Holocaust Memorial Day, Homeless Sunday, Short Notes: 22 Jan 2017

In this week’s prayer email:

  • Holocaust Memorial Day (27 January)
  • Homeless Sunday Prayer
  • Short Notes: US Climate Policy, The Gambia, Brazil, Hope in the Middle East

Christ is the world’s light – the promised one who will drive away darkness and lead us in paths of peace. That’s a core message in this week’s Revised Common Lectionary texts
… as is the call for us to be “un
ited in the same mind and the same purpose.” Are we ready to turn towards the light and follow in the way Christ reveals? And are we prepared to seek unity through and in Christ?

Holocaust Memorial Day (27 January)

The theme for this year’s Holocaust Memorial Day is “How can life go on?” and is inspired by a quote from Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel:

“For the survivor death is not the problem. Death was an everyday occurrence. We learned to live with Death. The problem is to adjust to life, to living. You must teach us about living.”

The theme is deliberately framed as a question, asking us to engage with a variety of issues faced by survivors of genocide, wherever it occurs. The question not only speaks to the experiences of those in the past, but also shines a light on some contemporary issues, including the issues faced by people caught up in and displaced by ethnic cleansing and large-scale conflict, and the capacity of false information to shape public opinion and potentially disastrously shift the political landscape.

The first questions the Holocaust Memorial Day materials invite us to think about surround the trauma experienced by survivors of genocide and how they come to terms with the past. How can people rebuild their lives after such unimaginable suffering? “Many of those who survive suffer post-traumatic stress and depression, while the smallest of reminders such as scenes in films, smells, tastes or certain clothes can trigger memories of what happened.”

Chanrithy Him, a survivor of the genocide in Cambodia says, “The sight of someone dressed entirely in black would trigger a memory – the uniforms of the Khmer Rouge. And for a moment it would paralyse me as if I was under a spell… Memories seep back to me in ways I hadn’t imagined.”

For survivors, the question of how life can go on is closely linked to the question of where it goes on. Tens of thousands, even millions, of survivors find themselves dislocated when the genocide itself ends, and for many the aftermath of genocide, rather than bringing relief, brings fresh suffering, adding to their trauma.

Kitty Hart-Moxon, a survivor of the Holocaust, recalled, “When they came to collect us from Dover one of the first things my uncle said to me was ‘I don’t want you 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 happened, but the reaction from other people.”

Blanka Rothschild recalls her return to her family home in Poland at the end of World War II. Blanka, the child of non-observant Jews, had spent the first four years in the Lodz ghetto. She was then deported to Ravensbrück concentration camp and subsequently transferred to forced labour in an aeroplane factory, where the beatings she received left her spine permanently damaged. The advancing Russian army brought liberation, but of a confusing and uncertain kind: escape and food was juxtaposed with some of the escapees being shot and others raped. When the war in Europe was finally over it was difficult for survivors to know where to go. Eventually Blanka joined a group of men and women making their way back to Poland on foot. She recalls what happened when she finally made it back to Lodz:

“Our house was still standing. And the so-called superintendent was still the same one. And when he saw me, he thought that he… that he saw a ghost! He said in Polish, ‘How come I survived? Why did I come back?’ This was the greeting I received. When I wanted to go upstairs to our place, our apartment, a large place, the people wouldn’t let me in… My Poland was not my Poland any more”.

Blanka felt so unwelcome in Poland that she left, eventually making her way to a new life in America where she was taken in at first by her great uncle and his wife. “[She] was the most wonderful, wonderful lady who made me feel good, warm. She hugged me. She kissed me. And that’s what I needed. That’s what I needed. I didn’t need material things. I just wanted to be loved, to belong. And that was the beginning.”

The waves of trauma experienced by Holocaust and genocide survivors like Blanka have strong resonance in the current refugee crises. People escaping horror, oppression and conflict do not necessarily find sanctuary and security; their presence does not necessarily evoke compassion but scepticism and hostility. This has been all too evident in both mainstream and social media coverage of migration and refugee resettlement in mainland Europe and the UK in recent months.

Even people who resettle through official channels describe feeling uncertain of their welcome. In her article, “I’m a refugee who escaped war and genocide in Bosnia. If you think resettlement is easy, read this”, Arnesa Buljusmic Kustura writes, “To be a refugee these days means to wake up almost each morning and witness anti-refugee sentiment plastered on the news and social media.” She describes the almost four-year process she had to go through before she was allowed to settle in the US: “Interview after interview was conducted by UN Refugee Agency official to ensure that my family and I were speaking the truth. The process of telling our story of trauma lasted a couple of years. Each interview conducted meant reliving the trauma of being under siege in Sarajevo, of being held in concentration camps in Visegrad… In 2002, when we finally settled in America we assumed our journey towards emotional safety had finally been reached. However, as refugees we continued to be subjected to interviews by government officials, medical and psychological exams, biometric testing, and visits from Immigration and Department of Human Services Case Managers.” Despite these experiences, Arnesa is grateful for “the privilege of coming to build a life in America” and reflects, “Since then, as a way of giving back thanks, I became involved in activism, volunteering, and continuous community engagement. Choosing to give back, as much as I could, rather than take,” but adds, “To the pundits that share anti-refugee sentiment, however, none of this matters.”

A second equally pertinent question the Holocaust Memorial Day resources invite us to explore concerns the denial and trivialisation of the Holocaust and other genocides. “Denial,” they note,” is the final stage of genocide.” It is not just the Holocaust that is the target of denial. This article, “Denying Genocide in the Face of Science”, catalogues the denial in Bosnia of the Srebrenica massacre in 1995.

This year, Holocaust Memorial Day sees the release of the film Denial, which tells the story of the legal battle for historical truth between Deborah Lipstadt and David Irving, who sued her for libel when she described him as a Holocaust denier. Lipstadt won the case.

In the light of all the historical record, photographic evidence, personal testimony – and indeed the outcome of the trial – it seems almost inconceivable that Holocaust denial and trivialisation can continue today, especially when information sharing through social media can so easily take people to reliable, factual information. And yet, not only does denial continue, but social media aids and abets it. David Irving today claims a large and growing following and still says, “History evolves. The truth about the Holocaust is gradually coming out. And this is thanks to the internet. It’s how this new generation finds me. There’s a general belief among people out there that they are being misled.”

David Hare, who wrote the screenplay for Denial has written about how and why he took on the task. His reflections lucidly set out the broader significance of the trial – and the phenomenon of Holocaust denial – for us today. He discusses his decision to “stick rigidly to the exact words used inside [the court]. I could not allow any neo-fascist critic later to claim that I had re-written the testimony” and he reflects on the role of the social media. “In an internet age it is, at first glance, democratic to say that everyone is entitled to their own opinion. That is surely true. It is however a fatal step to then claim that all opinions are equal. Some opinions are backed by fact. Others are not. And those that are not backed by fact are worth considerably less than those that are.”

He continues, “There are some subjects about which two points of view are not equally valid. We are entering, in politics especially, a post-factual era in which it is apparently permissible for public figures to assert things without evidence, and then to justify their assertions by adding “Well, that’s my opinion” – as though that in itself was some kind of justification. It isn’t.”

“Post-truth” was the Oxford English Dictionary’s word of the year for 2016, defining it as “relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.” The word saw a massive increase in usage from mid May last year. This environment has been accompanied by the growing phenomenon of fake news – raising challenging and serious questions about how and where we source our information. Deliberate lies and appeals to emotion led to the vilification and murder of millions of Jews in the last century. Commemorating the Holocaust is not simply an important act of remembering its victims. Reflecting on its origins, and allowing our exploration to inform our response to our own times both honours those who died and those who survived and might provide us with much-needed insight into where continued care is always necessary.

This Holocaust memorial day please pray…

  • For the survivors of the Holocaust and other genocides – that they would find strength, courage and support to rebuild their lives and come to terms, as far as it’s possible, with their experiences
  • For all people displaced by genocide, conflict and other traumatic causes – that they might find understanding and sanctuary, and an end to their suffering rather than further suffering
  • For the people in the places to which survivors come – that they might be willing to understand, have empathy and be supportive both emotionally and practically.
  • For us all as we try to reject what is false and stand up for what is good – that we may be vigilant, wise and discerning and strive always to act and react with integrity and love.

Homeless Sunday Prayer

Earlier this month we provided a link to the Homeless Sunday resources. One of the main ones is this prayer – might you use it in your Sunday service or at another point in the coming week?

Loving God, in your house there is room for everyone.
Help us as we strive for a world where everyone has a home that truly meets their needs.
Give us the grace to welcome strangers and refugees.
Give us the insight to see where inequality hurts.
Fill us with courage to do our part.
Save us from being overwhelmed by the scale of the housing crisis,
and show us, O Lord, where to begin.

Amen


Short Notes: US Climate Policy, The Gambia, Brazil, Hope in the Middle East

US Climate Policy

We’ll be looking over the next weeks at what the new Trump presidency may mean for US policy in various areas. In the meantime, you might want to look at two useful items the John Ray Initiative has produced on Trump and climate change – a short post by John Weaver and a briefing paper by Martin Hodson. Pray, with respect to environmental policy, for wisdom for the new administration, whose initial policy statements – put up on the White House website within minutes of the inauguration – are not unencouraging. Pray also in thanksgiving for the numerous people at state and local level for whom care for creation is a vital part of policymaking, whatever happens at the federal level. On the day of the inauguration, for example, California announced its plan to cut its emission by 40% by 2030 – and California’s economy is so large that its decisions have ramifications beyond its borders.

The Gambia

Pray for the people and incoming government of The Gambia. In December of last year, former President Yahya Jammeh, who ruled for twenty-two years, initially accepted – and then rejected – the results of an election which he lost. His attempts to remain in power have now ended following the swearing-in of his successor in Senegal and the deployment of troops from surrounding states. Jammeh has agreed to leave The Gambia (his full statement is here). His successor, President Adam Barrow, has already indicated that he intends to make significant changes, including setting up a truth and reconciliation commission to investigate past government abuses and rejoining the Commonwealth and International Criminal Court – and there is a sense of optimism among many in the capital.

Tens of thousands of Gambians had fled for fear of fighting in the country. Pray that they will return safely, that the new president and those assisting him will govern justly and well, and that the country will enjoy peace, justice and stability.

Brazil

Brazilian Supreme Court Judge Teori Zavascki was killed on Thursday in a small plane crash. Zavascki was a leading figure in Brazil’s ‘Lava-Jato’ (Operation Car Wash) anti-corruption investigations.

The Supreme Court was due shortly to analyse plea-bargain agreements relating to one part of the investigations. It had been thought that this might involve releasing testimony relating to these agreements to the public – and that the testimony could be explosive, with allegations against some of the country’s highest ranking politicians, including the President.

The government has declared three days of national mourning – but the implications of the judge’s death will be far longer lasting: it’s unclear how the Lava-Jato process will move forward, and how a new rapporteur will be appointed. The concerns many have surrounding the death (the judge’s son noted that ‘many people would have celebrated’ the death – though he hoped it was simply a fatality and not a murder) are also likely to be resolved quickly, although an investigation into the incident has been started.

Please pray for consolation for family, friends and colleagues of all who were killed in the crash; for a swift, full and transparent investigation of its circumstances; for the appointment of someone of rigourous ethics as the new rapporteur for Lava-Jato; and for the continued efforts to promote justice and transparency in the Brazilian political system.

Hope in the Middle East

We’ve been at several meetings recently where people working with Middle Eastern agencies and churches have spoken about under-the-radar efforts to bring hope and healing to people and areas that have suffered because of the region’s conflicts. Many of these efforts can’t be reported – though some can: if you speak French or Arabic, do take a look at this film which shows how different groups, including Fair Trade Lebanon, are helping to integrate and assist both Syrian refugees and their host communities. Fair Trade Lebanon, for example, is helping people in six communities – especially women – to work together in food production. They’re  bringing together Syrian and Lebanese women to share their knowledge and recipes as they produce products for sale. “If I weren’t working [here],” one Syrian woman says, “I’d be staying at home. My mother’s sick, and she can’t work. My sister and I help our father to ensure that our household has an income.” “The cooperation is very important for both our communities,” adds a Lebanese woman. “It would be good if there could be a centre like this in every village, [enabling people] to cooperate and to help each other at the same time.”

It’s worth knowing as we hear wave on wave of bleak news that positive things are happening. Please pray for agencies like Fair Trade Lebanon, as they seek to offer people dignity and work for peace. And pray especially for churches in the region. Give thanks for the ways that God is at work in and through them and pray that the worldwide body of Christ may give them support through prayer and material sustenance in ways that enable them to bring hope and healing within their own communities and to others.

 

Photograph: Homelessness 028, by fio.PSD comunicazione, used under Creative Commons License