“I Could Have Saved More”

I was looking through excerpts from Schindler’s List to use for class, and watched the closing scene at the factory again. It’s the scene where Schindler whispers, “I could have saved more. If I’d made more money, I could have saved more.” One of the commenters on one of the videos said, “A false hero: ‘I’ve done so much.’ A true hero: ‘I could have done more.’ “

I’m not certain I would go that far, but the story of Oskar Schindler and other people in history backs into a question that came up in one of the religion classes recently: deeds vs. words. Specifically the topic was the difficulty some theologians have had with the New Testament “Book of James” and the exhortation that “faith without works is dead.” This seems to collide with “By Grace you are saved through faith, and not through works, that none may boast . . .” Setting aside the entire point that the two authors involved were writing to different people at different times and addressing different problems, this seems to be one of those places where Scripture contradicts itself. Martin Luther in particular disagreed with the writer of James, and considered the book to be at the least inferior, if not perhaps noncanonical. Since he was fighting a popular over-emphasis on works vs. faith and spiritual discipline, his difficulty is somewhat understandable. Somewhat.

Which takes us back to Schindler. By all accounts, he was not a “nice” person. His original motives for saving so many Jews were not, perhaps, the most saintly. And yet he was a good person, who did something very good. I suspect he was not the only person over the years who has been more motivated by “Oh yeah? Who are you to tell me what to do?” rather than pure altruism and saintliness. At the end of the movie, he reproaches himself for not doing more, not saving more people but instead spending his money on worldly pleasures. Itzhak Stern assures Schindler that Schindler has done more than many, and that “generations will live because of you.”

“I could have saved more.” It is a cry, a prayer from the heart, whispered to Itzhak. How many times have people whispered that confession, or something like it. “I could have done more. I could have helped more. If only I had . . .”

Faith and works. Works. Facto non Verbum – deeds, not words. How often have all of us gotten irritated with people who make wonderful, grand-sounding pronouncements and then don’t follow through. They don’t show up to help with the neighborhood clean up. They don’t keep a campaign promise. They “forget” to bring something to help with the school bake sale. Or to help cleaning the temple or synagogue or church or mosque. Or fail to make the promised donation to the hospital auxiliary fund raiser. And then come through with more wonderful words but no deeds.

Then you have the people who are not the public paragons of virtue but who do a lot of good. And those in between, ranging from the quiet folks who just seem to know where to be when with what, and who don’t want acknowledgment, to those who manage to follow through most of the time but not always. I certainly fall in the latter category. But I’m the kind who prefers hiding in the kitchen doing dishes, or cleaning the floor after the event, to mixing and mingling and being a good hostess at fundraisers. My warped sense of humor and rather cynical view of certain things makes me somewhat awkward at cocktail parties and fundraising banquets. More than once I’ve been assured that if lightning hits my current place of worship, no one will be surprised to find a smoking pile of ash under the remains of my hat. I don’t think I was supposed to take that as a compliment. (All I did was make a very bad and somewhat irreverent pun. I wasn’t the one who suggested putting club soda in the baptismal font to see if anyone would notice.)

I wonder if Schindler’s line resonates because so many of us have been in that position. We could have done more, although not on the scale or under the circumstances Schindler found himself in. But if you inspire one person, make one weary soul laugh, encourage one person to push past that final barrier and grasp success, helped one kid believe that he really could do it and he does . . .


16 thoughts on ““I Could Have Saved More”

  1. I don’t see the contradiction.

    If you love someone, you’ll try to show it. If you say you love them, but you never act like it, that love is dead.

    If you believe a thing is right, and true, and just, you’ll act like it.

    It’s at the heart of “I could have saved more”– you did it, because it was in keeping with what you believe. But there is always something more you could’ve done, and because your conviction is alive, you regret not fulfilling that.

  2. While I believe that humility is better than being pompous, I also believe that deeds trump words.

    This reminds me of a conversation I had last year with somebody who didn’t like President Trump – they insisted that his words (which they didn’t like) portended bad actions. They refused to discuss his actions, I think because they couldn’t complain about them…
    I disagreed, but didn’t have the words at the time to explain my position.

    Personally, I have always thought that deeds are louder than words, and if your words are nice but you’re actions are not, then your words are meaningless – there is a reason for the old saying “Your actions are so loud I can’t hear what you’re saying”.

    • At this point, it is pretty clear that “Trump’s words portend bad actions” was either personal projection, or folks listening to personal projection and trusting it.

    • Or Jesus with his parable about the two sons, one of whom told his father that he’d go do a thing the father asked, then didn’t, while the other said he wouldn’t, and then went and did. “Which of these did his father’s will?”

  3. I despise professions of anything without follow-through; it is as dead as a man who says “I love you” to his wife, right before leaving her for the weekend to go be with his mistress.
    I also despise people who believe that showy public works to prove they’re good can hide truly evil personalities and sick private lives. See: anyone who gets hauled into the station house protesting that they can’t be arrested, because they donate to this charity and that charity and the widows and orphans fund.

    I’ve never seen a contradiction between those two passages, and neither did James.

    14 What does it profit, my brethren, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can faith save him? 15 If a brother or sister is naked and destitute of daily food, 16 and one of you says to them, “Depart in peace, be warmed and filled,” but you do not give them the things which are needed for the body, what does it profit? 17 Thus also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead.

    18 But someone will say, “You have faith, and I have works.” Show me your faith without [a]your works, and I will show you my faith by [b]my works. 19 You believe that there is one God. You do well. Even the demons believe—and tremble! 20 But do you want to know, O foolish man, that faith without works is [c]dead? 21 Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered Isaac his son on the altar? 22 Do you see that faith was working together with his works, and by works faith was made [d]perfect? 23 And the Scripture was fulfilled which says, “Abraham believed God, and it was [e]accounted to him for righteousness.” And he was called the friend of God. 24 You see then that a man is justified by works, and not by faith only.

    25 Likewise, was not Rahab the harlot also justified by works when she received the messengers and sent them out another way?

    26 For as the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is dead also.

    • Argh. Caught in formatting, and hit submit before I meant. The point of the longer quote is to note that when you take it down to a single line, it’s like try to reduce Jordan Peterson to a quip.

      But you find references scattered all throughout the scriptures, See Paul in Colossians:
      “so that you will walk in a manner worthy of the Lord, to please Him in all respects, bearing fruit in every good work and increasing in the knowledge of God; strengthened with all power, according to His glorious might, for the attaining of all steadfastness and patience; joyously giving thanks to the Father, who has qualified us to share in the inheritance of the saints in Light.”

      Give me a moment, to hunt down the scripture in which it is noted that those who do good works for public acclaim have already received their reward here, and will not in heaven. What is that, if not a rebuke of the “works alone” end of the spectrum?

      • Matthew 6, that’s the ticket. Straight outa the mouth of the Lord, commandment to work and to pray.

        • Agreed. James is effectively saying “No deeds implies a dead faith”. This is logically the same as “A living faith implies the existence of deeds”.

          This is not the same as “The existence of deeds implies a living faith” – those who argue that deeds prove faith are wrong, there are many in this world who would never dream of claiming faith who carry out deeds to act as counterexamples. Rather, true faith will always work itself out in deeds, with the deeds flowing outwards from the faith.

          The deeds do not prove faith, nor do they earn salvation, but where faith does exist the resulting deeds act as a reflection of that faith in the outside world.

  4. I recall someone (else) who was spy or codebreaker or something similar, who worked and his work whatever it was saved untold lives. After the war he went to France and saw the rows and rows and rows of crosses on whichever D-Day area he visited. “I didn’t do enough.” he said.

    And then I think… and if he had done nothing, how many MORE of those crosses might there be?

    And further… oft we don’t KNOW what our effects are – good or bad – and some seeming minor little things might just snowball into something critical later. Did a kind word help someone get by just one more lousy day? And does that mean s/he decided to keep on living? Will a grandchild do something that will save millions? Can’t tell. Maybe it was just one thing in a lousy day. Maybe more. Lesson: Plant seeds Not all will grow. But some might.

  5. Well said and an interesting paradox. Schindler was one of who knows how many who did ‘something’ to save folks during WWII. I’ve always had the feeling that there were more than we never knew about, nor will ever hear about.

    • Oh, yes – probably many more than we would ever hear about. Who did small, unconsidered acts of heroism because it was the right thing to do in the specific circumstance. Even people in Nazi-occupied Europe who had good reason to suspect that a neighbor was hiding or aiding Jews, members of the active Resistance, or escaping Allied POWs. Who looked away and pretended that they saw nothing strange, and kept their mouths shut.
      My mother had a dear friend, an Austrian lady named Eleni who was counted as Jewish because she had a Jewish grandparent – interned by the Nazis as a teenager, the authorities in the concentration camp intake demanded that she give up her fur coat. Eleni protested – she was only fourteen or fifteen or so, it was HER coat and it was cold. And a very ragged elderly Jew from farther east murmured to her – Give them the coat! Eleni surrendered the coat – and only later realized that she could have been gassed or shot for that defiance. She always later considered that the ragged elderly Jew was an angel in disguise, because he saved her life, in a moment of terrible danger.

  6. Sins of commission versus sins of omission.
    Contending with the former can be hard, but succeeding is conceivably possible.
    But with respect to the latter, even when we’re actively trying to do right, we miss all sorts of things. Some, we realize and regret. Others, we’re horrified about when someone later rubs them in our faces as something we *should* have done, but didn’t even notice.

  7. While I was still working and in the City, I was often struck by friends and colleagues who would see the homeless beggars in our very wealthy work-neighborhood and express sympathy in comments to me. Yet these sympathetic ones would rarely, if ever, slip the poor guy a twenty or even a fiver. Their “faith” was in the “system” of social support provided by government. Not much “faith” at all by my lights. If he feels right to you, feed the poor guy.

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