Becoming – my new favourite word

Up until now I think my most overused word is ‘together’ – I think I am going to replace it with ‘becoming’. Here are three reasons why:

Today, I was overhearing a session with women who have experienced domestic abuse of various kinds. The depth of pain was really moving, the courage inspiring, the hope and determination humbling. But many of those women were very clear that although they were survivors – they are still becoming survivors. They had much to work through and much to regain but they knew they were on the way. They spoke about joy, laughter, the beauty of the world and the goodness of people as discoveries they were making. These women were being supported by Breaking the Silence – a fantastic local Birmingham charity.

Last Wednesday I was at a screening of a wonderful film called Why Can’t I Be Sushi? Through the eyes of two young girls it explores the issue of the Sunni/Shia divide in Islam and asks if it is possible to be simply Muslim – neither Sunni or Shia or both Sunni and Shia. Some of the scholars claim this is just not possible – because the groups hold conflicting beliefs it is not possible to identify with both. In the Q & As after the film a young student suggested that the word becoming might make all the difference. He said: if we were to say we were becoming Muslim and we were not definite yet about all aspects of the faith – could we then hold the different beliefs in tension. Hmm.. I thought, perhaps that could help us Christians too approach areas of doctrine and practice over which we disagree.

Last night in church we were discussing the Archbishop of Canterbury’s new book, Dethroning Mammon.  The book poses a huge challenge to Western Christians who are by and large part of a system that encourages us to spend money, save money and invest money before we think about giving it away. Many of our systems gear us up to earn money, to buy what we need to live independently and then to spend more money on greater independence. For example, the richer we become the further our house is from our neighbours, the less likely we are to travel by bus in a shared space, the larger our garden the less need we have of a park. We have no need to borrow anything, we buy the services we need and pay professionals to advise us on our fitness levels, our diet, our emotional wellbeing and our beauty regime.  As we get richer we may choose to purchase our education and our healthcare separately from our neighbour.

Mammon tries to keep up all apart and Christians aren’t excluded. Perhaps we are becoming Christians.

It’s nearly Lent and we are starting to think about repentance and penitence. During the Ash Wednesday service we will be marked with a cross and exhorted to turn away from our sins and follow Christ. If we were already fully Christian – surely we would have already turned from our sins and already be following Christ. Our liturgy understands that we are becoming. Even more than that, perhaps we are becoming together.

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Remembering the holocaust

Last night I was asked to speak, after an incredible testimony from Dr Martin Stern, a holocaust survivor, at a meeting of the Birmingham branch of the Council of Christians and Jews. The night before I had been asked to speak at a protest against the Executive Orders banning people from seven Muslim-majority countries from traveling to the US and the ending of the refugee resettlement programme. There were many themes that resonated between the two gatherings. You can read my reflections on the protest here.

This is what I said last night:

I grew up in a vicarage with parents who were keen for us to know about our heritage. I was told as a small child that I am a quarter Jewish, an eighth Irish, and eighth Scottish, an eight welsh and three eighths English. It was always in that order. My Mother’s father was a Jewish man called Lewin Phillips, his parents lived in Frederick Road in Edgbaston and he was a teacher. He had converted to Christianity at Cambridge University and died when my Mum was three – he was in the RAF and died on a bombing raid. My Mum always remember receiving a Christmas present from him after his death. I know very little more about him except he is remembered as a lovely, kind man, a devoted husband and a dedicated father. I also know that very few people attended my Grandparents weddings – neither families being happy with the match.

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My mother with her parents Lewin and Ursula

My family formed me into an active left wing Christian who campaigned about apartheid, went on anti-nuclear marches and saw politics as integral to my faith. Eight years ago, when I was working as the Director of Communications for the Diocese I received an invitation to go to Israel Palestine with Christian Aid and I leapt at the chance.

We stayed in Bethlehem and Nazareth, visiting the holy sites, tourist sites as wells as NGOs, schools and hospitals in the West Bank. I loved my visit, I especially felt at home in Bethlehem and I was impressed and inspired by some of the people I had met and the projects I had seen. However I did feel that part of the story was missing and I regretted that we had not had the opportunity to meet some ordinary Israelis and hear more of their perspective on the conflict. So when I returned I met Ruth Jacobs who then ran the  Israeli Information centre in Birmingham. Ruth encouraged me to think about my Jewish roots, and I began to learn more about the Jewish community in Birmingham – through interfaith dialogue, attending events in Birmingham synagogues and building friendships.

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My ordination followed and then I saw the opportunity to join the Clergy study tour to Yad Vashem – I think the reasons I wanted to go were both personal and political.

So at the very end of October I arrived in Jerusalem for the study tour organised by the Council of Christians and Jews  based at Yad  Vashem the holocaust memorial museum just outside the city in Ein Karem. The name Yad Vashem means a ‘place and a name’ is taken from a verse in the Book of Isaiah: “Even unto them will I give in my house and within my walls a place and a name better than of sons and of daughters: I will give them an everlasting name, that shall not be cut off” (Isaiah 56:5).

The museum includes the valley of Destroyed Communities which represents Ezekiel’s valley of dry bones and contains the names of every Jewish community in Europe affected by the holocaust, the Children’s memorial remembering 1.5 million children who were murdered, the hall of memories  and the  memorial hall which contains ashes from the crematoria at Auschwitz.

I think it is no exaggeration to say that Yad Vashem broke my heart as the reality of six million murdered people hit home and vague statistics assumed their rightful humanity. I am the sort of person who cries at the news but to confront both the depth of evil and breadth of suffering over a ten day period wrought a deep transformation.

The course was carefully structured to give us a three day ‘break’ in the middle where we could reflect on what we had heard and let it settle before our final three days at the Yad Vashem.  In those three days we visited Galilee, explored Jerusalem, went to church and synagogue.

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Lectures at Yad Vahhem  gave us a historical insight into the Jewish life and culture of Eastern Europe before the Shoah we had the chance to think about the theological origins of Judaism, the contemporary conflict and the politics of Zionism. Lectures were interspersed with visits to the museum itself and the surrounding exhibitions and concluded with an incredible testimony from an 89-year-old survivor who spoke with such bravery and resolve.  She spoke of her experiences as a young woman living in Hungary and then being deported during the end of the war – the details of her testimony gave us a shockingly clear picture of the brutality of the camp and the climate of anti-semitism that grew up in Europe, leaving her and her family without a place to call home, even after liberation.

Staying in Jerusalem was an interesting experience in itself although opportunities to get to know the city were slightly limited by the intensity of the course. It was brilliant that our time included a Shabbat service at a local synagogue and a meal afterwards with a Jewish family. Our hosts were very open and had invited friends to join the meal. It was clear that there was not political agreement around the table and issues of religion and faith were also hotly debated. It was brilliant too to see the Jewish faith practiced at home and the way children were included in Shabbat.

Since returning many questions that have been buzzing round my head including how far did Christian beliefs contribute to an environment in which virulent anti-semitism could flourish?  What drives humans beings to so fear the ‘other’ that they want to kill them? What makes someone a perpetrator, a bystander or a rescuer and which would I be? How do we, as parents and religious educators, nurture character so we have far more rescuers and far fewer bystanders and perpetrators?

Reading around this I have come up with three ideas suggesting how we might prepare ourselves to have moral integrity in a crisis

They are:

Firstly: We need to draw from our faith and then be ready to rely on God. There are resources available to us when we are beyond our own human resources. But we make ourselves ready to receive from God by rooting ourselves in the practice of faith.

John Weinder – a rescuer of Jewish people – says this: “My family was Dutch and Christian. Even when we were quite young my parents always encouraged us, my sister and me, to read the Bible and to believe that love was the aim of our lives. My mother and father taught us that Moses got the instruction from God that tells us to love our neighbour as ourselves and we also knew from the Bible that Jesus Christ  who was himself a Jew, had said that the greatest commandment was to love God and to love your neighbour as yourself. Both at home and at school, our education was directed toward love, compassion and service to others.’

Secondly – and I don’t think this contradicts my first point – we need to not belong to anything so  completely that we stop listening to our own soul and conscience. Researchers found that Christians who rescued Jews all shared a sense of separateness or individuality. They were people who were not unduly influenced by their social environment. They were people who were motivated by moral values that did not depend on the on the support and approval of others. They were usually at peace with themselves and with their own idea of right and wrong and their character had been formed by a long-standing commitment to protect the needy.

Thirdly – we need to remember. To remember means literally to put back together. At Yad Vashem the purpose of the museum is to restore humanity to those who had everything taken from them. We need to remember that humanity is capable of great evil and cruelty and that  goodness in the private sphere is not enough to stop political evil from taking root.

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Understanding what happened to Jews in Europe on a deep level is terrifying. My own family in England have had an unbroken history in Birmingham that spans several centuries.  This picture of a girl in Poland taken between the wars looks like a photo of my mother as a small girl. They share a heritage, they share the same time in history but their futures were worlds apart. What happened in Europe was cataclysmic. Neighbour turned against neighbour. Cultures and communities were destroyed. Hate and fear fuelled a murderous system. Seventy years on it seems impossible to believe it could happen again yet the signs of xenophobia are becoming more and more visible.  With policies banning refugees from America and anti-Muslim legislation is passed, as anti-semitism grows and the refguee crisis in Europe shows no signs of lessening once again I feel we are being asked – as individuals and as a Church – will we be perpetrators or bystanders or will we embrace our calling to be peacemakers.

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I want to leave you this evening with a poem – this is inscribed into a wall by the Memorial to Deportees It reminded me of the simple fact that humanity is one family  and our conflicts are often caused by sibling-like rivalry. The poem is called Written in Pencil in the Sealed Railway Car and was written by Dan Pagis and is simply this:

here in this carload

i am eve

with abel my son

if you see my other son

cain son of man

tell him  i…