It was June of 1943 in a Nazi-occupied Holland. Corrie Ten Boom turned to the pastor in front of her and asked, “Would you be willing to take a Jewish mother and her baby into your home? They will almost certainly be arrested otherwise.”
Color immediately drained from the man’s face. “Miss Ten Boom!” he said. “I do hope you are not involved with any of this illegal concealment and undercover business. It’s just not safe! Think of your father! And your sister—she’s never been strong!”
On impulse, she told the pastor to wait and ran upstairs. With the mother’s permission, she took the little infant into her arms. Back in the dining room, she pulled back the coverlet from the baby’s face. There was a long silence. The man bent forward, reaching for the tiny fist. Compassion and fear seemed to struggle visually in his face. And then he straightened, “No! Definitely not! We could lose our lives for that Jewish child!”
Meanwhile, unseen, Mr. Ten Boom, Corrie’s Father, appeared in the doorway. “Give the child to me Corrie,” he said. Looking into the little face with eyes as blue and innocent as the baby’s own, he said to the pastor, “You say we could lose our lives for this child. I would consider that the greatest honor that could come to me and to my family.” The pastor turned sharply on his heels and walked out of the room.(1)
This story begs a question we do well to consider: Why? Why did the Ten Booms do what they did? After all, they were not the target of the ongoing Nazi persecution. They were Dutch, not Jewish. Why would they choose to live with such risks?
Allow me to suggest a few possible reasons for their choices. The Ten Booms did what they did because they recognized the immense worth and preciousness of human life. They chose to be ‘betrayers’ and ‘traitors’ in a regime whose adherents not only believed, but acted out, the belief that only the strong, the fit, and the useful had the right to live. All who failed to qualify were annihilated and ‘cleansed’ from the system.
The thought is clearly offensive to our modern sensitivities. And yet, aren’t we still living in a society whose mindset is the same today as it was then? Ours is a world where ‘a person’ has become ‘a thing’ whose worth is only as good as his or her market value.
Second, I believe the Ten Booms did what they did because they were committed to a God whose values of endless, selfless giving, and sacrifice was worth cherishing and emulating. Their God was one who created human life and endowed this life with so much worth and significance that he actually give up his own life in order to preserve human life. This, in fact, is the story of Christianity, the story of the Cross—a God who out of sheer love willingly gave himself up for no fault of his own, in order to save human beings.
Third, I think the Ten Booms were willing to put their lives on the line because of their unshakeable conviction that there is more to the reality of life and death than we know in this one. They were deeply rooted in the awareness that this life and this world, this ‘here and now,’ is not the whole story. It’s just part of the story. On the other side of this life, there is another reality, a glorious and endless one made possible by the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, the God the Ten Booms worshipped with everything that was in them. Living daily in the knowledge and expectation of this hope allowed them the courage and readiness to suffer and to die for their God and for the sake of others.
When one is imbibed with the knowledge that death is not the final end, we learn to respond to death positively. Closer to my own home, the story of Gladys Staines, the widow of Australian missionary Graham Staines, is a remarkable example of a woman who not only faced the painful reality of the death of her loved ones, but was enabled to seek out meaning and hope even from that dark and horrific experience. On January 23, 1999, Graham Staines and his two little boys, Philip (11) and Timothy (7), were ambushed by a frenzied mob with flaming torches and burnt alive in Manoharpur, Orissa. Yet Gladys Staines said, “I have only one message for the people of India. I am not bitter. Neither am I angry. I can forgive their deeds. Only Jesus can forgive their sins… Let us burn hatred and spread the flame of Christ’s love.” The dignity with which Ms. Staines was able to respond speaks volumes of the values inculcated within her. She showed that forgiveness is love in action. Gladys prayed as Jesus prayer for us: “Forgive them for they know not what they do.” At the funeral of her husband and her two sons, she asked that they sing the song: “Because He lives I can face tomorrow. Because he lives all fear is gone. Because I know he holds the future, life is worth the living just because he lives.”
Both the Ten Booms and Gladys Staines are examples of the transforming life that is possible in the transforming death of Jesus. For those who know Christ, the question is not whether we are born to die, but whether we might be willing to die in order to live!
Tejdor Tiewsoh is a member of the speaking team with RZIM Shillong, India.