Caiaphas, who was high priest at that time, said, “You don’t know what you’re talking about! You don’t realize that it’s better for you that one man should die for the people than for the whole nation to be destroyed.” [John 11:49-50 (NLT)]
Recently, I read a novel that blurred the lines between fiction and fact. Considered fiction, it was heavily based on the memories of two Auschwitz survivors and included people and events that actually occurred. A determination to stay alive at any cost was one of its themes. As I read how some people managed to survive the camp, I had to wonder how I might react in a similar situation. When does cooperation with the enemy, which can allow survival (not just of oneself but also of others) become collaboration or complicity? Following the war, the two main characters feared being labeled as collaborators for their actions and another person in the story actually was charged as a Nazi collaborator. After three years in Auschwitz’s hell, she was sentenced to fifteen years in the Soviet gulag. Yet, because of what was called collaboration, she saved not just her life but also the lives of others. Which is more right or less wrong: survival at all costs or refusal to compromise and death? That is not a choice I ever want to make.
Peter Black, a former historian at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, said that prisoners who “were in a position to help people, were also in a position to hurt people.” To keep their positions, he added, “They had to accept that duality.” The truth of his statement was brutally evident when the hero’s smuggling activity was discovered by his captors. Refusing to name the others involved, he was transported to the punishment and torture block where his torturer was a man whose life he’d saved. The man confided that his job was to get names, explaining, “Like you…I do what I have to do to survive.” He then told the prisoner that he would kill him before allowing him to name any of those names: “If I must kill one Jew to save ten others, then I will.”
The man’s explanation is in contrast to another recurring theme in the book: “To save one is to save the world.” This phrase originally comes from the Mishnah (the written version of Jewish oral law and part of the Talmud). It reads: “Whoever destroys a single life is considered by Scripture to have destroyed the whole world, and whoever saves a single life is considered by Scripture to have saved the whole world.” [Mishnah Sanhedrin 4:9, Jerusalem Talmud] “To save the one,” is repeated throughout the story.
Some reviewers have criticized the novel as inauthentic while others have praised it; I can’t vouch for its accuracy. Nevertheless, I know that many in Nazi concentration camps were faced with moral choices that meant the difference between life and death. Without a doubt, there are people facing similar quandaries today. It’s easy to see the world in black and white from the safety of my home in Florida—not so easy in a place like Auschwitz. We know we are to do good and not to do evil but there is a great deal of gray area between those two extremes.
The Christian has no fear of death but what if, by choosing to live in circumstances that come at a moral cost, more people could survive and possibly come to know Christ? What then? Christian ethics have three elements: the act we choose, our intentions behind the act, and the circumstances surrounding it. We have a merciful God and the circumstances of a concentration camp or battlefield are not the same as those of an insurance office or grocery store. As for intentions, we know they should always line up with loving God and loving our neighbor. When considering any act, we also must consider its consequences and whether they would please God. Do the means justify the end even if the means are wrong but the end result would glorify God? I can’t pretend to know the answer but, since reading this book, it is a question I’ve been pondering.
The basis of Christian ethics is the character of God and God is love. That love is seen in the life of Christ. While prayer, Scripture, and the Spirit’s guidance can direct us in our ethical dilemmas, in the end, we must ask ourselves what Jesus would do and then do it. He is the one who died, not to save just ten, but to save the world!