It’s a story I would rather not tell. Yet, the story is so painfully clear that it horribly and beautifully illustrates an atrocity in human nature. Those who want to think of homo sapiens as essentially good must overlook history like this; they must bury heads in the sand and pretend certain things simply couldn’t be perpetrated by our species.
The story begins in early 1942, in a forest along the eastern border of Poland, where the Nazis chose to build an extermination camp. SS-Sonderkommando Sobibór was named for the nearby village. Sobibór was intended to take forced laborers from other camps and destroy them, using carbon monoxide from a simple Russian-built, captured diesel engine. As trains of Jews arrived at the camp, the Commandant would address them wearing a white coat, giving the impression that he was a doctor. He would calmly explain that they were at Sobibór for decontamination, to keep disease at bay when they went out to work. The people were told to leave their valuables and remove their clothes so they could be taken to the showers for their cleansing. An SS man would then lead them through a passageway dubbed “Road to Heaven” by the Nazis. Several Ukrainian POW’s marched behind the Jews, hastening them toward the chambers.
Entering the death chambers, the victims walked past decorations of flowers and a yellow Star of David, adding to the ruse that they were simply being cleansed before they took up residence and went to work. Once they were inside, the Ukrainians closed the doors and the engine was started, which would quickly poison them all.
The SS was very efficient in their work at the camps, choosing to keep some Jews alive for awhile, making them take care of various unsavory duties. Those duties ranged from removing the corpses from the gas chambers to mass graves or crematoriums, to becoming sex slaves for the SS guards. Ultimately, those who served in the camps would join the victims they had helped process and die in the gas chambers.
Sobibór did not last until the end of the war. In fact, the camp existed for a relatively short time compared to the other Nazi death camps. One reason was because of the escape. In October, 1943, 600 Sobibór prisoners killed 11 SS officers and several camp guards. Their hope was to kill all the guards at the camp and walk out the main entrance, but they were discovered and fled toward the forest. About half of them died before they could escape the camp. Many others were killed by the land mines that had been placed around the camp as a deterrent. Others were caught and shot. In the end, about 50 Sobibór prisoners, one in twelve, escaped alive. A few days later, Heinrich Himmler ordered the camp closed, destroyed and trees planted where it had been located.
As I said, this is a story that is hard to tell. The desperation of the captors to enslave and destroy the Jews is almost beyond belief. The willingness of the prisoners to do anything…ANYTHING…to possibly walk free is far easier to understand. Throughout history, people have taken extreme measures to hold other humans in bondage. What may surprise you is that it was just such an example of excessive behavior that prompted the New Testament book of Galatians.
The perpetrators in the first century were not Nazis, but some of the Jews themselves. They had heard the message of Jesus the Nazarene actually being their Messiah...their “Christ”...and they decided to follow Him. No doubt they loved the thought that His sacrifice would suffice for all their sins. Even in their freedom, though, they couldn’t resist the temptation to put others in bondage. They became known in the early church as “Judaizers” because they held to the idea that the salvation bought by Jesus’ blood was only for Jews. Non-Jews…Gentiles…would have to convert to Judaism before they could become Christ-followers. These extremists threatened to destroy much of the work of the Gospel, turning the Good News into something much less as it spread throughout the Roman Empire.
At the forefront of a group standing against this perversion of truth was the apostle Paul. He wrote the little letter to the churches in the Galatian region; it stands as a source of hope and comfort two millennia later. We begin our study of Galatians this weekend at Stone Ridge Church as we kick off our Summer Sermon Series. The Series, entitled “Life Repurposed”, is full of the hope that God created us to live free from the Law. We no longer have to be subject to the bondage that has held so many captive for so long.
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