Acts 9:1-22 and Matthew 19:27-30. This sermon was preached at our Church Patronal Festival on the eve of Holocaust Memorial Day. At the beginning of the service, we lit a candle to remember all those who had died in the Holocaust and used prayer and a confession written by the Council of Christians and Jews UK to lead us into our worship.
Our reading from Acts is one we have read hundreds of times. It is the reading for our patronal festival. For those who do not speak fluent church jargon, that means that it is the Bible reading used at the feast of our patron saint. The patron saint of St Paul’s Church is St Paul and the feast of St Paul’s conversion is the 25th January. So, every year, on the Sunday closest to the 25th January, we tend to read this passage. It was also the passage for the day on the day I was interviewed to be your vicar. I had to give a short homily – I am not sure I have ever prepared so hard for a sermon in my life. My point is that this is a Bible passage many of us know all too well. But sometimes things happen and the way we read Bible passages changes. That is something that has happened to me.
But first a story. Five years ago, a few days before my installation as your vicar, we had a dress rehearsal for the service. Ann Pipe and Paul West walked around with their churchwardens’ staffs, Anne Murray laughed herself silly at my attempts to pour water in the font without causing a flood over the carpet and the servers choreographed their processions up and down the aisle. Meanwhile, my mother, who for the benefit of those who don’t know her is Scottish, had agreed to read this Bible reading and so she stepped up to practise at the lectern. She was very nervous and was somewhat taken aback when, before she had read more than a few lines, the Area Dean guffawed loudly.
“Murrrrrder!” he rejoiced, “you sound like someone from Taggart. Excellent. Carry on…”
My mother has never entirely forgiven him.
Our familiarity with the story sometimes makes us forget that this story begins with murder. We gloss over the horror of Saul’s behaviour and intentions, rushing on to the more acceptable parts of the story – conversion, transformation, reconciliation and redemption. And I have done that myself many, many times. However, as I come to read this story this year, I do it from a different place. Many of you will know that last October, I was privileged to go on a pilgrimage to Bosnia with a group of clergy from the Church of England. We went to learn about life after conflict, indeed life after atrocity. We went to explore what peace and reconciliation look like in places which have experienced the very worst of humanity. I haven’t spoken too much about that trip, because to be honest much of it is hard to put into words – even for someone like me where words are my daily business.
I don’t know how much you remember of the Bosnian conflict. In a nutshell, as the former Yugoslavia broke into its constituent nations after the fall of communism, there was disagreement about how this should happen. The Bosnian Serbs wanted to keep Bosnia united with Serbia and other Yugoslav states, but the Bosnian Croats (who had seen Croatia gain its independence) and Bosniaks (Bosnians who tended to be Muslim by background) wanted independence. There was a referendum which voted overwhelmingly in favour of independence, but only because the Serbs boycotted it. They called it illegal. Bosnia declared itself independent and civil war broke out.
Prior to the conflict, Bosnia was an incredibly integrated society. Serbs, Croats and Bosniaks lived side by side, worked together, went to each other’s festivals and family celebrations. Now the three communities were in conflict, and there wasn’t an equal distribution of firepower. The Serbs had the old Yugoslav army’s tanks and guns. The Croats had some light artillery. The Bosniaks – as one official I met puts it – had the cutlery. And as the outside world imposed an arms embargo, it wasn’t in any sense a fair fight. Soon, in the predominantly Serb and Bosniak east of the country, the Serbs were eating up huge chunks of territory while Bosniaks fled for their lives. Finally, to stop the unilateral destruction, the UN declared safe havens – places Bosniaks could go for sanctuary. The most famous of these was Srebrenica.
I visited Srebrenica. It is a pretty little town snuggled in a steep valley in the Dinaric Alps. Its current population is about 3-4 thousand but during the conflict ten times as many people tried to survive there. They ran out of buildings. They ran out of food. The resident doctor – a young man who had gone for community medicine because he didn’t like surgery – ended up running a war zone field hospital doing his first amputation on a friend on a hillside. The siege lasted a couple of years and then in July 1995, the Serbs drove their tanks into the enclave. The Dutch UN peacekeepers, tasked with protecting the residents, messaged frantically for back up air strikes, but world leaders prevaricated and delayed. Meanwhile the occupants of the enclave fled on foot two miles to the UN base – a campus the size of a large secondary school. The women, children and elderly were left there while most of the men went with a small battalion of guerrilla fighters who had been defending the town to try and march 60 miles across a war zone to safety in Tuzla.
At the UN base, the UN peacekeepers could offer no resistance and the Serbian leaders were soon in charge. They arranged for buses to arrive. Women and children were loaded on some of the buses and many were taken to camps. Most were eventually taken to Bosniak-Croatian territory. The men were separated, put on different buses and never seen by their loved ones again.
Meanwhile the mainly civilian column of men trying to reach Tuzla was under attack. Men who had been there – and I met two – describe frantic attempts to survive in the forest, existing on little food and less sleep, traumatised by watching friends and family falling around them. Many men and boys were killed in the forest. Utterly overwhelmed, two thirds of the column gave themselves up less than 10 miles from Srebrenica. They were promised clemency. They got on buses. They were never seen again. Over 8000 men and boys were systematically executed in the week after the fall of Srebrenica.
The United Nations defines genocide as “acts committed with the intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnic, racial or religious group”. The International Criminal Tribunal at the Hague ruled that what happened at Srebrenica was genocide. In my lifetime and yours. In Europe.
The thing about genocide is its premeditation. Its organisation. Like Saul with the authorisation from his bosses, his plans and his paperwork, heading off to another city with the sole intention of stamping out these pesky followers of Jesus. Some of Serbian leaders made an appalling choice. I say some, because this is no more a Serbian issue than the Holocaust was a German one – there were and are good and bad Serbs and there were and are good and bad Germans. This is not an ethnic or religious issue. Hate and violence are a human problem. So some Serbian leaders decided that they needed to win their war, win their country back, and if that meant getting rid of some pesky civilian Bosniaks in the chaos of war, well, so be it. There were orders and organisation and someone to charter the buses. In fact, one of the things which helped uncover this crime was the testimony of civilian bus drivers.
Tomorrow is Holocaust Memorial Day and the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz. Holocaust Memorial Day is when we remember the Holocaust – the determined, merciless and industrial attempt to wipe out the entire Jewish race in Europe by the Nazis – but also when we remember other victims of genocide – like the people of Srebrenica. It is so important that we remember. Sadly, there are people despite overwhelming evidence who deny that the Holocaust, Srebrenica and other atrocities happened. While they might be the extreme end of a spectrum, there are plenty more who would like to forget they ever happened. It is deeply uncomfortable to remember what humans can do to one another while others do too little to help. Yet, painful though it is we must remember. We must remember to honour those lives, precious in God’s sight, and we must remember to do our very best to make sure such things do not happen on our watch. For sadly, history shows us that groups within humanity are all too prone to trying to eliminate communities and groups that are different to themselves.
It is the overwhelming grace of God which interrupts Saul in his zealous and violent desire to stamp out the tiny Christian Jewish community. Not only does God protect innocent victims, God protects Saul from himself, before using Ananias to turn him around on to a new life and ministry. Reading from this new perspective, I think it is really important that God does not whitewash Saul’s behaviour. When Ananias points out Saul’s reputation, God doesn’t say “Oh don’t worry about that, Saul’s changed”. God says “Saul will know what he must suffer”. And Paul never forgot who he had been and what God had saved him from. To the end of his days, he described himself as the worst of sinners, and his gratitude to God for redeeming him from what he could have been was, in part, the energy behind his incredible work establishing the Church, dedicating his whole life to the movement he had once sought to destroy.
To me, Ananias is the hero of this tale. At great personal risk, and with an empathy for Saul he did not deserve, he helps Saul see again – not just literally in curing his blindness, but in seeing a better way to live. As our hymn earlier put it – Saul, Paul chose instead the way of love. And I believe the church is still called to be Ananias – not simply to care for those communities who experience persecution and hate, although we must MUST do this, but to change the hearts of those who persecute them and help them see God’s way.
Genocide is not something that springs out of nowhere. Many of you will know the quote from German pastor, Martin Niemoller, who was a vocal opponent of Hitler:
First 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 the Jews, and I did not speak out—because I was not a Jew. Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.
When we spot oppression and hate, we need to speak out early. Because genocides don’t just happen. From looking at what happened in the Holocaust and Darfur and Rwanda and Bosnia, experts in these tragedies have spotted ten stages of genocide. They don’t all happen in order – several of them can happen at the same time – but they give us and idea of what to notice, and if we intervene at the early stages, there is hope we can prevent tragedy. I am not going to go through all ten stages here, but some of the early warning signs are classification, where differences are no longer respected and celebrated, but used to divide communities and stereotype negatively those who are different. Symbolisation finds a way to identify people from the oppressed group. Many of us are familiar with the yellow star which had to be worn by Jews, but in Bosnia, Muslims were forced to wear white armbands in some towns and in ISIS atrocities, Christians had “N” for Nazarene painted on the doors of their homes. Soon there is discrimination and the dominant powerful groups start to strip the less powerful group of their rights and sometimes even their citizenship. Then there is dehumanisation, where people from the oppressed group are described as being subhuman – so Nazis spoke of Jews as being vermin and Tutsis were called cockroaches during the Rwandan genocide.
As we remember Holocaust Memorial Day, as we honour every precious life lost in the Holocaust and in other genocides, we face up to the reality that the humanity of which we are a part can do terrible things to one another. In the light of this, we commit to watching over our behaviour and the behaviour of our society to ensure that it is never a place where such ideas can take root and grow.
So, as Christians, will you respect differences in belief, politics, race and culture and try to celebrate the diversity of our society? Will you be watchful for any attempts to divide us and put us in different boxes? Will you defend the rights of all people in our country, not just those who are like you? Will you call out language that is derogatory of people who are different?
It won’t be easy and there is risk involved. But the call of Jesus is to give up everything, as Jesus first disciples did, to build the Kingdom of God. To recognise that nothing, nothing is as important as loving God and expressing that love through our love of neighbour: our Jewish neighbour, our Muslim neighbour, our Roma neighbour, our neighbour from a different race or political persuasion. We will only be able to live these lives of love, self sacrifice and truth if we are faithful in prayer and so I will finish this sermon with a prayer written by the Council of Christians and Jews in the UK for Holocaust Memorial Day…
God of justice and of peace,
You call your people to stand together, in solidarity with those who suffer; We remember before you in sorrow:
all who perished in the horror of the Holocaust,
all who were persecuted,
and all whose suffering continues;
Turn the hearts of all who persecute and oppress,
and of all who seek to divide;
Open our own hearts and minds, when they are closed in fear and hatred, So that all your peoples may stand together and reflect your image.