous.