Remembering the Holocaust
30 January 2022
"They are upset by the notion that God is not exclusive. God is not the God of our clan, tribe, nation but a God whose love is capable of surprising anyone and everyone."
Once again we read of Jesus putting the cat among the pigeons (Luke 4:21-30).
The Gospel tells us of his growing reputation for healing and teaching in his home region of Galilee. He has been in a town called Capernaum, not too far from Nazareth. On one Sabbath Day, he returns to his home synagogue. People are impressed by the local boy.
They want to claim him as their own.
Show us what you are made of!
And we will be very proud of you.
But Jesus reacts rather strangely to this.
Rather than accept the adulation, he tells them that he doesn’t want to be Nazareth’s poster boy. Instead, he says they will reject him.
‘Truly I tell you, no prophet is accepted in his hometown.’
He then needles them.
He reminds them of two stories of the prophets Elijah and Elisha –
Israel was living through a great famine which lasted three and a half years. People were starving and the widows of Israel were suffering. But the prophet Elijah overlooked them and went outside of Israel to Sidon providing a widow and her son with food, which lasted until the famine was over.
Jesus is telling his home crowd that they have no special claim on God’s generosity.
He also reminded them of the story of Elisha who healed an Aramean army commander, Naaman of leprosy. There were plenty of sufferers in Israel, but Elisha chose to heal the foreigner.
God’s graciousness stretches way beyond the boundaries of our parochial imaginations.
God’s compassion, God’s healing is not restricted to any one group.
This provokes a strong reaction.
They are upset by the notion that God is not exclusive. God is not the God of our clan, tribe, nation but a God whose love is capable of surprising anyone and everyone. God cares even for those who do not know, understand, or accept the God of Israel, or the church (for it is the same God). Regardless of culture, intellectual disposition or understanding of who they are – God is at work.
We believers have a bad habit of being jealous of the idea that God might love other people beside ourselves.
The Nazareth villagers become angry at their home-grown prophet Jesus because he was willing to value the stranger above his own. He preaches a loyalty to the outsider, the foreigner, and the excluded before the people he has known since he was knee high to a grasshopper.
In their anger, they turn on Jesus. They reject him. They push him out of the synagogue. They contemplate murder.
But, says the Gospel, he passed through the midst of them and went on his way.
Listen to the subtlety of that verse.
He passes through the midst.
We can only imagine what it was in the person and demeanour of Jesus which quietened the crowd.
We probably can never know what the power of Jesus was, which allowed him to be free of this blood thirsty mob.
But he went on his way – His Way!
– the non-violent Way in place of the violent.
This week we have commemorated Holocaust Memorial Day. We held an event last Wednesday which was a thoughtful and engaging evening. On Thursday, the day itself, I represented you at Islington’s own commemoration.
It is an important commemoration.
The era of Nazi domination saw the deaths of six million Jews, along with Roma, Gay men, Communists, Trade Unionists, Christians of the Confessing Church, who opposed the regime, together with people with disabilities and those who were regarded as ‘habitual criminals’ or ‘asocial’.
It was the Nazareth solution. Throw the unacceptable voices over the cliff.
It is too simplistic to say that genocide was a tragic aberration of the twentieth century or something peculiar to the German nation at a particular time of their history.
Since the end of the Second World War, Europe again saw genocide in Bosnia. The horrific events in Rwanda (Africa’s most Christian nation), Darfur and Cambodia remind us that humanity has still not learnt its lesson.
And throughout history we learn of many acts of genocide. Perhaps the most horrific was the extermination of the Indigenous peoples of the Americas and Australia, and the terrors of the Atlantic slave trade. But we should not forget the Armenian genocide, the Greek and Assyrian genocide of Christians in the Ottoman Empire, the genocide of the Herero people in what was then Southwest Africa.
We need to say that this horrific mode of human behaviour occurs and has reoccurred throughout history.
Our remembering is motivated by compassion for those affected and traumatised. We pray for those who carry the memory of trauma throughout their lives.
Trauma is carried forward from one generation to the next. The anger and the bitterness which arises from mistreatment of one group by another becomes ingrained in the cultural memory of a people.
By remembering the victims, we restore their humanity. The humanity which their persecutors so cruelly sought to erase. Each person killed was a person with a family, friends, and a future cut short. It is important that they are not forgotten. They exist in humanity’s collective memory.
The German Jewish philosopher, Hannah Arendt, attended the trial of Adolf Eichmann, a key Nazi perpetrator of the so-called ‘final solution’.
She coined the phrase the ‘banality of evil’.
The banal is the boring, everyday stuff. It refers to the things we do without thinking. The norms, stereotypes, customs, traditions, that we take for granted and don’t question.
In the Nazareth synagogue, it was unthinkable that Elijah and Elisha or their God could belong to anyone except them.
Just as the perpetrators of these horrific events didn’t think beyond what they knew, the assumptions about the other which they had imbibed since childhood. It was unthinkable that their victims had equal value as human beings.
Any human society is potentially dangerous when it limits the horizon of concern to itself to the exclusion of others.
It is too easy to accept the conditioning which defines ‘us’ as the possessors of land and rights against ‘them’ who threaten our prosperity and existence.
It is vital, if we are going to jump off the merry-go-round of violent histories, that we changing our thinking.
We must say that the people we have been conditioned to hold in suspicion might be a potential friend.
We have to acknowledge that our leaders might be wrong and even doing evil in our name and should be challenged.
The questions for Christians is how we can leave the mob and follow Jesus on his Way.
We can play a vital role in fighting hatred by thinking. By asking questions.
Why are we destroying our planet?
Why does our society turn a blind eye to the deportation, detention and destitution of those who need safety and sanctuary from war, poverty and environmental degradation?
Why do we have a government which not only breaks its own rules, but is putting in place the machinery to undermine democracy and the right to protest against corrupt and oppressive governments?
Back in the synagogue of Nazareth, a prophet, embarking on a new and challenging ministry, says that the foreigner matters as much if not more than the local person. The great national heroes shared their knowledge and intimacy with the tribal God with those who considered to be beyond the pale.
Their unthinking response, whether from fear or ignorance, was to cast out – to set aside – to blot out – to kill.
Jesus gave a thoughtful gaze, to pass through the thoughtless mob and goes on his Way.
If we are genuine in our recollection of the brutality of which humanity is capable, we need the mind-set that transcends the banality, the everyday of racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia.
In truth, some of us here have more cause to fear a shift toward authoritarianism than others. But all of us have the ability to think differently.
We live in a world where mass murder is thinkable yet equality is a challenge – what we imagine to be unthinkable atrocities actually happen and a world of equality seems to be beyond our reach.
St Francis said - ‘Where there is charity and wisdom, there is neither fear nor ignorance.’
The Way of Jesus is the Way of charity and wisdom. Charity is our love and concern for our neighbour whoever that may be. Charity is our reaching out to those who are thought of as ‘other’.
All of us can join Jesus by going on his Way!
Wisdom is walking in the Way of Jesus – his way of non-violence – his willingness to carry the burden of the scapegoated. His Way was to sacrifice himself to be with the violated, the abused, the neglected, the angry, the victimised.
St Paul tells us like it is.
He says – ‘strive for the greater gifts. And I will show you a more excellent way’ (1 Corinthians 12.31- 13:1-13).
This is the way of love.
Christians preach, prophecy, pray, worship, study. We give to others. We take risks.
But the undergirding of everything is the way of love – the patient, kind, love which is not envious, or boastful, or arrogant or rude. The love which pours from an openness of mind, heart and will.
The love that rejoices in the truth.
The love that asks – what is happening – why is it happening?
Paul is right. We need faith in this world. The faith which thinks an thinkable future of equality and prosperity for all.
We need hope in this world. The hope which defies the hopelessness of our politics and human shortcomings.
We need love in this world – a love which overrides all the hatred which humanity produces.
For the Way of Jesus is the Way of love.
Let us too pass through our hateful clamours of our day,
and follow Jesus on the Way.