Character Matters! Standing Up for the Weak

Psalm 82
March 30, 2014

God has taken his place in the divine council;
   in the midst of the gods he holds judgment:
      “How long will you judge unjustly
         and show partiality to the wicked?
Give justice to the weak and the orphan;
   maintain the right of the lowly and the destitute.
Rescue the weak and the needy;
   deliver them from the hand of the wicked.”
They have neither knowledge nor understanding,
   they walk around in darkness;
      all the foundations of the earth are shaken.
I say, “You are gods, children of the Most High, all of you;
   nevertheless, you shall die like mortals,
      and fall like any prince.”
Rise up, O God, judge the earth;
   for all the nations belong to you!

            I want to start by having us focus on a snippet of the passage from above:
Give justice to the weak and the orphan; maintain the right of the lowly and the destitute. Rescue the weak and the needy; deliver them from the hand of the wicked.”

            When you read this passage, what are your thoughts? What does it say to you about how you’re to live your life? What does it say about how you are called to treat others? This psalm is a great representation of the God of the Old Testament, although not in the way we typically think of the God of the Old Testament. When people think of the God of the Old Testament, they often think of a wrathful, angry God. We get the impression, especially from the prophets, that God is always angry at people for being sinful. What most people don’t realize is that if God is portrayed as angry in the Old Testament, it’s often an anger that arises because people didn’t pay heed to a passage like this one. The anger is over their treatment, or lack of treatment, of the weak.

            If you really pay attention to what the prophets said, whether it’s Isaiah, Jeremiah, Micah, Amos, or any one of a dozen prophets, they often say that God is angry because no one cares about those on the margins, the weak, the helpless, the poor, and the struggling. It’s like a constant drumbeat in the Old Testament. Help the poor, forgive debts, lift up the struggling, feed the hungry, care about those on the margins.

            The prophets realized that, just like today in our country where politics is often about power and who is strong, too often the people of Israel and of Judah—the Israelites—cared more about power and strength than about the weak and the struggling. The irony today is that we often argue over whether we are a Christian nation, yet it is often the ones who advocate the most for our status as a Christian nation who seem to care the least about the poor and marginalized. The irony is also that many of them reject biological Darwinism (Evolution) yet they accept a kind of Social Darwinism based on survival of the fittest. They see God as being on the side of the noble and self-sufficient strong, and against the unfit, lazy, and shiftless poor. They believe it’s okay not to care about those on the bottom because they haven’t worked hard enough, accomplished enough, or struggled hard enough like those on the top. These people reject biological Darwinism while embracing economic Darwinism.

            A significant number of people in our culture identify with the politics of power, where what matters is being strong, tough, and in charge. It is hard to square that with Scripture because the Christian life is often just as much about weakness and caring for the weak. This isn’t just me talking. It is the Bible talking. Read and reflect on the following passages. What do they say about pursuing strength, and ignoring the weak?

            First, let’s look at what Paul has to say about pursuing strength. In the 2 Corinthians 12, he talks about a “thorn in his side” that afflicted him. He begged God to take it away from him. We don’t really know what that thorn was. Maybe it was physical affliction or epilepsy that was the result of all the floggings and beatings he received. No one really knows what it was. All we know is that he begged God to take it away, and God said to him, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.” In response, Paul says, “So, I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me. Therefore I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities for the sake of Christ; for whenever I am weak, then I am strong.” He is telling us that the pursuit of strength makes us weak, but allowing ourselves to be weak enough for God’s grace to work in us makes us strong.

            In John 15:12-13, Jesus says, This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” In other words, we be strong enough in love to be willing to be sacrificed as one of the weak.

            Paul also says, in 1 Thessalonians 5, “And we urge you, beloved, to admonish the idlers, encourage the faint hearted, help the weak, be patient with all of them. See that none of you repays evil for evil, but always seek to do good to one another and to all.” He teaches a message much like the prophets: lift up the weak, and be patient with them when they fail to do what we think they should do.

            Finally, as Paul teaches in Romans 15, “We who are strong ought to put up with the failings of the weak, and not to please ourselves. Each of us must please our neighbor for the good purpose of building up the neighbor.” This is just a smattering of what the New Testament says about caring for the weak. There is a clear message: stand up for the weak. Don’t make them grovel, but help them rise up.

            When I think of helping the weak, one of the people who jumps mostly clearly to mind is Raoul Wallenberg. Do you recognize the name? Probably not. You are more likely to remember the name of someone more famous today who did things similar to Wallenberg, and about whom a popular movie was made: Oscar Schindler (Schindler’s List).

            Schindler was an amazing man. He saved over 1200 Jews from extermination in the nearby Kraków-Płaszów Concentration Camp in Czechoslovakia by employing Jews in his factories to prevent their slaughter. He was truly an amazing man, but Raoul Wallenberg made an even bigger impact on saving Jews at the end of World War II. He is credited with saving perhaps more than 100,000 Jews in Hungary from being sent to the concentration camps.

            Wallenberg was a Swedish diplomat to Nazi occupied Hungary. He was recruited for the sole purpose of saving Jews. He was an architect by training, not a diplomat, but he was fearless and resourceful. He had no problem walking into situations where Jews were being rounded up, and finding ways to confuse and confound the Nazis.
            Tom Veres, who was originally a Hungarian Jew in World War II, saw first hand how Wallenberg operated. For most of the time the Nazis occupied Hungary, Veres had been exempted from the laws against Jews because of his father’s and his work photographing the members of the Hapsburg dynasty, the ruling family of Hungary. They had been the official photographers for the court, and for many in Budapest’s high society, and so were exempted and lived out the war mostly persecution-free. But that all changed on October 12, 1944.

            The Arrow Cross, the name for the Nazi Party of Hungary, managed to gain control of the government in Budapest, the capital of Hungary. Until that point, they had been gaining power in the countryside, but now the Nazis were in full control of the nation’s government. All exemptions were cancelled. It was estimated that by then up to 430,000 Jews throughout the Hungarian countryside had been rounded up and deported to concentration camps. They planned on doing the same in Budapest.

            On October 17, knowing that his life was in danger, Veres went to the Swedish embassy, seeking help from a friend, Per Anger, who worked at the embassy. Fighting through the crowds, he found Anger told him that he needed his help. Leaning out of the doorway, Anger yelled to another man, “Raoul, I have someone here who can help you.” The two were introduced, and Wallenberg said to Veres, “Good. You’ll be my photographer. You’ll document the work we are doing. You’ll report directly to me.”

            Veres was given a schultzpass, or passport, saying that he was a Swedish diplomat. Veres began doing work on creating schultzpasses for any Jews that applied. One day in late November, Wallenberg’s secretary gave Veres a message from Wallenberg, “Meet me at Jozsefvarosi Station. Bring you camera.” Veres had no idea what was going on.
            When he got there, he saw German troops and Arrow Cross gendarmes loading Jews into cattle cars to ship to concentration camps. Knowing that if he were caught with a camera he would be loaded onto a cattle car, schultzpass or not. Veres quickly cut a hole in his scarf for his camera lens to poke out of while his hidden camera took pictures. Speaking in broken Hungarian, with the best Swedish accent he could muster, he told the Nazis that he was a Swedish diplomat there to meet with Wallenberg. They let him go. Finding Wallenbeg, he was told to take as many pictures are possible. It was then that he saw Wallenberg going to work to save Jews.

            Wallenberg yelled out to the Jews standing in line: “All of my people get in line here! All you need to do is show me your schultzpass!” They stared at him dumbfounded. Looking at one man he said, “You, yes, I have your name here. Where is your paper?” The man stared blankly and began fishing things out of his pocket. He pulled out a scrap of letter that was nothing like a schultpass. Wallenberg looked at it, wrote the man’s name in a ledger, and said, “Fine. Next!” He motioned for the man to stand over at another part of the platform.

            Soon others caught on. They walked up to him and showed him eyeglasses, deportation notices, handkerchiefs, and each time Wallenberg wrote their name in the ledger, motioned for them to move over to the group of now Swedish citizens. He pulled hundreds out of line. When the Nazis started to lose patience with him, he then shouted out to his group of newly minted Swedish citizens, “Now back to Budapest, all of you!” The suspicious soldiers moved as if to round them back up, but Wallenberg began to lecture the on the health conditions of the trains, the station, and anything else to distract them from the line of Jews walking back to Budapest. Then he and Veres jumped into a car and left.

            The next day Wallenberg and Veres returned to the station and did the exact same thing. Veres took pictures, Wallenberg conscripted new Swedish citizens. Veres also saw his chance to save even more. With the Nazis concentrating on the disruption caused by Wallenberg, Veres snuck around to the other side of a cattle car, and opened the doors to free the Jews. They all jumped out and went to stand in line in front of Wallenberg. When the Nazis realized what was happening, they motioned to capture Veres. Wallenberg jumped into his car and directed his driver to quickly move the car to where Veres was. Opening the door, Wallenberg shouted, “Tom! Jump!” They barely escaped.

            Using this method, Wallenberg risked his life to save thousands upon thousands of Jews. Eventually the Arrow Cross got wise to it, and in January sent a contingent to the Ulloi Street offices of the Swedish legate. Knowing that the Russians would take over Budapest any day now, and in a hurry to kill as many Jews as possible, they lined all the workers. They knew that most were Jews, and so they demanded that they walk to the river where they would be shot. Wallenberg had been contacted, and suddenly, as all were about to walk out the door, the Budapest police rushed in with machine guns raised. Wallenberg said to the Arrow Cross men, “What are you doing? These are Swedes! You have made a very serious mistake. Let them go!” The captain let them go.

            Within a few days the Russians had taken over the city. On January 17, 1945, Wallenberg, hoping to help in the reconstruction of Hungary, went with a Soviet escort to Debrecen to meet with the newly established provincial government. Before they got there, he was taken into custody by the NKVD (the precursor to the KGB), and was never seen again. There have been rumors that Wallenberg may have lived for another 15 years in a Siberian gulag. Prisoners reported having been incarcerated with him. The Soviets kept no records about this, and no one really knows. Whatever happened, it was a tragic end to a great man who did extraordinary thing for those who were weak.

     Wallenberg lived out our psalm. He gave justice to the weak and the orphan. He maintained the right of the lowly and the destitute. He rescued the weak and the needy. He delivered them from the hand of the wicked.

            We don’t have to wait for a holocaust to help the weak. There are people all around us who struggle everyday. If you are a kid in school, it means is helping and befriending the child who is picked on or teased. At work it means caring for the person who is criticized or dismissed. In society it means caring about and for the mentally ill, the poor, the incompetent, the struggling. How you help comes from who you’ll make time for, who you’ll contribute to, who you’ll vote for, who you’ll pay attention to.

            One side note: caring for others doesn’t mean letting go of all of our boundaries. When caring for the weak we still have to remember that we have lives to live. So it means helping them, but also still taking care of ourselves.

            The point of all of this is that as Christians we aren’t called to focus only on the strong, and to figure out how to be strong. We’re called to pay attention to and to care for the weak… to
Give justice to the weak and the orphan;
    maintain the right of the lowly and the destitute. 

Rescue the weak and the needy;
   deliver them from the hand of the wicked.’