Christians who viewed “Holocaust” on television April 16–19 had a vivid reminder of the depravity of man. There are numerous important questions raised by the systematic murder of six million Jewish civilians as well as many non-Jews by German forces during World War II. A reflective reading or rereading of the article by Helmut Thielicke, “Why the Holocaust,” together with the response to it by three American evangelicals in our January 27 issue (p. 8 and p. 14), is highly recommended.
A question that needs to be earnestly asked is, What should we be doing now to prevent such atrocities? Or, if they cannot be totally prevented, in view of the evil that is in man, what should we be doing to ameliorate them? At the very least, what can Christians be doing to avoid as much participation as they can in mass slavery and torture and murder? This is no hypothetical question, for violent atrocities in Uganda, Cambodia, and many other places are going on even now. And the cruelty of treating whole ethnic groups as inferior, a necessary prelude to the kind of “final solution” that the Nazis attempted, is globally pervasive.
It is fitting to evaluate the television series as an artistic presentation of one of the more horrible deeds of recorded history (see Refiner’s Fire, p. 36). One can also study from countless sources and perspectives what can be known of the event itself. But one dare not stop with aesthetic and historical evaluations. What can be learned from the Holocaust that something like it may happen, in the words of militant Jews, “never again”?
Ironically, those who so wish to magnify the horrors of the Holocaust that they stress its uniqueness are saying, in effect, that we can learn nothing from it. We can learn about it, but to learn from it requires that new situations occur where we can use our knowledge. Elie Wiesel, Holocaust survivor and professor of humanities at Boston University, strongly criticized NBC’s “Holocaust.” It “is an insult to those who perished and to those who survived.” He faults the production on every count, but he especially objects to it because “this series treats the Holocaust as if it were just another event.” But he asserts that “the Holocaust is unique, not just another event … it tries to show what cannot be imagined.” Wiesel’s opinion should be considered and rejected.
Those who make of the Holocaust an event without precedent or successor, who raise it to the level of apocalypse, have their counterparts among Christian theologians who denounce any portrayal of Christ. If the kind of suffering in the Holocaust is unrepeatable, so are the kind of persons who inflicted the suffering. Indeed, there are many who, unable or unwilling to admit the depravity of man, want to blame Nazism on some mad mutation of the human species that cannot be repeated. They argue that the Nazis should be forgotten, not portrayed. Curiously, Wiesel does say that “the Holocaust must be remembered,” but he doesn’t know how. “How is one to tell a tale that cannot be—but must be—told?” Of course there is room for improvement, but I think that all of those involved with the NBC series are to be highly commended. A Chicago Sun-Times television critic, Frank Swertlow, called it “simply … the finest TV show that I have seen, surpassing even ‘Roots’ ”
One of the strongest points of “Holocaust” is that it depicted the Nazis as sane humans, not as insane beasts. It is irresponsible to routinely call Hitler and others involved in heinous crimes madmen. If they are mad, then they have no guilt. If we say they are beasts, we say that humans cannot do such evil. But they can. It was reported that two actors turned down roles in “Holocaust” because it depicted the Nazis too favorably. But that is precisely its strength; the crimes of the Nazis are so undeniable that they cannot be rationally denied. What people do deny is that rational humans can be so wicked.
“Holocaust” was also great because it enables us to identify with a particular family, the Weisses. Of course they are fictional, and presumably no one family was in as many different places as they were. But the human mind is not adapted to understanding mass horror; the death of one whom we have come to know grieves most of us far more than the deaths of hundreds, even millions of strangers. The Weisses were plausible and a composite of what innumerable families did experience in part. If we had relied solely on incidents and dialogue that could be rigorously documented we would have, paradoxically, a more unrealistic presentation. Those who fault “Holocaust” as a blend of fact and fiction imply that the fictional part is akin to the purely imaginary Close Encounters of the Third Kind or King Kong. They also imply that there can be purely factual accounts. The truth is that even the most cautious historian must make judgments about the sources that he uses, sources that are always incomplete and often misleading, intentionally or unintentionally.
The question is not whether it is proper to blend documentable fact with controlled imagination, for this is always done. The question is whether it is done well or poorly, responsibly or irresponsibly. “Holocaust,” in my judgment, has done this very well. As a result, those who watched it are confronted more forcibly than before with the crucial question, What should we be doing now to prevent such atrocities?—D.T.
A Call For Stewardship
Every public figure should expect to stand under the spotlight. A free and inquisitive media is one of the best safeguards for religious and political freedom. Irresponsible charges, however, serve neither freedom nor the public welfare.
Recent talk shows have featured an author promoting his new novel in which the chief character is an evangelist—obviously modeled on Billy Graham. In the book and on the talk show the author makes wild charges and ridiculous innuendoes.
Graham has never publicly commented on the threats and charges made against him from various sections of the theological, political, social, and mental health communities. But sometimes his friends feel that they should do so, lest his own silence appear to be an admission of guilt. Daily reports of political corruption made many people more willing to believe charges that they earlier would have ignored.
In this most recent example, Graham’s defamer, posing as an outraged defender of justice, accuses Graham and his evangelistic team (along with most other evangelists who teach that “you must be born again”) of withholding public revelation of finances and of “laundering” gifts so that they can stash away huge sums in Swiss bank accounts and spend on themselves hundreds of millions of dollars received from poor innocent Christians (“suckers”), who meant their hard-earned pittances “to go to Jesus.” We don’t want to pay undue attention to reckless charges, but here are a few things to keep in mind.
We are all sinners, evangelists included. They make mistakes, errors of judgment, and commit outright sins. All men, except Jesus Christ, have done likewise. And it should not be forgotten that even Christ was criticized.
Not all evangelists are honest. Some who have proclaimed the Gospel have for a variety of reasons not lived up to the standards that are found in Scripture. They have fleeced the sheep of God’s flock to warm their own pockets. But the great majority of evangelists and Christian leaders are basically honest. It is wrong to cast aspersions on all evangelists because of wrongdoing on the part of a few unrepresentative rascals. Since some “Christian” organizations may be basically dishonest, Christians should be reasonably sure that the person or organization to which they donate funds is aboveboard. This is responsible stewardship. It should be added that honesty alone is not an adequate criteria for approving a ministry. Funds may be poorly managed, personnel inadequately matched to the task at hand; even the aim of the ministry, however well-intentioned, may not be an appropriate goal in which to invest funds.
In the case of Billy Graham, even those who disapprove of much of what he says and does, reckon him as personally honest. Those who know him vouch for him as a man of immense integrity. The board of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association comprises men and women with widely recognized credentials for integrity, for financial acumen, and for deep commitment to evangelical Christianity and to the missionary and evangelistic goals of Graham and his association. The conservative evangelical public recognizes that its interests are ably protected by these outstanding public servants. This board exercises complete control of all the funds received either by the Graham organization or by Billy Graham personally. The books and accounts of the BGEA are audited regularly according to standardized procedures by a respected and nationally known auditing firm and reports are supplied to all board members.
The advisability of detailed public disclosure of audited accounts is more complex than it might at first appear. The Billy Graham Association, however, will provide a complete audited statement to anyone who requests it. It is our opinion that all Christian organizations should follow this policy. No evangelist or charitable organization goes to greater lengths than does the BGEA to keep its records straight, to provide for rigorous auditing, and to make the results known not only to a board of trusted representatives of the Christian public who vouch for the integrity of the association’s finances, but now also to the general public.
On good grounds Christians have come to trust Billy Graham and the many ministries associated with him. Contrary to what some may be charging or suggesting by innuendo, those who have given money to Billy Graham over the years can rest assured that their funds have been used exclusively for the advancement of evangelical causes with which they themselves identify and which they choose to support.
A New Chance to Open the Church
Mobility is a fact of life in the United States. Real estate salesmen know it and thrive on it. Moving companies profit from it. Financial institutions, as conservative as they are, have accommodated themselves to it. Even tax collectors seem to keep up with moving Americans.
The church, however, has lagged behind. Too many congregations act as though all their members live on farms. Not only do they show little concern for helping their departing members establish church connections in their new locations, but the average congregation makes little effort to help newcomers feel at home. Churches seem unaware of the evangelistic opportunities presented by the changing population.
A bright spot is the attention that has been given to the opportunities in America’s “sun belt.” More and more people are moving South and West and the church should be the first to greet them.
Few people know that many black people are moving back to the South (see the census bureau report, Geographical Mobility: March 1975 to March 1977). The researchers carefully point out that complete data will not be available until the 1980 census is studied. But in the two-year period of the new study, 184,000 blacks two years old and over moved into southern states; 165,000 moved out.
What about these “sun belt” newcomers? Many of them are probably returning home, but that won’t be known until after the next complete decennial census. Even if that’s the case, the communities are different than when the people left. Many of the people will have changed as well. What kind of welcome are these people getting? Is the church ready for them?
The migration of blacks to the South offers a unique opportunity to the church there. Many of the newcomers are educated young people who have not experienced that “old time religion” known by their grandparents. What the church does now may well be more important than what it did or didn’t do in the tumultous fifties and sixties. The church should not only open its doors, but it should send people out to bring them in, one by one.
Decent Speech On the Airwaves
Radio and television had not been invented, of course, when the United States Constitution was drafted 190 years ago. The federal government is involved in the regulation of broadcasting, however, and this government activity is often justified under the Constitution’s catch-all “general welfare” clause. Whether one accepts the broad application of this clause or not, it is instructive to explore its relevance in a current case.
Does America’s present broadcasting fare promote the country’s general welfare? If it does not, then shouldn’t the government do something about it? Radio and television have a powerful role in U.S. society today. In many instances broadcasting media have all but replaced family, school, town meeting, and even church. Washington Post writer William Greider in a recent series observed, “The only place where all America meets is in front of the television set.” Every evening, he wrote, America gathers before the tube. Much of the country is also there at breakfast, lunch, and dinner.
Historically, the federal government has concentrated on regulating the technical aspects of broadcasting. The assignment of frequencies, the location of transmitters, the quality of signals, and other such matters have been closely monitored. The whole area of programming has been handled more gingerly since the question of free speech and free press was involved. The Federal Communications Commission recently has been saying more about programming, however. Some individual commissioners have been outspoken and have used public opinion as much as legal authority to push for programming changes.
There was a time when the FCC’s authority over one area of program content was unchallenged, but now even that is gone. Indecent, profane, or obscene language was not allowed, and any station that permitted it ran the risk of losing its license. Recent Supreme Court decisions have undercut FCC authority in this area, though, and now the commission is in court over its power to prohibit such language. We commend the commission for standing up to those who would sneer at the principle of decency on the air. If ever there was a case where a government agency could “promote the general welfare,” it is this one—the Federal Communications Commission vs. Pacifica Foundation.
The United States Catholic Conference, in its friend-of-the-court brief, put it well: “It is clear that the public interest is paramount.… In the light of this interest, we submit that the statute in question and the regulatory activity undertaken in compliance with that statute are reasonably calculated to advance this public interest.”
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