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
This afternoon as I prepared to eat my lunch at work, a co-worker shared with me an article she had read in the Sunday New York Times, dated October 27, 2013. The article, written by Dan Berry tells the story of a Catholic priest, the Rev. Sixtus O’Connor and a Lutheran pastor, Rev. Henry Gerecke who while serving as chaplains in the U.S. Army were given the dubious task of ministering to a group of men who were on trial at Nuremburg for war crimes stemming from their involvement with the Nazi concentration camps.
These men were some of the highest ranking members of the Nazi party. As the trial progressed, the world came to know the horrors that had been perpetrated by their hands. Millions of people exterminated as part of one of the most heinous campaigns of genocide ever conceived. The chaplains were all too familiar with the work of their “parishioners.” Despite this, they went about their jobs of lending spiritual guidance to these most lost of souls. For some of these men, the pastors served no purpose. But over time some of these men turned monsters had begun to seek out repentance through a bond with the chaplains.
Two parts of the story stood out to me, and both involved Pastor Gerecke. The first was when there was a chance that Gerecke would be transferred back home to his family in the United States. The prisoners hoped Gerecke would remain, and so as Berry wrote in the article,
“This meant that a woman in St. Louis received a letter one day from 21 accused war criminals in Nuremberg, explaining how vital her husband’s presence and counsel were to them. ‘Therefore, please leave him with us,’ the Nazis requested of Gerecke’s wife, Alma. ‘We shall be deeply indebted to you.’ The letter closed with: ‘God be with you.’ Alma Gerecke quickly sent a message to her husband: ‘They need you.’”
How disgustingly ironic to see these men asking this woman to lobby her husband to stay with them in their hour of need. Had they afforded a single courtesy to the tens of thousands of men, women, and children they slaughtered? Imagine the thoughts that had to be going through the minds of this pastor and his wife. I’d like to think that Christ’s words in the parable of the sheep and the goats rang in the Gerecke’s ears: “Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.”
The second thing that hit me as I read was the hate letters that Pastor Gerecke had received from people who disagreed with his ministry work with these men. The letters, were neither shared, nor were they discovered until after Rev. Gerecke’s death by his son. I must admit that I couldn’t understand how people could be so cruel to attack a pastor led by God to serve men whose demise would be long celebrated by the rest of the world. Then I read some of the comments on the website beneath the article. The following was at the top of the list.
“That these two men of the cloth would even remotely consider attempting to “save the souls” of the monsters in the dock at Nuremburg is obscene. These men were entitled to no forgiveness whatsoever. Only the millions of people they murdered were in any position to forgive them, and I doubt they were rushing to do that. To even show these arch criminals empathy, as the clergymen profiled in this article undoubtedly did, is heinous. To even broach the suggestion that these gangsters could feel saved in some cosmic sense, as the clergymen profiled in this article undoubtedly did, is abominable. To provide these Nazis with any comfort at all, as these clergymen profiled in this article undoubtedly did, is abhorrent.”
I had mixed emotions as I read the comment. To an extent, the author was right. These men were monsters, masterminds of a genocide. They are the scum of the earth and deserve nothing better than the same atrocious treatment they made their victims endure. These are the very least that the human race has to offer.
And yet, Christ died for them too.
As Romans 3:23-26 reads, “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and all are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus. God presented Christ as a sacrifice of atonement, through the shedding of his blood—to be received by faith.” It would be easier for us to comprehend a God who came to save the sinners who only committed minor sins. Little white liars and people who run yellow lights, people who steal paper clips from work and swear a little too much. We could even tolerate the repentant adulterer or a remorseful arsonist, but these men are simply beyond our capacity for salvation. They are too far gone, damaged beyond repair. But yet, there in the form of two chaplains stood Christ, offering these men the opportunity to repent and receive forgiveness for their sins. No one is suggesting that they not be held responsible for their acts: their convictions would stand and their death sentences were carried out. But even so, the opportunity to know the love of God was not taken from them.
I can think of no better way to demonstrate the great depths to which God will go to redeem one of His lost children than to see what He did for these – the very least of us all. Furthermore, I can see no better way for us to respond to God’s grace than to share it ourselves with those among us whose “crimes” pale greatly in comparison. May we give forgiveness as freely as we hope to receive it in those moments when we become the least among us.