‘This is not who we are’ – a reflection for Holocaust Memorial Day

Reflection for Holocaust Memorial Day, delivered as part of online worship for students and staff of The Queen’s Foundation. Text: Luke 6.12-16.

Content note: includes references to genocide, anti-Semitism, white supremacist violence, and sexual abuse.

Today we mark Holocaust Memorial Day.

All of us, I imagine, will have read or heard the harrowing testimonies of holocaust survivors, or seen the shocking photos which emerged from the camps.

Most of us here at Queens, through the Jewish Christian Relations course, if not before, will be well aware of the role Christian theology played in creating the conditions in which the holocaust was possible, well aware of the complicity of Christian doctrine – and the church – in anti-Semitism and genocide.

So what do we do with that knowledge?

We could say: “never again.” As, indeed, we just have, as we do after every fresh atrocity, after every unveiling of the church’s role in racism, anti-Semitism, all the things that seek to separate neighbour from neighbour – we say it again, and again, and again. It seems to me that “never again” is not enough.

We could say: “this is not who we are.” And that is tempting. We saw a lot of that in the wake of the recent riots in the US, in response to the co-option of Christian symbols to the cause of white supremacy. I’m sure many of you, like me, were horrified to see banners saying ‘Jesus saves’ being wielded by people wearing t-shirts with slogans which glorify the holocaust. Of course we want nothing to do with that. But I think “this is not who we are” lets us, the church, off the hook too easily.

We could say: “that could never happen here.” That’s a very common response to the ongoing uncovering of abuse within the church. We all want to think our church is not like that, we are not like that. But that betrays a dangerous level of naiveté.

Never again. This is not who we are. That could never happen here.

These are inadequate responses to the horrors of the holocaust, to the horrors of racism and white supremacy, to the horrors of abuse in the church. And they are inadequate because they refuse to acknowledge the realities of evil, and of our own complicity.

Which brings us, in a round about way, to our bible reading today. Jesus calls the twelve. And right there among them, slipped into the list of names, we find “Judas Iscariot, who became a traitor.” Judas Iscariot, chosen by Jesus, part of his inner circle, right from the start.

There has never been a time when the church could claim that betrayal, violence, all manner of evil, was outside of us. There has never been a time when we could honestly say: “this is not who we are”.

At baptism, in many denominations, candidates are asked “will you resist evil?” It’s a huge question, which lies at the heart of the Christian life. And I think we can only honestly answer ‘yes’ if we are prepared to acknowledge the reality of evil, not least in ourselves and in the church.

That is not easy to do, but it is essential. As the great feminist thinker Gloria Steinem says: “the truth will set you free… but first it will piss you off”. Resisting evil is hard. Resisting evil is rarely heroic and never uncomplicated. It requires the continual hard work of self-examination, repentance and ongoing conversion of life. It requires us to admit our complicity in systems which oppress and harm our neighbours, to acknowledge our participation in theological and structural sin.

The holocaust presents us with the starkest reminder of the extent of where that sin can lead us. It should call us to commit ourselves afresh to resistance and repentance, to confession and self-examination. This is hard work. We cannot do it in our own strength. But it is necessary work. And in Jesus, who calls us, who calls even those who will betray him, we find the unending, overwhelming, incomprehensible grace we need to take the next step, and the next, and the next.   

#AdventBookClub day 5 – week 7 – ‘The first King’

We come to the end of our #AdventBookClub journey with R.S. Thomas, with these words:

"wisdom must come on foot."

And I wonder… I wonder what sort of wisdom this is, that comes on foot? I wonder what I need to do (or not do) to slow down enough to encounter this pedestrian wisdom? I wonder what are the things I am chasing after that look like wisdom, but are not? I wonder how to shape a life open to the kind of wisdom that comes quietly, gently, unpretentiously?

And so – slowly, gently, with care and attentiveness, striving to be open to the quiet wisdom of the ordinary and the wild expanses of God – the journey goes on…

This year for #AdventBookClub we are reading “Frequencies of God: walking through Advent with R.S. Thomas” by Carys Walsh. Join the conversation on Twitter using #AdventBookClub or on Facebook by searching for the group ‘Advent Book Club’.

#AdventBookClub week 5 – day 6 – ‘That there…’

I wonder what sort of landscape you are transported to by R.S.Thomas’ image of :

       a landscape
that will through all time
resist our endeavours
at domestication.

My mind goes to the moors my cousins and I played on as children – with huge and strange rock formations which we pretended were animals or castles or pirate ships, or whatever our game required – vast untamed space where we too could be untamed. Or the sea on a wild and windy day, crashing over whatever sea walls or flood barriers we humans have erected in a vain attempt to contain or control it. Or the sheer enormity of a view so vast our eyes and minds struggle to take it in, and a photo can never to justice to the immense space.

But all the wild landscapes of our experience or imagination are only a metaphor in Thomas’ writing for the untamed vastness of God. Lurking beneath the surface of our world, beneath all our illusions or order and control, is another reality: the all-encompassing, untamable wildness/wilderness of God. For me, this has echoes of what a very different theologian, Mary Daly, refers to as the Background, which she defines as:

"the Realm of Wild Reality: the Homeland of women's Selves and of all other Others; the Time/Space where auras of plants, planets, stars animals, and all Other animate beings connect"

I wonder whether Thomas would recognise in that definition something of the untamed reality of the kingdom of God, which he tries to capture (if ‘capture’ can possibly be the right word for conveying the very wildness of it) in this poem, and in so much of his writing?

This year for #AdventBookClub we are reading “Frequencies of God: walking through Advent with R.S. Thomas” by Carys Walsh. Join the conversation on Twitter using #AdventBookClub or on Facebook by searching for the group ‘Advent Book Club’.