A Punch in the Gut

A Punch in the Gut June 2, 2016

Rupert Neudeck died earlier this week at the age of seventy-seven. Mostly unknown in the United States, Neudeck was among Europe’s most radical and provocative humanitarians of the last half-century.

Rupert Neudeck (1939-2016)

Neudeck attracted public attention in 1979 when he, his wife Christel, and several high-profile supporters chartered the freighter Cap Anamur in a privately funded effort to rescue Vietnamese refugees at sea. Ignoring criticism and obstruction from both western governments and leftist activists who opposed the refugees’ flight, Cap Anamur saved the lives of thousands of individuals adrift on the Chinese Sea. After leading Cap Anamur for two decades, Neudeck in 2002 formed the Green Helmets, which brings together Christians, Muslims, and others together in joint responses to crises.

Into the last months of his life, Neudeck mobilized volunteers to address humanitarian disasters, in recent years once against attracting opposition from European governments by rescuing both economic and military refugees fleeing  Syria and North Africa for more peaceful and prosperous countries.

Lives such as Neudeck are needed reminders of the ongoing relevance of Christianity in a largely secularized Europe.

Born in 1939, Neudeck was himself a refugee at the end of the Second World War. As it fled from East Prussia in advance of the approaching Red Army, Neudeck’s family was to board a refugee ship, the Wilhelm Gustloff. The Neudecks missed the boat, which was sunk by a Soviet torpedo.

Neudeck, a Catholic, studied theology. Disgusted with his church’s inward-looking piety (penance and fasting had made him sick, he later said) in the face of the world’s problems, he decided to join the Jesuits, “a radical group.” He later left the order, married, studied philosophy, wrote about Camus and Sartre, and became a journalist.

In addition to his own family’s wartime experiences, he attributed his humanitarian impulses to the Parable of the Good Samaritan. It was a simple message. “The parable of the good Samaritan sufficed,” Neudeck later explained. “This story punched me again and again in the gut. You are continually responsible for the needs of others. Now. Immediately.”

Neudeck preached — in both Christian and secular contexts — that nothing abrogated the parable’s teaching. Not the geopolitical complexity of crises. Not whether or not those in need would respond appropriately. Nothing. Christians had an obligation to help those in need. They could not, like the Levite or the priest, allow others to die. They could not be spectators while Libyan or Syrian refugees died crossing the Mediterranean. They could not watch civilians suffer and die in warzones without trying to save them.

Neudeck was a thorn in the side of government officials and bureaucrats. “The priest and the Levite, that pass by without helping the wounded man,” he jabbed, “would be a UN official or a “Blue Helmet” peacekeeper today.” As you might imagine, Neudeck’s critics found him insufferably self-righteous.

Despite his young adult rejection of Catholic piety, Neudeck believed that Germany’s churches had a vital role to play in a secularizing society. Christians, after all, are commanded by their Savior to help those who are perishing. In recent years, he criticized the closure of churches and chided Christians who did not pray regularly (they should learn from Muslims, he commented). The world needs churches full of Christians who pray for the suffering and are motivated to help them.

It is so hard for us human beings to help others, doubly so when the others belong to groups we despise. The truth is that the Parable of the Good Samaritan should convict all of us, because in today’s world we are all constantly aware that we have fellow human beings in mortal danger. We know that refugees are dying while fleeing their homelands. We know that people are living in the midst of war. We know that others are hungry. Whether out of indifference, or selfishness, or a belief that our efforts would be fruitless or counterproductive, we choose to be the priest and Levite. All of us, for all of us necessarily pass by countless sufferers. Jesus tells the parable as part of his answer to “an expert in the law” who wants to know what he must “do to inherit eternal life.” It’s a sobering thought, one that should punch us in the gut again and again and should cause us to throw ourselves on God’s mercy and grace.


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