A keynote address byThe Rt Revd Colin A M Sinclair, Moderator of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland and President of CCJ, at the launch of CCJ’s Christian Prayer for Holocaust Memorial Day, 20 January 2020.
“Them!” It seems such a simple word, but it is a loaded one and destructive as well. It may not start out that way at all. Indeed there may be no intended negative connotations. Rather it may have been used to help “us” define our own identity, form our own group and feel wanted, accepted and loved
However, we often create “us” by putting ourselves over against “them2, and we play that game over and over again. “Us” are those who support my team, like my music, are friends on social media, go to my school, live in my town, speak like me, look like me, give me a sense of value and worth.
Anything can be used to define “us” and “them,” but the unintended consequences are not always seen. So if you define “us” by race, colour, gender, class, religion, politics, nationality sexuality or whatever, you start to set boundaries, build barriers, and so go on a downward spiral that takes on a life of its own. Moral categories are added and “us” is seen as better than “them.” It starts with games of “goodies” and “baddies” in the playground where you justify everything that is done on your side, and put the worst interpretation on what is done by “them” on the other. Life, however, goes way beyond the playground and “let’s pretend.”.
As we grow out of childhood, we learn to ignore, respect or suspect new forms of difference. The differences we learn to be suspicious of are the ones the ones we need to be most careful with, especially when we have the power of influence, be it political or through the media. Ideology, greed, power and circumstances can be used to turn difference into a threat. It can turn people into ‘races’, groups into ‘undesirables’ and individuals into caricatures. “Us” against “Them”.
Holocaust Memorial Day was set up to remember the six million Jews who died in the Nazi holocaust that took place during the Second World War. It also is a time when we remember the more recent genocides in Cambodia, Rwanda, Bosnia and Darfur. Holocaust Memorial Day 2020 is significant for three reasons. It marks the 75th Anniversary of the Liberation of Auschwitz in 1945. It also marks the 25th Anniversary of the genocide in Bosnia in 1995. And it is made particularly poignant by the dwindling number of survivors who are able to share their testimony
The theme for this year is “Stand Together” and is a rallying call to resist all those who would encourage a way of thinking, to create caricatures, and to reinforce stereotypes that polarises people into “us” and “them.” For, in so doing, they deliberately fracture societies, marginalise certain groups and shape the climate whereby propaganda, fake news and urban myths are allowed room to grow. This can lead to exclusion, discrimination, and, at in extreme cases, can justify cruelty, violence and even genocide.
Genocide is part of our generation’s lived experience, touching lives repeatedly over the last 80 years. We need to tell the shocking story, separating the facts from the fiction, confronting holocaust deniers with the truth, explaining both what happened and why it happened in different parts of the world and to different groups of people. Important though that is, for memory is short and fickle, it is not enough.
We need to stand together with our neighbours, whoever they may be, affirming our common humanity, giving to all dignity, value and worth. We need to speak out against aggression in thought, speech and action, wherever we find it. We need to challenge a hostile culture, oppose persecution, and stand together against rising division and hate.
The powerful words of Pastor Martin Niemoller in his poem “First they came” still need to be heard. They are a salutary reminder of what happens when we fail to stand together
First they came for the Communists
and I did not speak out
because I was not a Communist.
Then they came for the Socialists
and I did not speak out
because I was not a Socialist.
Then they came for the trade unionists
and I did not speak out
because I was not a trade unionist.
Then they came for the Jews
and I did not speak out
because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me
and there was no one left
to speak out for me.
In the years leading up to the Holocaust, Nazi policies and propaganda deliberately encouraged divisions within German society, urging “Aryan” Germans to keep themselves separate from their Jewish neighbours. The Holocaust Nazi persecution of other groups, and every subsequent genocide was enabled by ordinary citizens not standing with their targeted neighbours.
Today there is increasing division in communities across the UK and the world. Now, more than ever, we need to stand together with others in our communities in order to stop division and the spread of identity based hostility in our society. Everyone can take some action, by using our voices, presence, platform or influence. .
Here Christians should play their part, not only because we take the sin seriously and want people to remember the depths to which we can fall as human beings; not only because the gospel encourages us to love our neighbour as ourselves; but because, to our shame, Christian teaching was the seed bed for antisemitism and still sometimes is.
This day, is a day of great sorrow for the Church, as we recall centuries of anti-Jewish sentiment in writing and preaching over the last 2000 years by both Protestants and Catholic.
Reformers and Catholics stand equally indicted. Luther, Calvin, and Wesley stand alongside the sermons of John Chrysostom, the crusades of Pope Urban II in the 1090s and the ghettos of Pope Pius VII in the 1820s and the list goes on and on. Those of us who are ministers to this day know how easily, in teaching the Christian faith, we have been careless in our words
not aware of the impact they have encouraging caricature and prejudice that give support for antisemitism. Today we want to stand together against lazy thinking and sloppy speech, aware of how terrible the consequences can be.
We stand together with those who have suffered directly and indirectly because of the holocaust or other genocides conscious of how much was lost, how much was taken, the enormity of the destruction and the reality of such hatred, wickedness and violence.
All such genocides make it difficult for people to find faith or hold on to faith, because of the scars that are left, the trauma they have experienced, not just as individuals and families, but as communities and nations. Faith is undermined not only in God but also in those who had been their friends, fellow citizens and neighbours, who lent a hand, turned their back, averted their eyes, and did nothing. We must not let that happen again.
So we refuse to define people in any way that demeans them. We stand together against all forms of hate- filled propaganda used to incite or justify the demonising of a people or group.
Today we give thanks for those people, of whatever culture or creed, who dared stand up for what they believe and who risked their lives so that others might hide, escape and start life again. We recognise their common solidarity with others who were in need. We give thanks for those who fight back against persecution, who believe a different narrative and speak truth in the public square, living it out, often at a great personal price.
We are deeply concerned at the growth of “hate crimes” in our country. We need to affirm what is acceptable language and behaviour. We need to make clear where prejudice and hatred can lead if left unchallenged. So on 27th January, here and around the country, we will stand together to mark Holocaust Memorial Day. We will learn and share the stories, take part in commemorative activities such as candle lightings, moments of silence and reading names. We do so because we must.
We will not forget. But our remembering will be in our living, our speaking, our standing together. Sir Nicholas Winton who rescued 669 children from Nazi-occupied Europe once said “Don’t be content in your life just to do no wrong, be prepared every day and try to do some good.” May God help us so to do.
Let us stand together.