Like the rest of us in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, I was stunned and sickened to learn that the young man who opened fire on worshipers at the Chabad of Poway synagogue in Poway, California, was a member of an OPC congregation. Our little denomination, virtually unknown to the world at large, was now associated in news articles with white nationalism, anti-Semitism, hatred, and terrorism. As much as we may argue that these evils are categorically opposite to our Christian and Reformed convictions, as I indeed believe they are, the fact is an OPC member committed this atrocity. And so we shared the shame, if not the blame.
In the providence of God, on the day after the shooting a Community Holocaust Commemoration took place in La Jolla, California, about a half-hour away from Poway. Though this event, held in connection with “Yom HaShoah,” or Holocaust Remembrance Day, had been months in the planning, the previous day’s violence added to the gathering a fresh and urgent poignancy. The same racial hatred that produced the Holocaust was given deadly expression just hours earlier and only minutes away.
Part of the program involved an official recognition by the Israeli Consulate of a family in the Netherlands that, during World War II, successfully protected 14 Jewish people from their Nazi enemies by keeping them in their home until they reached safety elsewhere.
The father and mother of the family were Cornelis and Wilhelmina de Ru. One of their children, son Herman de Ru (who now lives in California), was a boy during the war and remembers his family hiding the Jews. Mr. de Ru happens to be a longtime ruling elder in the OPC; he’s also the father of our very own Fred de Ru. Though the elder de Ru was present for the ceremony and received the “Righteous Among the Nations” medallion on behalf of his parents, it was Fred and his cousin who spoke for him. Before an audience of 600 people, they told the story of how and why the de Ru’s risked their safety to save the lives of strangers. A reporter at the event described it this way:
The de Ru’s were Dutch Christians living in Holland at the time of the Nazi occupation. Appalled by the way their Jewish neighbors were being treated, the de Ru’s – at great personal risk to their own family – took in a Jewish baby. They provided temporary shelter in their home to numerous Jewish people until they could be more safely relocated. During their lifetimes, they balked at being called “heroes.” They only saw themselves as good Christians doing what was right.
I asked Fred if the people leading the ceremony were aware that his dad belonged to the same denomination as the Chabad of Poway attacker. Fred did in fact ask one of the rabbis before the event if he knew of the church connection between his father and the shooter. The rabbi said he was aware of the link, but after he read the OPC’s statement condemning the attack, he was satisfied that his father’s church affiliation was not a problem. And thus Herman de Ru was honored by the Jewish community, and the government of Israel, for his family’s brave expression of love for their Jewish neighbors during the war.
So the same church body from which came a man who murdered a Jewish woman, injured three others, and terrorized an entire community, is the spiritual home of a man whose family – out of their Christian convictions – risked their lives to save those of the Jewish people. The same community that suffered at the hands of the first man on one day, honored the second the day after.
Against the backdrop of the atrocity at Chabad of Poway, the de Ru family’s courageous, self-sacrificial love stands in clear contrast as a true witness to all that we believe about God and Christ. It is encouraging to know that, so close in time and place to the shameful acts committed by one from our own church body, the de Ru’s story was told as a demonstration of genuine faithfulness to Christ.
As members of the OPC, even as we were grieved to learn that the killer at the Poway synagogue was from one of our congregations, we may be tempted to exult in the story of the de Ru’s, seeing in it a vindication of our faith and church. To be honest, that motive was part of my wanting to share this story.
However, there is a more sobering message in this providential series of events. As much as the shooter’s actions saddened us, and even shamed us, the truth is that there is in the heart of each of us a terrifying capacity to do evil (Mark 7:21, 22). The evil that erupted from the heart of the attacker lurks in the breast of all. As sinners, there is no sin we are not capable of committing. And no church in the world, nor family in the world, can make our hearts good. Only Christ can do that. By his grace alone, God’s people may perform extraordinary acts of self-sacrifice and love – as the de Ru family did during the war. But apart from his grace, any person – even with the best upbringing – can do great evil.
Our hope, then, is not in our church or in ourselves, but only in the saving power of Jesus Christ. The Scriptures tell us that God has made Christ “our wisdom and our righteousness and sanctification and redemption.” Therefore, “as it is written, ‘Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord'” (1 Corinthians 1:30, 31).
Soli Deo Gloria!