A reflection on the Shoah after events in Paris November 2015

To begin today with a short reflection on the terrible events on Friday night in Paris, though words are often inadequate to express our sense of shock and sadness. We were collectively shaken by the news of such horrific violence so near our shores; That was demonstrated by the Twitter feeds on Saturday morning. Some of the comment is I think worth sharing reflecting the thoughts of many in the community. There were numerous expressions of sympathy and empathy with the people of France. Several people, Muslim and non-Muslim, reminded us that we must not judge the collective whole because of the actions of a tiny minority. Several expressed the fears, that we all share, that our values our under attack. A few voices were critical of religion full stop, linking God with violence.
and finally a few demonstrated a focus on how we must respond: “Darkness can’t drive out darkness; only light can do that”

Such thoughts bring us to our readings today which are themselves ancient religious reflections on the themes of human response to suffering. And the role God has in this. I want to look at these readingstoday in the light of the horror not directly of events in Paris, but of the Shoah, the deliberate and systematic murder of European Jews seventy years ago.

Two of our three readings, those from Daniel (Daniel 12.1-3) and Mark (13.1-8), are of a literary form known as apocalyptic writing; Apocalyptic literature in the Bible was a response to social and political tensions which sought to place those events in the context of the end time and the time of judgement or Day of the Lord.

There is a secular form of apocalyptic thought which influences us today. For example only this week we heard how climate scientists are warning of the consequences of our failure to face the realities of global warming. Behind the news headlines we can hear the moral challenge; what are our leaders going to do about this; what are we going to do? The fear is that such cataclysmic events will indeed mark an end time.

But the Bible differs from this tone in that behind its writing is the belief that indeed God is and remains in charge of events, even though things seem out of hand. Whereas our contemporary apocalyptic literature can seem to carry an air of despair, Biblical passages ultimately are visions of hope.
Our reading from Daniel today has the heading added by editors, “the end of history”, and warns that there is a cataclysmic event coming, a “period of anguish such as has never been known before”. The writer of the Book of Daniel was reflecting on events of the 2nd century BCE, and the persecution ancient Jews faced at that time. But for modern Jews, the Holocaust or Shoah was and is the event which literally brought an end to history, a boundary mark from where there was and is no return.

Reflecting on the magnitude of the horrors of the Shoah with my clergy colleagues on our recent visit to Yad Vashem, we tried to ask the question “Where was God in all this?” It is a question asked by anyone who faces suffering or loss. In the end such a question is unanswerable, but it had/has to be asked, and we were divided in our responses; some of us were happy to leave it as a mystery, but ultimately to place one’s trust in God (a response to be found in some post Holocaust Jewish writing as well as Christian, with some support from the Book of Job)), whilst others saw the presence of such horror as a challenge to the idea of God who intervenes in history or who is a God of providential grace.

Some theologians have spoken of God turning his face from the world; another line of thought has been that human beings forced God out. Such questions require years of reflection and thought. Of course for the writers of the apocalyptic literature, the suffering was part of a scenario which ultimately would end with God’s victory over evil. So in Daniel there is the image of Michael the great archangel: The great Captain; who will fight for the forces of good against the forces of evil. And there is the promise in the end of a time of deliverance, and for those whose names are recorded in the Book of life, those who have lived good lives, the hope of everlasting life. But as we will all acknowledge sometimes those hopes are difficult to hang on to.

Daniel is also here touching on a separate question which is “what should the human response be.” One example of this kind of reflection is recognition at Yad Vashem of the names of the Righteous, those few (and it is few) non – Jews who at risk of their own lives were prepared to stand up and seek to save the lives of their Jewish neighbours. Another powerful theme is to discover that even in the midst of this horror there were those who hung on to their trust in life, who refused to give up on the belief that ultimately life and freedom mattered more than death. “The wise leaders will shine like the bright vaults of heaven and those who have guided the people in the true path will be like the stars for ever and ever. “ One of the lectures we had at Yad Vashem concerned music, and songs, and how songs were used to enable memory of what happened to be passed on even when everything else was destroyed, and as a tool to express freedom. It was recorded that many entered the gas chambers singing a song of memory and resistance.

Of course for the Jews of the Second Kingdom, the period of the Temple built by Herod the Great, the destruction of that temple by the Romans in 70 Ad was another cataclysmic event which marked an end of history. How then do we interpret Mark’s passage about Jesus’ apparent prediction of the collapse of the Temple. Is this some kind of Christian triumphalism? I do not think so though it has been interpreted in such a way in the past.

Jesus’ prophetic words might be taken literally or figuratively. In predicting the temple’s destruction he was carrying on a prophetic tradition first found in the prophets of the Old Testament. They could be interpreted as an attack on the power structures which lay behind such a building and its operation, an attack which Jesus had begun earlier in the Gospel on a system of worship which enabled a few to make great profits out of, Alternatively it might be seen as a warning to the disciples (and thus indirectly to us) that nothing was permanent, that the structures they relied upon were flimsy, especially given the likelihood of Roman reactions to any political protests or unrest. And perhaps then Jesus’ words about being wary of false prophets is a warning that the suggested (political) solutions to the present crises which some of the disciples would share, would not bear fruit. Moreover Jesus is warning the disciples that they need to be on their guard, not to falsely interpret the turmoil as evidence of the End Time. He wants to dampen their expectations. Their suffering is suffering which is to be expected given the circumstances.

It is possible that Mark is writing his Gospel in a period of terror. And Jesus words are words of hope to early followers of Christ in the midst of the terror. The terror will not go away but this could be the birth pangs of something new. The message of the passage is being aware and being on guard. And at the same time living in hope and expectation of the coming of the Kingdom of God with the moral challenge this entails. Many of the survivors of the Shoah have reflected on what should be their response to the horror. For some it is the affirmation in the face of such suffering of preserving the precious nature of the gift of live itself. The will to live in the face of death. For others it is the belief that ultimately justice will establish itself, and that human beings have a role in establishing that justice. So the principle of tittun olam, the idea of seeking ways to repair the world, or to leave it in a better place by one’s own action. In this National Inter Faith week it is a vision that we as Christians might share.

Laurence Hillel

November 2015