Holocaust Memorial Day - St Bride's: Reflection

St Bride's: Sermons

Holocaust Memorial Day

1 Corinthians 12: 12-31

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12 For as the body is one, and hath many members, and all the members of that one body, being many, are one body: so also is Christ.

13 For by one Spirit are we all baptized into one body, whether we be Jews or Gentiles, whether we be bond or free; and have been all made to drink into one Spirit.

14 For the body is not one member, but many.

15 If the foot shall say, Because I am not the hand, I am not of the body; is it therefore not of the body?

16 And if the ear shall say, Because I am not the eye, I am not of the body; is it therefore not of the body?

17 If the whole body were an eye, where were the hearing? If the whole were hearing, where were the smelling?

18 But now hath God set the members every one of them in the body, as it hath pleased him.

19 And if they were all one member, where were the body?

20 But now are they many members, yet but one body.

21 And the eye cannot say unto the hand, I have no need of thee: nor again the head to the feet, I have no need of you.

22 Nay, much more those members of the body, which seem to be more feeble, are necessary:

23 And those members of the body, which we think to be less honourable, upon these we bestow more abundant honour; and our uncomely parts have more abundant comeliness.

24 For our comely parts have no need: but God hath tempered the body together, having given more abundant honour to that part which lacked.

25 That there should be no schism in the body; but that the members should have the same care one for another.

26 And whether one member suffer, all the members suffer with it; or one member be honoured, all the members rejoice with it.

27 Now ye are the body of Christ, and members in particular.

28 And God hath set some in the church, first apostles, secondarily prophets, thirdly teachers, after that miracles, then gifts of healings, helps, governments, diversities of tongues.

29 Are all apostles? are all prophets? are all teachers? are all workers of miracles?

30 Have all the gifts of healing? do all speak with tongues? do all interpret?

31 But covet earnestly the best gifts: and yet shew I unto you a more excellent way.

Holocaust Memorial Day

There is an episode of the American satirical cartoon series The Simpsons, which opens with the following scene: the boy, Bart Simpson, and his young friend, Millhouse, are standing on a pedestrian bridge over a freeway, and are entertaining themselves by spitting on the cars passing beneath them. In a moment of philosophical reflection, Bart looks down at the traffic below, and muses to his friend, 'Do you ever think about all those people in the cars down there?' To which Millhouse replies: 'I try not to. It makes it harder to spit on them.'

As well as being the Fourth Sunday of Epiphany, today, 27th January, is also Holocaust Memorial Day.  And in my previous post in Birmingham, where I did quite a lot of work in local schools, I would sometimes use that story as a way in to talking to children about the Holocaust.  Because Millhouse was very astute in observing that it is so much easier to spit on people - or indeed commit any kind of unpleasant act, or act of cruelty or brutality against them - if you try not to think about them as human beings.

At Winson Green Prison in Birmingham, a man who was serving a sentence for burglary, let slip on one occasion that, whenever he broke into a house, if there were any family photographs on display, the first thing he would do would be to turn them over, so that he didn't have to see them.  That made it much easier for him to ignore the fact that it was somebody's home that he was ransacking; somebody's precious possessions that he was looting.  He didn't have to think about the human beings from whom he was stealing.

Some of us woke up this morning to the shocking news of the bomb attack on a Roman Catholic church in the Philippines, which, at the latest count, has killed 27 people, and injured dozens more.  As Rowan Williams once observed very astutely, and I paraphrase here: the thing about terrorists is that they only regard their victims from a distance, as an undifferentiated mass of humanity which they can designate 'the enemy'; it is much easier to commit acts of barbarity if you don't have to see each precious individual; each unique and wonderful human life; each father, son, daughter, sister, friend, child, whose life you are destroying.

I once heard someone say that people who commit evil acts lack imagination, as well as empathy.  Over the years I have started to realise that there is a profound truth in that simple observation.

And it is commonly the case that actions that ridicule and humiliate human beings tend to accompany the worst atrocities that people commit against one another.  I can remember seeing a chilling black and white photograph taken in Nazi Germany, which shows a group of Jewish men and women, easily identified as such by the star of David they were each required to wear, who had been forced to kneel down in the road, and scrub it with toothbrushes.  And around them stood a laughing, jeering, abusive crowd of soldiers and civilians, including a number of children.  Ridicule them! Humiliate them!  Stop thinking about them as human beings like yourself - and it suddenly becomes so much easier to commit acts of violence and intimidation against them.  It is a terrible but all too recognisable human reality.  And the appalling truth is that it is a mindset that begins with the bully on the school playground, who picks on the small kid with ginger hair - and ends with organised genocide.  They lie at opposite ends of the same spectrum.

And because it is a human reality, we need to be alert to the fact that such impulses exist within all of us, every time we behave to another human being in such a way that we demean them, or regard them as not quite like us.  Many of the most appalling actions in human history have been committed, not by deranged psychopaths, but by ordinary people just like you and me.  A startling thought.  None of us is immune.

The Bible has a lot of things to say about our duty to the stranger; to the person who is 'other'; to the human being who is different from us.  Because we are all made by God, and we are all made in God's image, and it is a biblical imperative that we honour that person.

And our reading from St Paul this morning is fascinating on the subject of human diversity.  He is addressing the Church in Corinth, which was riven with internal divisions - a church in which the wealthy and powerful were lauding it over the poor and vulnerable.  Using the image of the human body, Paul challenges their behaviour, and also overturns all their assumptions and expectations. 

Because, as he points out, if the Christians in Corinth are to function as the body of Christ they need to learn to honour their differences and their diversity; and, more than that, they must recognise that the weak and the vulnerable are in fact the most indispensable people in their midst.  A human body cannot function without all its constituent parts, and the least honourable parts of the body are generally the most indispensable.  Therefore, Paul concludes, you must care for one another.  That is his imperative: 'you must care for one another.'

And what St Paul has to say about the life of a community of faith translates directly into our broader human community, as well.  Because we really do need one another; we really do need those who are unlike us; we really do need those who are vulnerable, as well as those who are strong, for us to flourish as a society.  The theologian Frances Young has written very movingly about her experience of having a profoundly disabled son, Arthur; in one of her books she observed that society is judged by the way in which it relates to people like him.  She writes:  'it shows up people and their relationships, and their values, for what they are.  It is a kind of judgment.'

And, by the same token, if we only inhabit communities where everyone else looks like us, and where only the fit and the able and the articulate are given access to society's goods, then we are all impoverished, and part of our own capacity to flourish as human beings is lost.

In our Gospel reading this morning, Jesus, in the synagogue at Nazareth, reads from the scroll of the prophet Isaiah and then says this:

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor.  He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord's favour.

The Gospel of Jesus Christ, the message of Jesus Christ, the person of Jesus Christ, is good news to the poor, to the captives, to the blind, to the oppressed - to the very people whom society regards as 'other'; as 'different'; as 'not like us'; and in the worst contexts, as 'not fully human'. 

And for any who would become disciples, it is from those very people that the wealthy, the privileged, the 'temporarily able bodied', and the comfortable, must learn. 

Because just as we need God, so too we need one another.  All of us.  We really, really do.

Amen.

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