So the people are in the wilderness. They have arrived at Sinai and Moses has ascended the mountain. But he is a long time coming down again. The people grow impatient and thy look elsewhere for help. Aaron directs the men to get their wives and children to hand over their gold (note not the men!) and he creates for them a golden calf. He then declares that these are the gods that brought them out of slavery in Egypt. The people then lose all moral compass because the writer tells us that they sat down, ate and drank, and rose up to revel. The commentators tell us that the original term indicates that it was somewhat bacchanalian – a wild, wine-soaked rowdy affair often becoming something of an orgy.

These first six verses of the chapter have much to teach us!

It was Voltaire who said that if God did not exist it would be necessary to invent him. This is what the people are doing at Sinai. In the perceived absence of the LORD they make their own gods. And in the absence of their trusted leader they seek the guidance of another – it is a misplaced trust. For the leader then offers the people fake news. He rewrites history. According to Aaron it wasn’t the LORD who had led the people out of slavery but the gods symbolised by the golden calf.

Interesting that he pluralises the term – gods – not God. In other words the people have abandoned their monotheism and re-embraced polytheism. Despite all the examples of the LORD’s supreme power they had not let go of their past superstitions. How quickly they reverted when the going got tough and the opportunities arose.

And it all ends in a bit of a mess.

It doesn’t take a great exegete to ask who our golden calves are today.

From the humorous poster I once saw in Manchester Piccadilly Railway Station:

Welcome to Manchester. While here visit the temples of worship: Pictures of a church, Old Trafford football ground and a Boddington’s pub.

To more serious examples:

  • the trust placed in social media, where opinions are valued more than the facts presented by experts,
  • or the admiration some have for ‘here- today- gone-tomorrow’ celebrities,
  • or indeed simplistic political ideologies.

We have created golden calves.

In addition, like the people at Sinai in difficult circumstances, many are prone to forget the lessons of the past and how it was that those before us extricated themselves out of previous crises.

I am currently reviewing Tony Bayfield’s latest book and am finding it fascinating. It is clearly his legacy, his definitive account of his accumulated insight and understanding of his faith after more than half a century as a rabbi and teacher. Every now and then there is a sentence or two, often in the form of a question, printed in bold. At first I thought it was the editor’s comments as I had only a pre-publication copy. But it wasn’t the editor’s comments. It was the voice of God: Questioning. Probing. Cajoling. Admonishing. Quirky but fascinating.

We are often unable to detect the voice of God in the clamour about us. We often miss God’s presence in the narrowing down of focus during difficult times. But I suggest that it is precisely then that God can be detected most clearly for the open and receptive, the willing and faithful.

  • The pricking of conscience
  • The gentle and sometimes not so gentle nudging
  • The awareness of consequences
  • These and other occasions re-alert us to G in our lives and W.

Tony Bayfield’s book doesn’t have a very good title in my opinion, Being Jewish Today, will limit the readership. Had I been asked I might have suggested another, or at least a sub-title – The God who won’t leave us alone.

You see the people may have been in the wilderness and bereft at the foot of the mountain, they may have sought help from those who would do much harm, they may have even had a good time in wine, dance and sex, but it was all short-lived.

Moses descends the mountain and the people are ashamed. So much so that Aaron displays his inadequacies as a leader: he firstly blames the people for his own initiative, ‘they told me to do it, I was only doing what they asked me to do it’ and then goes on to make one of the weakest excuses in the whole of scripture: he claims that he merely took the gold, threw it into the fire and out came the calf, hey presto! Not exactly what was recorded earlier?

Let’s go back to Voltaire. He said that if God did not exist it would be necessary to invent him. All too many think negatively of this quote. They see within it an Enlightenment philosopher who might be disposing of God. But nothing could be further from the truth – it was act not meant to be anything other than a retort to atheists.

The full quote goes:

If the heavens, stripped of his noble imprint,
Could ever cease to attest to his being,
If God did not exist, it would be necessary to invent him.
Let the wise man announce him and kings fear him.
Kings, if you oppress me, if your eminencies disdain
The tears of the innocent that you cause to flow,
My avenger is in the heavens: learn to tremble.
Such, at least, is the fruit of a useful creed.

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Luke 14.1-6

10 September 2019

These six verses from Luke’s account of the Gospel tell us a lot about issues in the early church community, perhaps 40 years after the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. In fact I would go so far as to say that these verses tell us more about that early church community than they do the context and contemporaries of Jesus.

I have absolutely no doubt in my mind that Jesus ate with Pharisees, after all the Pharisees and Jesus had more in common than our prejudice against the Pharisees allow us to believe. Nor do I doubt that discussions would have often taken place between Jesus and the Pharisees on the Law and interpretations of it. But by the time the compiler came to present the account of the Gospel we know as Luke, relationships between the early Church and Pharisaic communities had broken down.  Sometime before the Gospel account was written down the Temple had fallen, in 70 CE, and only these two Jewish groups thereafter remained viable; as a consequence the early church and the Pharisaic communities became rivals and competed for the hearts and minds of the people. Hence the somewhat accentuated hostility recorded in these later Gospel accounts.

Therefore this hostility we read of, in both Luke and Matthew especially, are more a reflection of that post-Temple period than those few years of Jesus’ ministry decades before.  For example, the debate over healing on the Sabbath, in this and other passages, was less of an issue at the time of Jesus than the Gospel accounts would have us believe. The sanctity of life and care for the sick have always been central to Jewish law and practise. And from the 2nd century before Christ it became pragmatic for Jews to heal on the Sabbath even though it was prohibited by Torah Law.  This was because 1000 Jews had been massacred having refused to take up arms to defend themselves when they came under attack from Macedonians on the Sabbath. Keeping the Sabbath Law was more important than defending the city. Thereafter it was agreed that there should be greater flexibility in the interpretation and observance.

Now I know this is a challenge to the preconceptions of many Christians, likewise the fact that much of the teaching on the Sabbath that has been attributed to Jesus is actually part of the debate between Rabbis Eleazar and Akiva, however what is important is not who said what, when and where, but the fact that healing is an integral part of our being: the desire to make whole, to restore and to save.  This is our Judeo-Christian heritage and it is our calling today: to make whole, to restore and save souls, heal hearts, bodies and minds.

The Psalmists and Prophets believed that God healed the broken hearted and bound their wounds. The followers of Jesus came to believe that Jesus was anointed to do the same and that his Spirit enabled them to continue such a ministry. That which had been the work of God is now the ministry of believers.

A stupefying fear is gripping our nation. So stunned are we that many of us are unable to express our concerns let alone formulate some kind of action. We know that things are not okay and yet we are so overwhelmed by the relentless rhetoric of our politicians that it is as if we have become perturbed and paralyzed in equal measure.

The seemingly unstoppable downward spiral of dishonesty in British politics is becoming so normalized that those who dare question a blatant lie with an appeal to the facts are somehow seen to be missing the point. There is little care about consequences anymore, this is now an age of impunity. Even the Prime Minister is threatening to ignore an Act of Parliament and by doing so a substantial section of the electorate, maybe even the majority, applaud him; this could be seen to be the promotion of anarchy, it is certainly an unhelpful and unhealthy precedent for our nation. It seems that the old rules that held us together for so long are now falling apart. Our constitution may not be without fault but thus far has been sufficient to restrain the demagogue and promote the nation’s interests. Let us be clear: a demagogue is one who seeks to appeal to the prejudices of the people rather than draw on rational argument. Tyranny has so often followed a time when little regard is shown for authority.

And where is the Church in all of this? I can’t help but consider the possibility that future historians will conclude that we were so focussed on making disciples that we overlooked our neighbours’ needs; we were so keen to increase membership and secure a future that too great an emphasis was placed on evangelism than on addressing the societal changes of the last decade. We sought greater attendance and failed to hear the cries of the neglected and hungry. Our voice of righteous protest is muffled because we have been blind to the signs of the times: we overlooked the fact that inequality causes anger and anger mistrust and mistrust populism. If we shout now then the response of our critics may be that it is a case of too little too late. But we know that throughout history the Church has always been at its best when its back was against the wall. So now is the time for us to come out of the corner and fight for the truths that show the lies up for what they are, to express the love that dispels all fears and to bring a halt to the rush to the cliff edge.

Much of the German Church in the 1930s left the politics to the politicians, the same mistake cannot be made again. Learning from this error the Latin American Church resisted the dictatorships, the South African Church stood against the apartheid regime and similarly the British Church must rise to the challenge of today. It is incumbent upon us to not reflect the tolerance so many have to the utterance of lies; it is necessary for us to not be swept along with the tide of intolerance that marks so much of social discourse. There is no shame in listening to those whose views differ markedly to our own. There is nothing wrong in learning something from someone we thought we had no common ground with. There is everything to gain from open hearts and minds. We are far more complete when we come to lay down having done what is right in the sight of God.

Music was my first love

24 August 2019

Karen and I have recently been to the cinema. We went to watch Blinded by the Light. It’s the story of Javed a British-Pakistani Muslim teenager coming of age in 1980s Luton.

The comedy drama is based on the memoirs of journalist and documentary maker Sarfraz Manzoor and is directed by Gurinder Chadha, who was responsible for Bend it Like Beckham. So Blinded by the Light is a sort of ‘Sing it Like Springsteen’.

In the film Bruce Springsteen’s lyrics speak to Javed like nothing else. There is resonance between the working class struggles of Springsteen’s New Jersey and Luton England. There is a deep connection between the composer and the listener when addressing the relationships that so often concern and confuse a young adult making their way in the world.

In my own teenage years, during the 1970s, it was the music of John Lennon, Simon & Garfunkel and even the Sex Pistols that spoke to me. The Troubles in Northern Ireland were at their height, there was the Three Day Week, the Winter of Discontent and the ever-present threat of nuclear war. It was an interesting time to wrestle with adolescence. The lyrics of the songs I listened to in my bedroom helped open my mind to something beyond the immediate; they made me question my existence, and analyse what was going on in my life. Indeed I am quite prepared to say that they played a significant part in my becoming and an ordained Christian minister.

It was the spiritual that sustained slaves in their long torment, and then drawn upon to help liberate them. A century ago music hall songs and brass bands inspired men and boys to volunteer for the trenches; five decades later the civil rights movement and anti-Vietnam war demos were fuelled by their anthems.

Music is a powerful force; couple it with the right lyrics and almost anything is possible: from Gregorian chant lifting the 9th and 10th century Roman Catholic congregations into the heavenly realm or the hip hop of today transporting those on the dance floor to a very different place to the one that is so constraining.

Few can escape the influence of music on our lives. Get into the car and the radio may be tuned to light pop music or relaxing classics. Arrive at the supermarket and the sound system is playing Christmas songs in November.

Music can be the soundtrack of our years.

I often hear a song from the past and am able to associate it with an event in my life: a summer’s day, a particular experience, a journey, a holiday or a person I have known and loved.

Which of us who tuned into the funeral of Diana, Princess of Wales, will ever forget Elton John singing a variation of Candle in the Wind?

To this day Hymns and worship songs remain a strong feature of Christian worship. I believe that the hymns of Charles Wesley have sustained the Methodist people far more effectively than the sermons and theology of his more famous brother John.

Visiting a Muslim country would not be the same without hearing the Adhan, the call to prayer. And you don’t have to be a member of the Jewish community to be moved by the mourners’ Kaddish.

I recall Natasha Kaplinsky on Who Do you Think You Are? travelling to Belarus and to the city of Slonim where members of her family perished during the Holocaust. There she and her cousin Bennie climbed into the abandoned synagogue where their family had once worshipped. Once inside Bennie, a cantor chanted the mourners’ Kaddish. It was probably the first time the crumbling walls had absorbed its soulful tune since the city’s Jewish community was brutally massacred in 1942.

The film that Karen and I went to see was a reminder, as if we needed it, of how music and song can change a person’s life. It can speak more clearly, more loudly, more eloquently than any great philosophical work. It can be of greater assistance in life than a self-help guide. It can be a prayer to the Divine. It can even unite enemies.

Cyril was a member of the Church in which I grew up. During the Second World War he was a guard in a Prisoner of War Camp. On Christmas Eve he and a German soldier sang Silent Night/Stille Nacht, just as their predecessors had done three decades earlier during the famous Christmas Truce.

I end with the words of a song made famous by British rock singer and musician John Miles:

Music was my first love
And it will be my last.
Music of the future
And music of the past.

To live without my music
Would be impossible to do.
In this world of troubles,
My music pulls me through.

 

Songwriters: Breyon Jamar Prescott, Michael C. Flowers
© Universal Music Publishing Group, Kobalt Music Publishing Ltd.

When Boris Johnson is elected leader of the Conservative Party, as looks increasingly likely despite the scandals, racism, misogyny and downright stupidity, the populist revolution will take another significant step towards completion. To have a far right Prime Minister facing a far left Leader of the Opposition at the dispatch box, backed by those who are even further extreme on their respective political spectra, will be an indictment of the state of British politics.

The UK is not only reflecting the populist trends of other nations across Europe and around the world but is part of the leading charge. I would liken this crisis that is fueled by a lack of belief in democracy and lack of trust in informed authority, to that of the collapse of the Weimar Republic. That event of course led to a catastrophe in Germany and the resultant consequences for the rest of Europe. The similarities are just too great in number to ignore. Today again so many are blindly walking towards a dark outcome thinking it to be a new and hope-filled dawn; it is not, as before the nightmare will be real, long and utterly destructive.

This present crisis in trust calls upon honest, caring, compassionate people of all political ideologies and religious faiths to seek one another out and join together in countering this rising tide of populism. Having courage in the face of hostility and being prepared to sacrifice oneself in this just cause is a moral obligation; we shirk such responsibilities at our peril.

 

Assault on London Bus

 

We will all be familiar with how the disciples gathered together in Jerusalem and how the Spirit came down upon them like tongues of Fire. People from all around the known world with different languages were suddenly able to understand one another.

We will probably have been told that there is a correlation between the Day of Pentecost and the Tower of Babel: that Pentecost reverses Babel. The writers of Genesis sought to understand why it was that there were different ethnicities, races and religions in our world. The only way they could make sense of this was to develop a myth of the people who were once one but who sinned and, like the story of Adam and Eve, God casts a spell upon them: they are forced into having different languages so they can no longer understand one another.

For the disciples who wanted to gather the nations around the teaching of Jesus Christ Babel was reversed as the Spirit enabled them to understand each other in each other’s languages.

Now the coming of the Holy Spirit on the day of Pentecost assumes that God has forgiven that sin, he has been reconciled to his people. Please notice not that his people have been reconciled to him but that he has been reconciled to his people. This is because in one version of the atonement one man died on the cross reconciling not only us to God but God to us. This is how we have come to believe that Pentecost reverses Babel.

However the truth of the matter is that the Jewish people believed for a very, very long time, centuries even, that God’s purpose was to bring all people together as one. We only have to read passages from the 8th century prophets to know this. What happened was that the disciples saw in Jesus the one who could do this. And yet for 2000 years the Christian church has divided and put people into different camps. So much for no longer Jew, Gentile, Greek, slave, master, free, male or female. All too many have gone to the stake for using a different phrase in a prayer.

Today we might consider how we can be one without such division and tribalism; to ask ourselves if Pentecost is possible in world where Babel still exists.

If Pentecost was the day different peoples understood the language of others – we need a New Pentecost for the Brexit Babel that has caused hate crime to soar, so that we might better understand one another.

Personally I believe that we are able to communicate without words. I grew up at a time when pop music was almost a religion. Some of us got our spirituality from John Lennon and later the Sex Pistols. One particular track comes to mind when I think about imagery and conveying a message. In the early 70’s I was a big fan of Kojak. I wasn’t into Starsky & Hutch – far too good looking and smooth for my liking! Telly Savalas was the star of Kojak. With his catchphrase ‘Who loves ya baby?’ and lollipops meant that many of us could often be seen at lunch time walking round school with a lollipop stuck in our mouths. And then in 1975 he came out with his hit song ‘If’, a remake of the David Gates track. It began ‘if a picture could paint a thousand words then why can’t I paint you. The words will never show the you I’ve come to know.’

There’s a limit to imagery but also there is nevertheless the possibility of communicating across nations with imagery. A picture does indeed paint a thousand words.

Why is it that Karen and I travelled all the way to Amsterdam to go and see the painting of Rembrandt’s Nightwatchmen? We know that there are some paintings that will never be loaned out to overseas galleries. So if they can’t come to us we have to go to them. Hence the pilgrimage that millions are prepared to make in order to see the greatest paintings artists have ever produced. This is in my view a modern day pilgrimage, it carries with it a similar sense of awe and reverence for so many people that once did a reliquary carried for the medieval Pilgrim. As pilgrims we travel at great cost and make great effort to stand before something that takes us beyond ourselves. When Karen and I went there to the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam the place was absolute crowded around the painting. This was the same when we went to the Louvre to see the Mona Lisa. People from all around the world were gathered, people of different languages, different races and different religions gathered around a single image in deep admiration and awe. It spoke to us, drawing on a universal language. A picture can indeed paint a thousand words.

This past week many, many people have been deeply moved and horrified by another image: two women on the top deck of a London bus, recently spilt blood all over their tops. One is looking as if she’s in pain with her head turned away from the camera. The other stares beyond the lens, her eyes conveying that she is completely dazed by the attack. All that they were doing was sitting on the double-decker bus in London in 2019. Their attackers tormented them; they had urged the two women to kiss for their sadistically voyeuristic sideshow. And when the two women refused to do so they attacked them viciously. This is an image that should change a nation. You don’t need words to convey the horror and righteous anger.

Just as the image of the little Vietnamese girl running naked along the road following a napalm attack steeled the anti-Vietnam war protests, so this should move even the most indifferent to the plights of our sisters, brothers and friends in the LGBTQI community. You don’t need words to convey sorrow.

Sorrow is an international language. So too is love. You don’t need words to convey love just as you don’t need words to convey sorrow. It crosses boundaries. It crosses all sorts of human made barriers. The Methodist Conference in a few weeks’ time is to bring a report on marriage and relationships. It is called God in love unites us.

There is no place in this world for homophobia. So why some in the Church should give fuel to it by false and outdated doctrines that draw on selective texts whilst missing the bigger picture is beyond me. It is time for us to move forward.

It is time for us to embrace all people of every race, every religion, every ethnicity and every sexuality knowing that all are the children of God, loved by God, welcomed by God and if we can’t do the same then we have turned against the goodness of God.

Brexit has unleashed a multitude of hatreds – prejudices once frowned upon are now being normalised, be they xenophobia, antisemitism, islamophobia or homophobia. Hate crime, such as the attack on the innocent two women on a night out in London last week is rising rapidly. If Brexit is our Babel, dividing and disfiguring our nation, then we need a new Pentecost where the universal language of love is spoken and heard by all people.

Telly Savalas was right: a picture could paint a thousand words but remains inadequate because it still couldn’t convey the true love that he had. Love demands action. And after all is said and done actions speak louder than words. ‘I may speak in tongues of men or of angels but if I have not love then I am nothing.’

And a verse to conclude:

‘What language shall I borrow

to praise thee dearest friend

For this thy dying sorrow

Thy pity without end?’

 

Paul Gerhardt 1607 – 76

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A story

14 May 2019

It was early evening in late April. So it was still light. I was walking my dog around the streets near our home. A car ahead of me swung round rather fast at a T-junction. It then drew alongside me and the passenger window was wound down.

The driver was clearly very anxious and holding what looked like a receipt, he leaned across and passed the paper to me and sure enough he was looking for an address to deliver a Chinese takeaway. ‘Please, please help me,’ he said ‘I cannot find!’

The man spoke with an Eastern European accent and he was clearly very agitated. He had been searching for an address which he was not able to find anywhere. Could I help him? I took out my mobile phone and opened up Google Maps. I identified the street and could see that it would be very lenghty directions that I would have to give him: second right, first left, straight on for 100 yards to the T-junction, left again etc. Even if we were able to speak fluently in each other’s language it would have been complicated. I suggested I get in next to him in the passenger seat and I could direct him from there.

Without hesitation the door was opened, the food and the dog were put on the back seat whilst I took up position in the passenger seat: second right, first left, straight on for 100 yards to the T-junction, left again etc into a cul-de-sac. I expected to see Southwold Mews right ahead of me. But it wasn’t there. I looked at the map again it should be right where we were, but it wasn’t. We both jumped out of the car and I knocked on one of the house doors. No one in. I knocked on a second and a third; meanwhile the delivery driver was getting even more agitated, sweat pouring from his forehead.

Eventually a man came to the third door I had called at and said that he’d never heard of Southwold Mews. Then his wife hearing the address came dashing into the hall and said she knew where it was: ‘Go back the way you have come,’ she said ‘third left, second right, at the traffic lights turn left and it’s the second left. It’s actually right behind our house, at the bottom of our garden, but you can only get to it via the main road’.

This would have meant a long journey and even more complicated for my new-found Polish friend. I asked how I could possibly make myself known to the house behind her. She pointed me down a passageway alongside her garden, so I raced down it and I stood stretching to see over the fence shouting ‘Hello! Food delivery!’ Eventually someone came out and asked if he could help me. I said that we had a delivery and was he expecting a takeway. ‘Yes,’ he said, ‘is it a burger?’ Looking at the driver he said that it was a Chinese. ‘Chinese? Ah that’s not for me,’ responded the guy. He was about to go back into his house when I asked if he was number 2? He said, ‘No, it’s next door.’ I suggested that he knock on the door and tell the person to come to the fence. Which he eventually did and the occupant of number 2, the intended recipient of the Chinese takeaway, came and stood at his door, some 30 yards from me, in his pyjamas and bare feet. He looked incredulous when I suggested that he received his Chinese takeaway over the fence. But receive it he did, without a thank you and without any expression of appreciation whatsoever.

The delivery man and I set off again after he had offered me a lift home.

He pulled up just a few yards from my drive and as I got out he picked up a £1 coin from the passenger seat where I been sitting. ‘Is this yours or mine?’ he asked. I said ‘I think it’s mine but you have it because he should have given you a tip.’

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Where was Man in Auschwitz?

Two explanations before we begin.

Firstly by ‘Man’ we mean humankind or humanity, hopefully my use of the term will not be viewed as me lacking sensitivity; and secondly by Auschwitz we mean the Holocaust or Shoah.   For the benefit of this paper I will use the more commonly used term Holocaust.

Where was Man in Auschwitz?

The question was almost certainly a response to an earlier posed question: Where was God in Auschwitz?

In other words:

  • How could God have allowed the Holocaust?
  • If God exists how could such evil stalk our world?

The same philosophical questions have been posed since time immemorial?

  • How could God allow war?
  • How could God allow earthquakes?
  • How could God allow famine?
  • How could God allow the plague?
  • How could God allow his Son to die on a cross?
  • How could God allow the things that happened to Job happen at all?
  • Where is God in all the suffering of the world?

A Jewish story – I only tell a Jewish story if it is told to me by a member of the Jewish community:

A Holocaust survivor dies and goes to heaven. He meets God. The survivor tells God a joke about the Holocaust. At the end God doesn’t laugh; it’s clear he didn’t get it. ‘Ah,’ says the Holocaust survivor, ‘I’m sorry, I was forgetting, to have got it you’d have had to have been there!’

It was inevitable that both during and after the catastrophe that was the Holocaust, the question ‘Where was God?’ should be put. Indeed you may recall the 2008 TV play ‘God on Trial’ which was set in Auschwitz. In it God is accused by the prisoners of breaking his covenant with his people by allowing the Nazis to commit genocide against the Jews of Europe.

The play was based on The Trial of God a play written by Elie Wiesel first published in English in 1979. Its full title was The Trial of God (as it was held on February 25, 1649, in Shamgorod). This play was a fictional tale that begins:

“Its genesis: inside the kingdom of night, I witnessed a strange trial. Three rabbis—all erudite and pious men—decided one winter evening to indict God for allowing his children to be massacred. I remember: I was there, and I felt like crying. But nobody cried.”

Wiesel stated that he based his play on an actual event he had witnessed as a teenager in Auschwitz.

At some point, having been asked ‘Where was God in Auschwitz?’ someone responded ‘Never mind where God was, where was man?’

So that is our question tonight. Where was man in Auschwitz?

Which is effectively asking:

  • How could humankind have allowed this to happen?
  • Where was humanity in the darkest episode of human history?
  • How could man do this to his fellow man?

I wonder, are these questions a failure of imagination? And it is this particular possibility that I wish to draw on in this presentation. Is the question Where was man in Auschwitz? a failure of imagination?

The answer is both yes and no. The Holocaust does that to us – there is no clear, unequivocal answer to almost any question, especially philosophical, that is posed about it.

So I will firstly briefly consider that the question is not a failure of imagination, in other words that it is undeniably reasonable to ask such a question. Then, secondly, I will more fully consider that the question is a failure of imagination, for the answer is so blindingly obvious that it shouldn’t have to be posed.

 

  1. Where was Man in Auschwitz? A fair question.

Well, how could this have happened? How could one of the most cultured nations on earth during the 19th century have descended to the depths of such depravity over just a few decades? It’s crazy. How could people have let this happen? Indeed, how could they have taken part? Yet take part they did, in their tens and tens of thousands. You don’t kill 6 million people without involving one heck of a lot of people.

  • From those who planned, to those who killed.
  • From those who identified Jews, to those who drove the trains.
  • From those who typed up the reports, to those who moved into the empty homes, received the clothing and the furniture.

But the question is: how could people, human beings, have done this to their neighbours amongst whom they had lived all their lives, or to those whom they had never met? What harm had the Jews of Czechoslovakia, Poland, Latvia, Lithuania, Belarus etc etc have done to Germans who had never previously left the Rhineland? Looking back, the whole episode looks incredulous.

We watch the History Channel and witness the despair, the destruction and the death and it is all so incomprehensible; it is beyond belief. So we reassure ourselves with the view that the Holocaust was surely an aberration. We stand at the gates to Auschwitz under a summer sun and bright blue sky and consign the events to a monochrome past that can never be revisited. We know better now. This could not happen again. The Nazis were not human beings, they must have been monsters. If we, with the benefit of hindsight, and more than 70 years of analysis, view the Holocaust in this way ie with utter disbelief, then consider how unimaginable it must have been for those who lived at the time.

Surely no one could have predicted what was to happen. And when it did happen, even many caught up in it had been so demoralized, so dehumanised, that it seemed a never ending nightmare. It wasn’t real. It wasn’t normal. How could it be? As for those sitting in Whitehall and Washington, when the reports came in of massacres on an unprecedented scale, all too few could believe it. And seriously, who could blame them? It is sometimes claimed, and not without good reason, that the first casualty of war is truth. There had been sufficient propaganda about massacres during the First World War to give rise to a significant level of skepticism less than 30 years later.

Reading firsthand accounts of those who liberated the camps drives home the shock they had in seeing with their own eyes the full extent of the horror. Nothing could have prepared them for what they witnessed. One man, known to me personally, experienced 40 years of nightmares before he could tell his wife that he had been one of the first British troops to arrive at Belsen. And that is all he ever said about it.

No wonder we ask: how could man have done this to his fellow man?

It’s a fair question.

 

  1. Where was Man in Auschwitz? A failure of imagination

I begin with a wonderfully insightful Jewish story of a Jew from Leeds who visits New York for the first time.

On his return from New York he tells his friend that while there he met a Jew who was the most generous man he had ever met; he met a Jew who was very tight with his money. He met a Jew who was so admirably devoted to his wife and kids he’d never seen such devotion; he met a Jew who was the worst womaniser he’d ever encountered. He met a Jew who spoke great wisdom and taught him so much; yet he also met a Jew who was so stupid it made him angry. The friend of the guy telling the story responded – ‘I’m not surprised, there’s a lot of Jews in New York.’ ‘Indeed,’ says the guy, ‘but this was the same Jew!’

Each and every one of us has a great desire to do good but equally so a capacity to do bad things. We should not be complacent in thinking otherwise.

The Holocaust has a numbing effect upon us. In one way or another, since about the age of 13, I have spent almost my whole life wrestling with its meaning. The Holocaust, and issues surrounding it, has been the focus of almost all my reading outside anything that I have had to undertake in my role as a Methodist minister, and indeed has also become a very great part of that ongoing formation. Even with this background I had to pause just after I began preparing this paper; for a few moments I was in a dark place; I could not continue and had to steel myself to do so. That’s not unusual.

Such is the impact upon anyone who seeks to wrestle with the meaning of the Holocaust. I know people who have had to suddenly and completely desist, after decades, and renegotiate their lives, lest it consumes them. The impact of the Holocaust didn’t end with the victims, it goes on to this day, upon the last survivors for sure, but also in the lives of the second and even third generation, the children and grandchildren, and often indeed upon the wellbeing of those who study or reflect upon this vilest of vile crimes.

German philosopher Theodore Adorno (1903-1969) is often quoted as saying “after Auschwitz there can be no poetry.” This is an inaccurate translation; what he actually said was: “To write a poem after Auschwitz is barbaric.” What Adorno was saying was that imagination cannot conjure up what it was like to be in Auschwitz; only the reality of being there is authentic. With all humility I agree with those who have not been convinced with Adorno’s conjecture. And the evidence is strongly in our favour. Within just a few years of the destruction of the crematoria, poetry and literature quickly sought to give a voice to those silenced in the gas chambers of Auschwitz or the forests of Baltic States. It was not an art form but a necessity. How else could the inexpressible be articulated? Or the inexplicable be understood?

To ask where man was in Auschwitz is clearly then a failure of imagination; not just because of the ongoing search for meaning but also in the physical reality.

Of course man was in Auschwitz:

  • He was in the idea and the expression of hatred.
  • She was in the crowd at a Nuremburg rally cheering and saluting, caught up in the mass hysteria.
  • He was in the planning, the drawing up of the project known as the Final Solution.
  • She was in the roundup, the transportation and the selection.
  • He was the SS officer who attended church frequently,
  • the camp guard claiming he was only doing what he was told,
  • the kapo trying to prolong his life a few more weeks, herding people into the showers and removing the bodies.

But:

  • He was also the one who helped hide his neighbour’s child.
  • She was the one who spirited people away across the border.
  • He was the one who ensured the bucket of water was not spilt in the cattle truck.
  • She was the one kept the spirits up by singing to the fearful.
  • He was part of the supreme effort to rid Europe of the evil that is fascism.
  • She was the one who volunteered to go and bathe the wounds.

Equally so he was also the one who did nothing. Who just stood and watched. Who was neither involved as a perpetrator nor as a rescuer because he firmly believed that this was not his battle.

Here lies the crux of the matter: everyone is in Auschwitz, not the camp but the concept.

Every human being that has ever lived has had the capacity to do great evil or endless good. It is not unimaginable for those who have any ounce of knowledge about the human condition, understanding of others or self-awareness to believe that this was not only possible, but actually occurred and could do so again. After all the Holocaust was not the first time that the Jewish communities had faced an existential threat; it was not the first time that European Jews had been massacred in droves, as the awful phrase has it,  ‘like sheep to slaughter.’

We cannot ignore the fact that the killing grounds of the Nazis were often the very same places where pogroms had occurred over previous centuries. One difference lay in the industrialised mechanisation of the killing process of the Final Solution. And here lies a warning. Despite claims to the contrary the Holocaust was not a one-off event isolated in human history, it was part of an evolutionary evil that had grown out of centuries of contempt. That evil continues to exist to this day and could erupt anywhere it goes unchecked.

Both antisemitism on the left and islamophobia on the right of British politics gain ground week by week. Those who promote such prejudice may couch their vile beliefs in cosy terminology and political rationale, but you don’t have to scratch too deeply to find a hatred lurking in the very fibre of their being. Failure to take such evil seriously is every bit as complacent as those who once scoffed at Hitler’s threats.

I am going to close with two verse of scripture, one from the Hebrew Bible and the second from the Christian Testament.

‘Woe to you who say good is evil

and evil good;

who turn darkness to light

and light into darkness,

who turn bitter into sweet

and sweet into bitter.’   (Isaiah 5.20)

 

‘Therefore consider whether the light in you is not darkness.’   (Luke 11.35)

The last episode in the current series of Line of Duty airs tonight. I will be glued to my screen. Approximately 1 in 5 of the population watch Line of Duty. Chances are you are not one of them… and therefore you couldn’t care less whether Hastings is H or not.

Getting so hooked on something that it leaves no room for anything else in our lives is not a good thing.

Drama on television retains a certain hold over a good number of US. If it’s not police and crime then it may be medical or political dramas. If it’s none of these things then it may be reality TV.

With the provision of cable we even get to choose what to watch when we watch.

But it’s not just TV that gives us what we want.

Algorithms on the internet work out what might be of interest to us. This is great on a music site because I get to hear tracks I may have forgotten about.

But there is a downside of course.

The computer helps makes us what we are. The news feed it chooses for us may help us for eg decide what is outrageous and what is not, or even how to vote and how not to vote.

Our personal world is narrowing down day by day as we become only exposed to those things that are of interest to us.

Which is why I prefer a bookshop to on line book sellers.

In a bookshop I may see items that I had never considered before and my mind is opened up.

But buying books online means that the adverts that come my way thereafter will be of books in the same genre. As a consequence I will not be exposed again to topics and issues that would likely broaden my horizons.

Many moons ago, I came across Prayers of Life by Michel Quoist, a French Catholic priest and theologian. Some of the prayers may have dated but one remains very clear in my mind.

I would like to rise very high, Lord,

Above my city

Above my world

Above time.

I would like to purify my glance and borrow your eyes.

This is the petition that tops and tales a prayer that in between identifies all the things we tend to miss if we keep our heads down or limit our minds to that which is only of immediate interest.

On the other hand lifting our heads up to catch a glimpse of the wider world about us, and beyond us, helps us to put things into perspective.

So tonight I will watch Line of Duty as I have done all the previous episodes.

But I will seek to ensure that I watch something totally different tomorrow.

A Lament for Sri Lanka

23 April 2019

 

A Lament for Sri Lanka

Claim neither pride nor personal cost

for the prayer offered far from the unknown slain.

Hearts that beat uninterrupted

beat not with those so suddenly stopped

mid psalm and tortured pain.

Tears that streak across our cheeks

or even fall to ground

reach not shattered glass bloodstained,

nor indeed gather at hospital bed hastily arranged;

for silence there was the only sound

with lifeless limbs quietly crying in vain.

 

The Gloria and alleluias of our songs, sing not of Jubilate,

and cannot work their once claimed magic,

not when paralysed prayers of prostrate pilgrim

reach beyond anything we could ever imagine.

Our eloquent sermons and compassionate posts,

form endless fantasies of shameless affinity,

but quench not the thirst,

nor satisfy any hunger

of orphaned child and widowed intercessor.

 

Not even well-meant words convey,

with sufficient believability,

the plainchant of silenced tongue

and perplexed stare of mystery.

They spew out and fall,

on soon-to-be deafened ears

unless,

until, with all

an echoing cry goes out:

Why?

Why must this song be sung again?

And again and again and again?

Why did their morning of resurrection

end in sorrowful mourning of dejection?

Why was the unlocked door

through which our Saviour strode

be open at all times too

to one bent on evil intent?

Within that fragmentary moment of light

doubt not that waiting in those wings

is a carefully disguised design

of well-crafted darkness

and for certain vile grime.

Place not then your finger in frail flesh side

but consider those, all those,

from which the soul departed in time.

And doubt no more,

doubt not that hurt is without some gain.

Nor dare you doubt anymore that precious sanctified stigmata,

yes in unsearched-for sacrifice, for certain,

but in earthly dust, this gathering dust

we find One of a pure and heavenly Divine.