Today is a day set aside to remember.
Why do we establish a day or event of remembrance? So we do not forget.
After G-d made it possible for His people to cross the Jordan River, they set up twelve stones as a commemoration, and Joshua spoke to the people of Israel, “When your children ask their fathers in times to come, ‘What do these stones mean?’ then you shall let your children know, ‘Israel passed over this Jordan on dry ground.’ For the Lord your God dried up the waters of the Jordan for you until you passed over, as the Lord your God did to the Red Sea, which he dried up for us until we passed over, so that all the peoples of the earth may know that the hand of the Lord is mighty, that you may fear theLord your God forever.” (Joshua 4:21-24)
Sometimes we remember the lives of people whose lives are considered significant, like Queen Victoria, or Martin Luther King. Other days, such as Remembrance Day or Memorial Day, we commemorate the sacrifice of people who gave their lives for a greater cause, lest we forget what they did, lest we forget them.
Today is a day that we remember the horrible deaths of hundreds of thousands of ordinary people, who in the great man view of history did not achieve anything noteworthy, nor did their deaths accomplish any greater good. They were herded like cattle, treated with disrespect and hatred and contempt, processed for their valuables, murdered and buried in mass unmarked graves., all because of their ethnicity, distinctive lifestyle and faith.
They were Jewish. They were regarded as insignificant. Their individual identities were erased. Their burial was designed to be hidden and forgotten. The goal of their oppressors, and those who colluded with them, was the extermination of the Jewish people.
Today is Holocaust Memorial Day.
Today we remember them, and what their deaths, and lives represent. They are Jewish. In G-d’s eyes, every single life is significant. Their individual identities are remembered. The Jewish people, G-d’s physically, ethnically chosen people, survive, and many once again dwell in their own homeland of Israel.
Those who oppressed them were defeated… some were brought to justice, many others escaped. Unfortunately the underlying attitudes remain.
There is a need for repentance by every Christian, individual and corporate, for the Holocaust and the attitudes that led to it. For the inconvenient truth is that anti-Semitic attitudes and behaviours took root in the Christian church by the 5th century, resulting in the Inquisition, forced conversion, torture, abuse and segregation being directed at the Jewish people. Martin Luther, one of the major figures of the reformation, was virulently anti-Semitic. In one of his publications, On Jews and Their Lies, he advocated “that their synagogues and schools be set on fire, their prayer books be destroyed, their rabbis forbidden to preach, their homes razed, and property and money confiscated. They should be shown no mercy or kindness, [and] afforded no legal protection.”
In large measure Luther reflected prevailing attitudes in the church, and these anti-Semitic attitudes persisted. Leaders in Nazi Germany, in perpetrating the holocaust, read his anti-Semitic works and believed they were finishing what Luther had started. During the Second World War, much of the German church and the Roman Catholic Church colluded with, or at least turned a blind eye to, the treatment of the Jews. A latent anti-Semitism existed worldwide: in a famous case prior to the war, a ship full of Jewish refugees tried to find a country in which to seek asylum, but was repeatedly turned away. A Canadian official, when asked how many Jewish refugees they would take, infamously replied “none is too many.”
We might respond, rightly, that we had nothing to do with the Holocaust. Yet today, when we hear of anti-Semitic graffiti or the defacing of Jewish cemeteries in our country, or hear leaders of Hamas and Hezbollah and Iran deny the Holocaust, call for Israel’s annihilation, or perpetrate rocket attacks against the Jewish nation, we do nothing. When do you become what you don’t resist?
Latent anti-Semitism pervaded Christian theology for centuries, ending only in the mid-twentieth century, although it still persists in some circles. The prevailing view since the 5th century, called supersessionism, was that the church had replaced Israel as God’s chosen people, since “Israel” had rejected the Messiah. This view was and is blatantly incorrect, ignores Romans 9 – 11, and has coloured our understanding of God’s design and our interpretation of scripture.
In our remembrance, we can and do feel horrified at the Holocaust, yet we must be actively engaged, going forward, in fighting anti-Semitism, and indeed in combatting any discrimination based on race, ethnicity, social status, education, or gender.
Also in our remembrance, we must not only feel remorse over the event of the Holocaust, or repent and renounce the attitudes which led to it. We hear the oft-quoted number of six million Jews killed. But these were six million individual lives, each valued by G-d, and each with their own individual stories.
Psalm 33:15 tells us that G-d has fashioned each of our hearts individually. Before he formed us in the womb, He knew us, Jeremiah 1:5 says.
This is the principle behind Yad Vashem in Jerusalem, the Holocaust museum… Giving voice to the six million individuals who were killed, telling their stories, that we might never forget them, what led to their deaths, that we might value their lives, that we might value each life, without prejudice, and see the individual as G-d sees. The memorial is based on Isaiah 56:5 – “in my house, within my walls, I will give them power and a name greater than sons and daughters; I will give him an everlasting name that will not be cut off.”
The attitudes and prejudices that led to the Holocaust are alive in each of us. We might not be anti-Semitic, but every time we gossip, demean or discriminate against anyone different than us, on the basis of colour, ethnicity, gender, education, appearance or social status, we are denying Christ, his death, resurrection and the new kingdom He has inaugurated.
this is a call for us to repent of attitudes and actions… it is also a challenge for us to live differently, according to the spirit of the law as the living embodiment of the gospel.
As we repent of attitudes today, as we remember, let us commit to see individuals as G-d sees them, to respond to them as He would, and actively seek justice on their behalf, and as His ambassadors go out and change our world.