‘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.   

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