Holocaust Memorial Day
These exhortations were given by me between 1999 and 2005. That was a long time ago, and I have grown a lot since then. They may not reflect my current beliefs.
On the 27 of January 1945, just over 60 years ago, the Nazi extermination and concentration camp at Auschwitz-Birkenau was liberated. Last Thursday, the 27 January 2005, was Holocaust Memorial Day. I won’t mention what went on on Auschwitz. I won’t mention other Nazi atrocities. I think we all have a good idea what went on, and in any case I can barely bring myself to read about them, and I certainly can’t speak about them.
The 1930s and 1940s, and all that happened in them, from the dispair of the Children of Israel as Hitler slaughtered them, to the triumph of the formation of the State of Israel, were part of “God’s plan”. We can find both in the prophecy in the Old Testament. Perhaps unusally for a Christadelphian, today I want to think about the Holocaust, not as an appaling step on the road to the state of Israel, but as something that represents the awful nadir of man’s inhumanity to man. Today I want to think about it, not as an attempt to exterminate the Jews, but as an attempt to exterminate a wide range of people that those in positions of power considered undesirable in some way. Sometimes, in our excitement at seeing the word of prophecy unfolding before us we can forget that it wasn’t only the Jews that suffered.
The victims of the Holocaust were primarily Jews, and it was they who were the targets of the “Final Solution”. Other groups were murdered: Communists, Roma and Sinti (the people we sometimes call gypsies), the mentally ill, the disabled, Soviet prisoners of war, Poles, Russians, Slavs, gay men, some Catholic and Protestant clergy, Jehova’s Witnesses, and trade unionists. The `catch all’ categories of common criminals and enemies of the state were also used to mop up anybody else the Nazis wanted to dispose of.
Now, aside from the catch all categories, what do all those groups have in common? They are all victims of discrimination or racism. A vital part of the Nazis’ success was the support that prejudice and bigotry gave them. The Jews and gypsies couldn’t have been taken away for “resettlement” if their neighbours hadn’t seen them as needing resettlement in the first place.
Racism, bigotry, intolerance, prejudice. These are the things that allowed the Holocaust to happen. These are the things that we must not allow to grow. We must be bigotted only against biggotry. We must be intolerant only of intolerance. This is a position that can be thoroughly supported by the Word of God.
Leviticus 24, verses 17 to 22:
And he that killeth any man shall surely be put to death. And he that killeth a beast shall make it good; beast for beast. And if a man cause a blemish in his neighbour; as he hath done, so shall it be done to him; Breach for breach, eye for eye, tooth for tooth: as he hath caused a blemish in a man, so shall it be done to him again. And he that killeth a beast, he shall restore it: and he that killeth a man, he shall be put to death.Ye shall have one manner of law, as well for the stranger, as for one of your own country: for I am the LORD your God.
Brothers and sisters, we live in almost unbelievable freedom. Those words are nothing short of amazing, and we are lucky that our freedom is such that we hardly notice them. “Ye shall have one manner of law, as well for the stranger, as for one of your own country”. Of course in this country we have one manner of law for us and the stranger. That is so fundamental to our way of life that we don’t even notice it, in the same way that we barely notice our excellent water supply.
It is not like that everywhere. Acts 22, verses 24 to 29:
The chief captain commanded him to be brought into the castle, and bade that he should be examined by scourging; that he might know wherefore they cried so against him. And as they bound him with thongs, Paul said unto the centurion that stood by, Is it lawful for you to scourge a man that is a Roman, and uncondemned? When the centurion heard that, he went and told the chief captain, saying, Take heed what thou doest: for this man is a Roman. Then the chief captain came, and said unto him, Tell me, art thou a Roman? He said, Yea. And the chief captain answered, With a great sum obtained I this freedom. And Paul said, But I was free born. Then straightway they departed from him which should have examined him: and the chief captain also was afraid, after he knew that he was a Roman, and because he had bound him.
In the Roman Empire, a Roman citizen was under a different law from everyone else. The same is true of the laws of Classical Athens, and I think all of the other Greek city states. Babylon and Assyria also gave more protection to their own people than to foreigners. The Law of Moses, in contrast, was to be applied evenly to resident and alien alike.
Predjudice intrenched in law isn’t just a feature of the Ancient World. A few years ago marriage law in Northern Ireland was reformed. The Office of Law Reform sent out a consultation document that explained the history of marriage law in Northern Ireland. Before its recent reform, marriage law in Northern Ireland was fair, just unnecessarily complex, and the reform was to do away with much of the complexity. According to this document, 150 years ago that wasn’t the case. Marriage law in Ireland was biased. There was not “one law” applied uniformly as the Law of Moses was to be.
And of course in Nazi Germany, those considered German were under one law, and those considered Jew were under quite another.
We don’t live under the law of Moses any more. It was a schoolmaster to bring us into Christ. We are strangers and pilgrims, so we don’t make the laws of this land. Surely the message, the lesson, of “Ye shall have one manner of law, as well for the stranger, as for one of your own country” is that we must not be racist, biggoted, or prejudiced, or intolerant. This lesson can also be found in the New Testament. Matthew 5, verses 43 to 47:
Ye have heard that it hath been said, Thou shalt love thy neighbour, and hate thine enemy. But I say unto you, Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you; That ye may be the children of your Father which is in heaven: for he maketh his sun to rise on the evil and on the good, and sendeth rain on the just and on the unjust. For if ye love them which love you, what reward have ye? do not even the publicans the same? And if ye salute your brethren only, what do ye more than others? do not even the publicans so?
Love your enemies. Do good to them that hate you. There is no room for racism there. Even if you think the other race hates you, you are not allowed to hate back. The bigot can find no permission for his intolerance in the word of God. Matthew chapter 7, verse 12:
Therefore all things whatsoever ye would that men should do to you, do ye even so to them: for this is the law and the prophets.
Treat others as you would have them treat you. That isn’t what the Nazis did. That is not what the people who perpetrate hate crimes do. They treat others as less worthy of the dignity and respect that they believe they are entitled to. I don’t think anybody here would be violent towards “aliens” and “strangers”. There are so many other ways that we can treat people in ways that we would not want to be treated ourselves. In this country, in every country we are a minority religion. In this country, by the grace of God, we enjoy religious freedom. In return, we should not begrudge the freedom of religion that others enjoy. We shouldn’t be intolerant of others differing views. We can, we must disagree with them on occasion, but others have just as much right to their beliefs as we do.
The story of Sodom is a story about racism. The men of Sodom were racists. They didn’t like the foriegners that Lot had welcomed into his home. They resented the influence that Lot, himself a forigner, had. The men banging on the door, demanding that the angels were brough out were perhaps the worst. But the people at the back of the crowd, the ones just watching, were also evil.
Normally I don’t like “slippery slope” arguments. However, I think the Holocaust teaches us that intolerance is at the top of a slippery slope that leads to genocide.
Rev. Martin Niemoller was a pastor in Germany in the 1930s and 1940s. He initially supported the Nazis, but soon came to declair that he “would rather burn his church to the ground, than to preach the Nazi trinity of race, blood, and soil.” In 1945 he wrote these words:
First they came for the Communists,
and I didn’t speak up,
because I wasnt a Communist.
Then they came for the Jews,
and I didn’t speak up,
because I wasnt a Jew.
Then they came for the Catholics,
and I didn’t speak up,
because I was a Protestant.
Then they came for me,
and by that time there was no one
left to speak up for me.
“Therefore all things whatsoever ye would that men should do to you, do ye even so to them.” By the grace of God, we don’t have to fear our government. But that first intolerant act, however slight, the joke, the snide comment, allows somebody else to go slightly further. And then someone else goes slightly further.
Brothers and sisters, nobody in this room is a racist. Nobody is a bigot. But I know I have made comments that could allow people to be treated in a way that I would not want to be treated myself, and I have heard such comments from some people here. Brothers and sisters, such things are sin, and as such we must avoid them.
I saw the Holocaust Memorial Service on BBC2. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks made a beautiful speech. “We can’t change the past,” he said “but each of us, by challenging prejudice and intolerance, can help to change the future.” They way we change the future is by showing others the tolerance that we all deserve, and the tolerance that we would like others to show us. “Therefore all things whatsoever ye would that men should do to you, do ye even so to them.”