Coming back from the Holocaust Museum to Remembrance Sunday

I have just spent a concentrated time studying at Yad Vashem, the holocaust museum in Jerusalem. There are some ideas and feelings that I have brought back with me but not yet integrated with one another or with the rest of me.

1) The Church and the Jewish People remain bound together in specifically sacred history. That is to say that a history of the last 2000 years of God’s relationship with his people gathered in the Spirit as the Church is incomplete without an account of his continuing and real relationship with the Jewish people through the Torah. God’s relationship to the world is mediated through both of these covenantal relationships. The two covenants are active simultaneously and together.

2) The Holocaust is an event in that sacred history, as is the destruction of the Second Temple. We Christians recognise events in our history as revealing something about God and about God’s purposes, as being theologically significant (for example the early councils of the Church or the decisions made at vital moments in the Reformation). I think the Holocaust, as an event in the history of the people of Israel, is an event that theology has a responsibility to interpret, that Christianity (and Judaism) are living with unacknowledged trauma as long as they are not fundamentally transformed by it.

3) That this is what constitutes the uniqueness of the Holocaust, more than anything else about it. The Nazi attempt to utterly destroy the Jewish people is an assault on God and must be seen as such. This is not to deny the anti-divine character of other genocidal projects but it is to assert the unique covenantal status of the people of Israel and thus the uniquely demonic character of the Nazi attack on them.

4) That is is not accidental or irrelevant that it has become almost impossible to talk to anyone about the Holocaust with getting entangled with the policies and actions of modern Israel in respect to the Palestinians. Christian theology needs to come to grips with Zionism. This is difficult because Christianity is profoundly incoherent with respect to the modern national state form.

5) This makes Remembrance very difficult in a Christian context. As we think about how to acknowledge the national traumas of death in war we are caught in an especially sharp way in the bind that we are always in some ways dealing with: are we national or cosmopolitan. Christian churches since the rise of the nation state during the transition to modernity have often adapted themselves to this new form. This is at least a significant part of what Protestantism was and is about. In war this has often meant that the national churches have become effectively part of the national war machine.

These tentative and uncertain conclusions are just the beginning of something I will need to pursue but in the meantime I need to lead a Remembrance Sunday service. This remembrance has to recognise that death in war between nations is not and should not be seen as comparable to Christ’s sacrifice on the cross. His death was a (the) event in sacred history. Wars are not, they are events in secular history.

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2 comments
  1. Anne Shearer said:

    would love to talk more about this with you. We have just returned from a study tour of Israel including the Fountain of Tears and Yad Veshem. I am reading a short book I picked up in Jerusalem at Christchurch bookshop called ‘Israel and the Church’ written by an Austrian believer

    • Would love to talk, Anne. I plan to do something in the church and I’m also going to arrange a visit to a synagogue. Why don’t you email me and we’ll arrange a time to have a coffee.

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