Archives for posts with tag: Holocaust

Sermon for Evensong on the 3rd Sunday after the Epiphany, 27th January 2019

Psalm 33; Numbers 9:17-24; 1 Corinthians 7:17-24 – Holocaust Memorial Day 2019

When I went to the Holy Land a few years ago, on the Clandon parish pilgrimage led by Revd Barry Preece, we had an optional visit to the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial museum. It came as a complete change of mood from the rest of the trip. Every day we had visited sites from the Bible, in Bethlehem or in Galilee or in Jerusalem, following in the footsteps of Jesus, and every day we worshipped together in these fabled places, which before we had only imagined, perhaps helped by some pictures in books or in museums which we had been to, but now where we actually were in the places where Jesus had been.

Now we really were in the Garden of Gethsemane, or out in the Sea of Galilee, imagining St Peter and the disciples not catching any fish. Generally, it was a happy, upbeat time. We met for supper and told each other stories over nice suppers and drinkable wines. Some of the Lebanese wines were really memorable … We didn’t actually go to a party at Cana in Galilee, but we got the flavour of it.

At the same time, we could see that there was a difference between the Israeli and Palestinian districts. We could see the awfully ugly and massive wall, dividing the two. We came across the ‘settlements’, which we had read about, where Israeli ‘settlers’ had established themselves, in contravention of United Nations resolutions. But despite the rather temporary-sounding name, ‘settlements’, they weren’t some sort of temporary camp; think instead of something like Milton Keynes. Milton Keynes on the top of a hill, in one instance [Wadi Fuqeen], pouring its sewage down into the valley below, where the Palestinians, whose land had been taken, still eked out a meagre existence.

There was a ‘night tour’ by coach around Israeli Jerusalem. No more dusty Middle Eastern roads, teeming with scruffy lorries and minivans, that you get in the Palestinian part of Jerusalem. No, here it was broad highways, sprinklers, green grass verges. Almost nobody walking, but rather most people driving. A beautiful hotel, the ‘American Colony’ – that is really its name. We didn’t go in, but I could tell that it would be nice to stay there.

On the way down to Masada in the desert, to see Herod’s amazing mountain-top palace, we went through a check-point between Israel and Palestine. It took our 40-seater coach a couple of minutes to be waved through. The queue of weary-looking Palestinians waiting to cross the border – some of them to their own land, which had been arbitrarily divided by the Israeli wall – were, we were told, often delayed for more than an hour, for no reason.

And then some of us went to the Holocaust museum, Yad Vashem. I remember remarkably mundane exhibits; freight trains whose cargo was people; endless paperwork, detailing everything about that ‘cargo’; personal effects, the stuff ordinary people had with them. But truly I felt a kind of internal contradiction. The exhibits were fine, so far as they went. But the point was, that the banality of this industrialised slaughter was overwhelming. Very few of the things we saw in the museum were, in themselves, weapons or instruments of torture. But nevertheless, this was killing on an unforeseeable and awful scale. It was too much to take in properly, but it looked mundane and normal. Nothing could justify the awfulness of the Nazi persecution in the Second World War, nothing could justify that genocide.

I’ve just finished reading a really good and enlightening book by Philippe Sands, the well-known QC who specialises in the defence of human rights, called ‘East West Street’. That street is in the city called Lvov, or Lviv, or Lemburg – a city now in Ukraine, which has been in Austria and Poland also at various times, where two of the greatest academic lawyers of the modern era were born: Sir Hersch Lauterpacht, who invented the legal concept of crimes against humanity, and Professor Raphael Lemkin, who invented the word – and the concept – of ‘genocide’. Both were Jewish. Both lost many of their families in the Holocaust. Philippe Sands’ grandfather also came from there.

‘Genocide’ was defined by Prof. Lemkin as acts ‘directed against individuals, not in their individual capacity, but as members of national groups’. [See http://www.preventgenocide.org/lemkin/AxisRule1944-1.htm] The Nazis killed people not because of who they were or what they had done, but because of what they were. To be a Jew was to attract a death sentence. The term ‘genocide’ was first used, at Prof. Lemkin’s suggestion, in the charges brought in the great Nuremberg trial of the Nazi leaders in 1944. Prof. Lemkin had coined the word from the Greek root γενος, a tribe, and the Latin cido, I kill.

When I went round the Yad Vashem museum, I felt strangely detached. On the one hand, I felt the mundane, industrial horror of the concentration camps. Holocaust Memorial Day is on January 27th because that is the day when Auschwitz was liberated. On the other hand, the fact that surely no-one, now, would seriously think of doing anything as awful as the Nazis did.

Except that they have done. There have been other instances of genocide since WW2. The massacres in Cambodia, Rwanda and Bosnia, for instance. What causes it?

No clues in the lesson from the Book of Numbers. Rather recondite stuff about when the Israelites, in exile but having come out of captivity in Egypt, would move forward when the ‘tabernacle’, the tent covering the Ark of the Covenant, the very ornamental box containing the Ten Commandments on two stone tablets, was covered and uncovered by clouds. This is part of the Torah, the law, the story, of Moses, and of the people of Israel, God’s chosen people: fine; but why would anyone hate those people?

And in the other lesson from St Paul, the emphasis is on the inclusiveness of Christianity. Come as you are. You don’t have to attain any status first. You can be a slave and still be a good Christian. You can, certainly, be Jewish. Being a Christian doesn’t mean you can’t be Jewish too. We might wonder why St Paul didn’t object to the existence of slavery, but certainly there is no suggestion that some people are less deserving of salvation than others. Indeed St Paul uses the mechanisms of slavery to illustrate how Jesus can set people free, literally.

But despite these innocent Bible passages, we know that anti-Jewish feeling is a very old thing. The Jews, as a race, have been blamed for killing Jesus. They have been called ‘god-killers’. Martin Luther was very antisemitic, blaming the Jews for failing to recognise Jesus as the Messiah. He was out of line with most of the other Reformers in this. After all, the story of Paul’s conversion and acceptance by the early Christians, even though he had been persecuting them – and Jesus’ own words from the cross, ‘Forgive them, they know not what they do’, and so on, go against any blanket condemnation of the Jews.

It is still an issue. In this country the Labour Party has been condemned for being antisemitic, although I think that I would make a distinction between being opposed to some of the actions of the modern state of Israel, such as the expropriation of Palestinian land and building ‘settlements’ in contravention of United Nations resolutions, being opposed to that on the one hand, which seems to me to be legitimate, and being anti-Jewish in general. That distinction recalls Raphael Lemkin’s definition of genocide, in that people who are antisemitic are against people because of what they are, rather than because of what they do.

St Paul’s message of acceptance, of inclusion, is still very relevant. In some places when I was a boy, there were adverts which specified ‘no blacks and no Jews’ could apply. It surely couldn’t happen nowadays. But there has recently been the EMPIRE WINDRUSH scandal, where our own government, Mrs May herself, the Prime Minister in her previous post, forcibly sent elderly black people to places in the Caribbean which they had left when they were children, left at our invitation, in order to come and work here. That recent scandal again shows people judging others by what they are – in that case, black people who have come from other countries – rather than by who they are or what they do.

The banal routines, the orderliness, of the Holocaust are still a danger, I fear. Very few people would just go and shoot someone: but what if you are a soldier and you are ordered to do it? Of course that was at the heart of the Nuremberg trials. The railway employees who drove the trains, who manned the signal boxes, who repaired the main lines, wouldn’t normally be looked on as authors of genocide. But without their work, the poor Jews would not have been put in the concentration camps so efficiently and in such vast numbers. There were lots of innocent routines and ordinary jobs, which nevertheless made genocide possible.

The other great lawyer whom Philippe Sands celebrates in his book is Sir Hersch Lauterpacht, whose son was Sands’ tutor at university. Lauterpacht developed the other great concept which was first used in the Nuremberg trials, the concept of crimes against humanity. The United Nations Universal Declaration on Human Rights grew out of Lauterpacht’s work, and was, by contrast with Lemkin’s work, concerned not with crimes against whole peoples, but with crimes against individuals. What was the true nature of the evil contained in the Holocaust? When the victorious allies were preparing to try the Nazi leaders, what was the essence of their crimes? It was an assault on people as individuals, on who they were, as much as on what they were.

These are still vital ideas. Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, his great command to us to love our neighbours as ourselves, and St Paul’s message all through his letters that it doesn’t matter what our origins are if we are to become Christians – these are so relevant today. When we hear people saying things against people because of what they are – foreigners, migrants, black people, say – and when we hear people saying that it’s just too bad (but there’s nothing which can be done about it) that many people don’t have enough to eat, or can’t afford medicines – those are the sorts of ideas which in the past have resulted in genocide.

Archbishop John Sentamu is starting to raise money for a bishop, Bishop Hannington Mutebi in Kampala, Uganda, who needs cancer treatment – which costs £155,000. What do we feel about that? We hope he gets the money, and the treatment. What if you weren’t a bishop but still had cancer in Uganda? You are still entitled to be treated, because you are human. You have human rights. Perhaps it has taken the history of the Holocaust to bring it home to us how vital those rights are.

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Sermon for Evensong on Whit Sunday 2015 at St Mary the Virgin, Stoke D’Abernon
[Ezekiel 36:22-28], Acts 2:22-38 – This man, handed over to you according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified ..

I find the book of the Acts of the Apostles, which is really St Luke’s Gospel Part 2, really interesting. Really interesting, because it gives us an insight into what the early church, the first Christians, did, when the story of Jesus was still pretty fresh in their minds. Today we see that they were confronted by things which have produced consequences, not necessarily good consequences, ever since.

This morning we had the story of the Holy Spirit coming to the believers gathered in Jerusalem for the Jewish Feast of the First Fruits, Harvest Festival (see Exodus 23:16). There were about 120 of them gathered together (Acts 1:15), and they were among a crowd of Jews, Jews from that splendid catalogue of places we can’t now really place: where were the Medes and the Parthians from, in today’s world? Anyway, the important thing is, that they were all Jewish.

St Peter preached the first Christian sermon to this multinational group – this group which was multinational, but not multi-ethnic. He told them the story of Jesus, saying how the great Jewish king David had foretold the Messiah’s greatness (in Psalm 16): ‘thou shalt not leave my soul in hell: neither shalt thou suffer thy Holy One to see corruption.’ (Psalm 16:11, BCP)

Peter pointed out that David was mortal; what David said about not suffering his Holy One to see corruption was not about himself, about David, but was a prophecy about the Messiah to come in future, that the Messiah would not be ‘abandoned to Hades’ (Acts 2:31, NRSV).

Jesus had died and been resurrected, had come back to life. It was he, Jesus, that fitted the description of the Messiah, the chosen one of God. Peter quoted Psalm 110, Dixit dominus domino meo, The Lord said unto my Lord: Sit thou on my right hand, until I make thine enemies thy footstool.’ You might remember ‘Dixit Dominus’ set to music by Handel.

Peter concluded, ‘Therefore let all the house of Israel know assuredly, that God hath made that same Jesus, whom ye have crucified, both Lord and Christ.’

‘That Jesus, whom ye have crucified.’ Possibly those words have been some of the most troublesome ever uttered. It said that the Jews were God-killers. That was certainly the way that the early Church fathers, such as Origen and Irenaeus, went on to see things. The original promise to Abraham and the renewal of Israel promised to Ezekiel in our first lesson, ‘[Then] you shall live in the land that I gave to your ancestors; and you shall be my people, and I will be your God’, the early Church fathers thought that promise had been replaced, replaced by the anointing of the Messiah, Jesus.

That interpretation caused untold misery for the Jews. Christianity was set against Judaism. For centuries, it wasn’t the Muslims who persecuted Jews, but Christians. I have read that even some of the defendants at the Nuremberg trials relied on the theory that Jews were God-killers, in order to justify the Holocaust. The idea had come down in German theology, it’s surprising to learn, through Martin Luther.

But it does seem very unfair. Indeed, it illustrates how careful we must be when we read the Bible, not to take things out of context. As you will remember from the lesson just now, what Peter said in full was, ‘When he [Jesus] had been given up to you, by the deliberate will and plan of God, you used heathen men to crucify and kill him’ (Acts 2:23, NEB).

I will come back, to dissect the various strands in it; but first we should recognise that, at the end of the passage in Acts, (verses 37-41), the Jews listening to Peter were ‘cut to the heart’, and asked what they should do. Peter said, ‘Repent, … repent and be baptised, every one of you, in the name of Jesus the Messiah for the forgiveness of your sins; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.’ And then note this; he went on, ‘For the promise is to you, and to your children, and to all who are far away, everyone whom the Lord our God may call.’

There’s actually no suggestion that the Jews have been replaced as the chosen people of God. And we read that three thousand were baptised that day – a huge number.

Of course, St Paul became the apostle to the non-Jews, to the Gentiles – which is us. ‘The Lord our God’, that St Peter spoke about, is the same God, whether we are Jewish or Gentile – or indeed Moslems.

If we go back to what St Peter said, ‘when he had been given up to you, by the deliberate will and plan of God’, you killed him. Could one say that the Jews were not responsible, except insofar as they carried out God’s plan? Ironically, if so, it would be the same defence that was used by the guards in Auschwitz, ‘We were only following orders.’

No. I don’t think that the Greek text works that way. Literally, it says, ‘this one, handed over [or betrayed] in accordance with God’s definite will and foreknowledge, by the hand of lawless men you killed, crucifying him.’ That he was handed over – a word which can mean ‘betrayed’ (εκδοτον) – was foreseen and willed by God. But you, using ‘the hand of lawless men (meaning outside the Jewish law, as the Romans were), killed him.’ There is no doubt that Peter did hold his fellow-Jews to blame.

But equally, the great thing about the Christian gospel is that they were not condemned eternally. Even for such a terrible crime, for having killed the Son of God, if they repented and were baptised – baptised as a symbol of washing away their sin – they would be forgiven, and the Holy Spirit would come to them.

And yet: and yet, I must confess that I thought about the ‘blood libel’, so-called, against the Jews, when I visited the Holy Land a couple of years ago, and saw the awful wall which the Israelis have put up, sometimes separating Palestinians from the fields which they farm, and when I saw the substantial Western-style suburbs which they have built illegally on Palestinian land – not so much pioneer ‘settlements’ but rather, proper towns like Milton Keynes – and when I read about and saw on the TV what the Israelis did in Gaza – for every Israeli soldier killed, they killed at least 10 Palestinian civilians, including women and children. Are the people who did these things, these dreadful people, really God’s chosen people?

It leads me to think two things. First, that we should hate the sin, and try to love the sinner. What the Israelis have done, and continue to do, is wrong, and hateful. They put forward excuses or explanations, but they are not justified. They are, I believe, guilty of brutality, racist oppression and invasion. But face to face, I have never met a nasty Jewish person. They really do conform with God’s promise to Ezekiel, ‘I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will take the heart of stone from your body and give you a heart of flesh’ (Ezekiel 36:26). So we must follow St Peter, and recognise that even the worst sins can be forgiven. We must not oppose the Jews because they are Jews, but only oppose the harm they do in Palestine.

The second thing which occurs to me, is that we don’t really understand what it is to be ‘chosen’ by God. I have a feeling that the God of the Old Testament was rather more akin to the old Greek idea of God – essentially, a superman living above the clouds, so the ‘superman God’ could have human favourites, which is all rather different from the more spiritual, transcendent God that we think of today. What does it mean, today, to ‘sit at the right hand of God in heaven’?

That’s a question for another sermon, another day. But just think: this huge question came up for the first time in the first few weeks of the church. What a momentous time it was. And we still need to try to understand it, even 2,000 years later. Let us pray that the Holy Spirit will come to us and help us as it did those earliest Christians. ‘Repent, …. so that your sins may be forgiven.’ Think what it meant then, and what it could mean today.