No one can deny the power of a good court room drama, whether it’s Rumpole of the Bailey, a classic film or play like Agatha Christie’s Witness for the prosecution, to finding out what’s going to happen to Brian Aldridge shortly at Borchester Crown Court. We hear charges of murky misdemeanours, pleas of innocence, and try to work out whose 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 just that. 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.
Today, 27 January, is Holocaust Memorial Day, the anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz in 1945. Today we remember the millions who perished at the hand of the Nazis and in the other genocides and acts of ethnic cleansing of modern times. It’s a time not just to remember, but also to ask God for the resolve to build a more Christ-like world in which every member of the human family is equally valued and where prejudice has no place. In the Nazi holocaust, two thirds of all the Jews in Europe perished. The rest carry the physical and emotional scars with them in memories that can never fully be healed. The holocaust was and is a defining experience in the life of Jewish people today, and will be for generations to come.
Genocide is never an accident. It is deliberate, calculated, systematic and precisely executed. It has to be to succeed. Evil triumphed, as evil always does, because good men and women stood by and did nothing. The German pastor Martin Niemöller was himself imprisoned in a concentration camp because of his resistance to the Nazis. He said, in words that haunt us: ‘First they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out because I was not a Jew. 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 me, and there was no-one left to speak out for me.’
The holocaust stands as a symbol for all time of what human beings are capable of doing to one another. What we say today we must imagine being able to say in the presence of the victims of the death camps. By that I mean that we must not, cannot, offer easy answers, imagine we know or can guess how God could permit this, try to say that we understand what ordeals the victims had to endure. Elie Wiesel asks whether even God understands how cruelty and pain can be written into a world that is at the same time so beautiful and good.
Our first response must be to keep silence, like the friends who came and sat with Job on the ash-heap and said nothing for a week, ‘for they saw that his suffering was very great’. It’s not only that words fail us, it’s also that this is how we best honour the suffering and the dead. 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 both by Job and by God. ‘If you would only keep silent,’ Job scolds them, ‘that would be your witness’.
But we cannot stop at silence. We’re challenged to listen to the stories of those who have experienced genocide first-hand. Kitty Hart-Moxon, a survivor of the Holocaust, said “when they came to collect us from Dover 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.”
Silence leads on from being passive. When we go to the site of any terrible atrocity we can sense that there is ‘work’ to be done here: mental, spiritual work that can lead to our personal and collective transformation. We are invited to reflect on our own attitude to suffering and injustice, and to explore how transformation could happen, whether on a global, community, or personal level.
Today at Auschwitz they speak of ‘bearing witness’ to genocide, by which they mean how we see what we see, and what we then do with it. The ‘how’ means paying attention to suffering, making it our own, feeling what we can with its victims; it means noticing and being present to them in a way that makes a difference to us by engaging our compassion. The ‘what’ means testifying to what we have seen and heard. There is a story to be told, and it matters to the suffering, to the dead, and to God that it should be heard. Christianity involves ‘bearing witness’ to the love of God in a way that is life-changing not only for others but for ourselves, for our own faith is strengthened by the very act of sharing it. Similarly, our ‘witness’ to suffering can begin to change our attitudes by becoming a matter of public story and testimony. This may happen by activating practical care and compassion for those who suffer, whether through natural causes or the inhumanity of others. It may happen as we commit ourselves to working seriously for a just world in which conflict and cruelty no longer have a place.
To bear witness to suffering is part of bearing witness to Christ in his suffering. As Dietrich Bonhoeffer put it, ‘only the suffering God can help’. It’s amazing how the human spirit was not extinguished even in the death camps. Among the wreckage of the concentration camp at Ravensbrück, a prayer was found scribbled on a scrap of paper:
Lord, remember not only the men and women of goodwill, but also those of ill will. Do not remember all the sufferings they have inflicted upon us; remember the fruits we bear, thanks to this suffering – our comradeship, our loyalty, our humanity, courage, generosity, the greatness of heart that as grown out of all this. And when they come to judgment, let all the fruits that we have borne be their forgiveness.
It’s just extraordinary that those words could have been uttered in a place of such desperation. It echoes another extraordinary prayer that Christians have always cherished: the word from the cross, ‘Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do’. And, we add today, forgive us our complicity with all that is evil in the world. Give us the courage to bear witness to what we have seen, and the resolve to preserve and defend the freedoms of the whole human family.
We may feel that can do very little, but remember that the Holocaust didn’t simply happen overnight. The circumstances needed for the organized murder of hundreds or thousands or millions build up over several months, years, decades even. It begins with a division of people into us and them, 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. Micah has already offered the answer to what we can do:
“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”.
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.