The Civic and Parish Church of Bournemouth

15th September – Sermon for Holocaust Memorial Sunday

At Yale University a series of experiments were conducted between 1960 and 1961, overseen by Stanley Milgram.  What happened was that a random sample of people from the streets took part in experiments which involved administering electric shocks to other people.  At a certain point of electrical intensity the ‘victim’ shouted ‘Stop!’, but the authoritative ‘Experimenter’ said, ‘’Go on!”.

62% of the people obeyed the Experimenter and continued to the 450-volt level, by which time the ‘victim’ was in apparent agonony.

The number of people prepared to continue to administer this 450-volt shock was 500 times as many as predicted by a group of eminent psychiatrists.

If that experiment was done now, how many of us would reflect in our actions Jesus’ cherishing of each person – symbolised by the lost sheep and the lost coin – I wonder, how many?

Of course, that experiment was in no way a direct parallel to the Holocaust, which I’m stepping on a plane to Israel tomorrow afternoon to learn more about.  Nor did those experiments constitute scientific proof of unexpected levels of sadism.  But they do suggest that our simple human responses may not be relied upon too far.  Average citizens, in a stressful situation, seem to have abdicated their moral decision-making capacity rather easily to an authoritative figure who, they took it, must know best.

How often is that power used for the re-empowering of needy people?  

We won’t depress ourselves by dwelling on how readily power has been abused.  Let me just note that the Safeguarding report that has just been published on child abuse in the Chichester Diocese is entitled, ‘You can’t say, ‘No’, to God …’. 

I have to remember (I can’t speak for you) that the roots of the Holocaust are not only about something very dreadful that happened ten years or so before I was born.

What comes through, when we look at these things that we would prefer to turn away from, is the sheer ‘thoughtlessness’, ordinariness and banality of evil.

When Adolf Eichmann, one of the leading architects of the ‘Final Solution’, went on trial in Jerusalem in 1961, many remarked that he looked so ‘ordinary’.  What did they expect? – horns, forked tail and cloven hoofs?!  Eichmann portrayed himself as just a conscientious civil servant.  When the political thinker Hannah Arendt, reporting on the Eichmann trial, used the phrase, ‘the banality of evil’ she did not mean that the evil he committed was banal: in fact, she emphasised that it was extreme evil.  Her point was that he performed the evil banally, thoughtlessly, without any pondering of his moral agency.  He simply did not think about what he was doing in relation to moral teachings he had been exposed to.  He did not make the connection.  Do you see?  – not enjoyment of evil, but indifference.

Was the good shepherd indifferent to the lost sheep?

But it’s got to be ‘them’, not us, hasn’t it?

Dietrich Bonhoeffer had the seminary at Finkenwalde that he had led for two years closed down by the Gestapo, and he moved into the home of his twin sister, Sabine.  The house was virtually empty for just four weeks and Bonhoeffer completed his classic book about Christian discipleship, ‘Life Together’.  He wrote about the Church:

“No sooner are people together than they begin to observe, judge and classify each other.  Thus, even as Christian community in the process of being formed, an invisible, often unknown, yet terrible life and death struggle commences … It is vitally necessary, therefore, that every Christian community keep an eye on this dangerous enemy from the outset and eradicate it.  There is no time to lose here, because from the first moment two people meet, one begins looking for a competitive position to assume and hold against the other.”

And if we go beyond verse 10 in Luke 15, to the well-known story of the all-forgiving father, we notice in the resentment of the older brother that families are also not exempt from this fallen human tendency to abuse power and gain advantage over ‘the other’.

TS Eliot famously said that ‘Humankind cannot take very much reality, and you certainly didn’t come to church to be depressed; but, nor did we come here for escapism.  Paul’s advice to the Colossians (3: 2), “You must keep your eyes on the things that are above, where Christ is… Let your thoughts be on heavenly things, not on the things that are on the earth.’  There is much wisdom in those words.

So, let me fly out to Jerusalem tomorrow in positive frame of mind, not preoccupied with looking either backwards or downwards (at all the mess).  I shall go remembering that in January 2015 Jean Vanier, founder of the L’Arche community for deeply disabled people, addressed the House of Lords in London on, ‘Why do the strong need the weak?’.  He said:

“People are healed and become more human as they enter into real relationships with others.  They then discover that under all the feelings of stress, rejection and humiliation, that they are someone!  Those in need and those who come to help are all being healed and are all, together, becoming more human.  Our society will really become human as we discover that the strong need the weak, just as the weak need the strong.   …. To become fully human is to let down the barriers, to open up and discover that every person is beautiful.  … And you, at the heart of who you are, you’re somebody also crying out, ‘Does somebody love me?’.  Not just for what I can do, but for who I am.’

This is the challenge, isn’t it?  – the challenge of the sanctity of each human life put to us in Luke’s Gospel – and the challenge to me as I prepare to be silent at Yad Vashem, where I shall be for ten days, near Jerusalem, – to be silent before the horrors of human thoughtlessness and indifference to the banality of evil on a massive scale.  The challenge is, and always will be, that of love.  Can I take the risk of stepping away from my self-preoccupation, and my tendency to misuse power, and to look down, depressingly, on sin rather than looking up to God’s glory?  Can I take the risk of accepting God’s love for me?

I’m going to leave you with Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s poem, ‘Who am I?’

“Who am I?  They often tell me

I stepped from my cell’s confinement

Calmly, cheerfully, firmly,

Like a Squire from his country house.

Who am I? They often tell me

I used to speak to my warders 

freely and friendly and clearly,

as through it were mine to command.

Who am I? They also tell me

I bore the days of misfortune

equably, smilingly, proudly,

like one accustomed to win.

Am I then really that which other men tell of?

Or am I only what I myself know of myself?

Restless and longing and sick, like a bird in a cage,

Struggling for breath, as though hands were compressing

My throat, yearning for colors, for flowers, for the voices of birds,

thirsting for words of kindness, for neighborliness,

tossing in expectation of great events,

powerlessly trembling for friends at an infinite distance,

weary and empty at praying, at thinking, at making,

faint, and ready to say farewell to it all.

Who am I? This or the Other?

Am I one person to-day and to-morrow another?

Am I both at once? A hypocrite before others,

And before myself a contemptible woebegone weakling?

Or is something within me like a beaten army

Fleeing in disorder from victory already achieved?

Who am I? They mock me, these lonely question of mine,

Whoever I am, Thou Knowest, O God, I am thine.”