The Call to Silence, Stories & Speaking Out
On Sunday 29th January we were blessed in our worship by Mark Stone, Chairman of Cardiff Reform Synagogue who led us in our reflections on and commemoration of the Holocaust, following Holocaust Memorial Day on the 27th. Mark’s warmth, truth-telling and reminder that all people are made in the image of God were appreciated and gave us a lot to think about at a time when prejudice and discrimination towards a number of minority groups appears to be on the rise. Below is Phil’s reflection for the day –
Mark spoke to us using a relevant scripture from the Torah and he also used their Hineni publication which really brings the Holocaust home to anyone. We had a question and answer session too.
Mark said ‘ I was so well received by that wonderful congregation (by the way you should have heard them sing!). I would love to go back, and I hope to invite some of them to our shul. To show their appreciation of my visit they made a donation to the Holocaust Memorial Trust.”
Readings: Micah 6:1-8; Matthew 5:1-12
No one can deny the power of a good court room drama. From classic films like ‘Inherit the Wind’, ‘12 Angry’ and ‘A Few Good Men’ to last year’s gripping few days in Borchester Crown Court for Archers’ fans or the current – and I’m told, rather raunchy – ‘Apple Tree Yard’, court room dramas seldom fail to enthral an audience with twists and turns, tension and emotion as we hear charges of murky misdemeanours, pleas of innocence and try to work out who’s version of events is most true and how justice can best be served. Yet as scandalous and sensational as some of these court room dramas might be, they pale into comparison with that we encounter in the book of Micah for here, with the mountains, hills and Earth’s very foundations as witness, God brings charges against God’s people. In this cosmic court room, God takes the stand and asks,
“O, my people, what have I done to you? Have I wronged you in any way? Please tell me!”
Over two thousand years later, in a makeshift court room in Auschwitz, they did. Holocaust survivor and Nobel Laureate Elie Wiesel spoke of an event that occurred amidst the horrors of the extermination camp in which a group of Jewish men put God on trial, recounted the ways in which God had wronged them and found God guilty. It is a story which has been elaborated upon in theatre and on screen, perhaps most notably, in the heartbreaking film ‘God On Trial’ which we showed and discussed here last year as part of our commemoration of Holocaust Memorial Day. It is a tough watch in which the viewer glimpses the awful consequences of the attempted elimination of an entire people and hears the cries of those who accuse God of abandoning them, alongside those who defend God’s name. Normally, at our film nights – not all of which are quite so gut-wrenching I might add – we have a cuppa and a chat after the film before discussing the issues which are brought up but that day many simply couldn’t move. Some floundered for words, some wiped away tears, many just sat in silence.
And silence can be an apt reaction to the Holocaust. How can we say anything with any semblance of meaning about the systemic murder of 6 million Jewish women, men and children; about the massacre of millions of Romani, Slav, homosexual, mentally and physically disabled people? Some have suggested that a whole new language is needed after the Holocaust whist others can only offer silence. And when it comes to human suffering – be it the loss of a loved one or the taking of millions of lives – words often fall short and explanations feel cheap, even vulgar.
Scripture often attests to this truth, perhaps never more so than in the Book of Job where after Job has lost everything – his health, his fortune, his children – three of his friends gather to share his grief and offer comfort and they do so by sitting with him in silent solidarity for seven full days. It is only later, when his friends break their silence and attempt to explain God’s actions that they are reprimanded by both Job and even by God. ‘If you would only keep silent,’ Job scolds them, ‘that would be your witness’. Perhaps then, as Christians, as people, our witness to the Holocaust and to all genocide is to sit with sacred silence for, as Wiesel suggests, ‘Silence is universal and you can work within it, within its own parameters and its own context, and make that silence into a testimony’.
There are others, including the ever complex Wiesel, who charge the world not to simply be silent in our commemoration of the Holocaust but to listen to the stories – to highlight and hear the tales of those who have experienced genocide first-hand. What they have to say will not be easy for us to hear but in order to remember the horrors of the past, to honour the survivors and the dead, to give us the impetus to do all we can to end genocide today, we must listen to their stories.
“When they came to collect us from Dover,” remarked Kitty Hart-Moxon, a survivor of the Holocaust, “one of the first things my uncle said to me was ‘I don’t want to talk about anything that happened to you. I don’t want my girls upset’. It was a huge disappointment that nobody wanted to know, it was horrific. I was really, really angry, not only about what had happened, but the reaction from other people.”
The significance of story is a truth central to both the Jewish and Christian traditions. The story of our redemption by God is told through our sharing of bread and wine in the Shabbat dinner and in Holy Communion; the story of the longings and hopes, sufferings felt and praise offered by our foremothers and fathers can be heard in our psalms and hymns; the story of the God who created the world and is involved in it for the good of humankind is told time and time again in our scriptures. We must share our stories of the past – no commandment figures so frequently, so insistently in the Bible than to retell them – for when we share our stories, we remember who we are and from where we have come; we remember the triumphs and the mistakes of our past; we give ourselves the possibility of walking God’s way in the present.
We must listen, then, to those stories of suffering – to those who have witnessed the darkest of times. Let’s listen and weep to tales from Poland, Armenia and Rwanda. Let’s listen and wail at stories of Christians being killed and of Christians killing others. Let’s listen and marvel at those who can find hope in the eye of the storm, like the teenage Anne Frank who wrote that she still ‘believed that people are really good at heart’ or Etty Hillesum who declared, from the ugliness of Auschwitz, that ‘life is beautiful in spite of everything’ shortly before each of them were killed. Let’s listen and resolve to do all we can to stop every form of discrimination and persecution today before they lead to something far worse.
There is a time to keep silent; a time to share stories; and, finally then, a time to speak out. The Holocaust didn’t simply happen overnight; genocides don’t appear unexpectedly. The circumstances needed for the organized murder of hundreds or thousands or millions build up over several months, years, decades even. In the so-called eight stages of genocide – which are acknowledged by a number of international humanitarian groups as the conditions witnessed in the escalation towards genocide – early stages include the division of people into us and them; polarizing propaganda being broadcast and the dehumanization of others by equating them with animals. I don’t need to tell you that such things have been witnessed across the continents and on these shores over the last few years. Whether it be Muslims or Mexicans, Rohingyas or refugees, casual prejudice and discrimination of people based on ethnicity or religion, nationality or gender, sexuality or status appears to be growing and is something about which we must speak out. Yet ‘what difference can we make; what can we really do?’ we might well ask; to which Micah has already offered the answer –
“God has told us what is right and what He requires of us –
to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with our God”.
Written in a time of great injustice the book of Micah tells the story of the suffering of the people – the corruption of religious and political leaders, the violence wrought on the poor, the skin that is torn off God’s people – before Micah reminds his readers how Israel is to respond. And it’s not with more ritual, fancier worship or further sacrifice but with justice and kindness and a humble walk with God.
One day, Christ tells us, those who mourn will be comforted, peacemakers will be called God’s children and those who hunger and thirst for righteousness will be filled. We take a step towards that day when we speak up for the oppressed. We stride towards that day when we challenge the use of dehumanizing and polarizing language in our homes and streets, places of work and worship. We skip towards that day when we sing the song of God’s extravagant love for all humankind and then live out that song in action.
Today then, as we remember the horrors of the Holocaust and of all genocide; as we confess our depravity and praise God for our possibility; as we worship the God of hope and restoration, may we discern when to keep silent and when to shout out; may we listen to the stories of others and share the story of God; may we live out our calling as God’s beloved children – that we do justice, love kindness and walk humbly with God. Amen.