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Holocaust Memorial Day and Christian lament

We should remember the Shoah with more than vague talk of “values”

Artillery Row

For generations, Anglicans in late January observed a day of lament and fasting. It commemorated a dark evil, a time of blood-letting, of violent ideology, years of trauma and shame. The prayers appointed for 30 January — the day on which King Charles I was martyred — lamented that “cruel men, sons of Belial” (a Hebrew term for wickedness) “imbrue[d] their hands in the blood of thine Anointed”. 

Holocaust Memorial Day confronts Christians with a shameful history of anti-Semitism

The words of the prayers for 30 January come to mind on this Holocaust Memorial Day. Less than a century ago in the very heart of European civilisation, in a more hellish manner, “cruel men, sons of Belial … imbrue[d] their hands in the blood of thine Anointed”. The latter phrase has a particular significance for Christians when considering the Jewish people. The Apostle Paul declared of the Jewish people, “of whom as concerning the flesh Christ came”. The genealogy of Jesus in Saint Matthew’s Gospel opens by describing him as “the son of David, the son of Abraham”. In the Gospel according to Saint John, it is Christ himself who proclaims “salvation is of the Jews”. Reverence for the Jewish people is required by the Christian tradition, for the One whom Christians worship has Jewish flesh and blood, and the covenant with Israel continues to be heard in Christian worship and shapes the Christian moral vision.

For Christians this brings another dimension to the monstrous evil of the Holocaust: those whom Hitler, the Nazi regime and their willing accomplices sought to exterminate were a people whom Christians are called to particularly revere as the flesh and blood of Christ, as the bearers of the covenant of Israel upon which Christianity is dependent.

Lament, then, should mark Christian observance of Holocaust Memorial Day. We should lament that a people whom we are called to revere were subject to unspeakable, vile evils, as “cruel men, sons of Belial” sought their extermination. We should lament that, all across Europe, vibrant, beautiful Jewish communities — embodying the covenant with Israel and signs to us of the Christ — were violently destroyed, in an attempt to forever remove their presence, voices and customs from this continent.

Lament is not all that is called for from Christians on this day. The commemoration of the Royal Martyr on 30 January was also a day of penitence. In the words of the prayers appointed for the day, “the sins of this Nation hath been the cause which hath brought this heavy judgement upon us”. The petition was offered “that thou wouldst deliver this Nation from blood-guiltiness”. There was recognition that the whole political nation, failing to preserve the peace and good order of the realm, was implicated in the execution of an anointed monarch, bloody civil war and tyranny.

Holocaust Memorial Day confronts Christians with a shameful history of anti-Semitism — a history that was invoked by the instigators of the Holocaust and which motivated some in Nazi-occuppied territories to collude with this evil. The Church of England’s 2019 report on Christian-Jewish relations, “God’s Unfailing Word”, states that Christians over centuries “have used Christian doctrine in order to justify and perpetuate Jewish suffering”. The report continues to say that this “has fostered attitudes of distrust and hostility among Christians towards their Jewish neighbours, in some cases leading to violent attacks, murder and expulsion”. This history “contributed to fostering the passive acquiescence if not positive support of many Christians in actions that led to the Holocaust”.

A lighted candle is a poor substitute for lament and penitence

The long, bitter history of Christian anti-Semitism, and its contribution to the Holocaust, should lead to corporate penitence on Holocaust Memorial Day. There already is a historic liturgy appropriate for this. The Book of Common Prayer has “A Commination”, a robust service normally used on Ash Wednesday but also for use at other times of communal penitence. In recalling sins against our neighbour, it has a particular resonance in light of the history of Christian anti-Semitism: “Cursed is that removeth his neighbour’s land-mark … Cursed is he that smiteth his neighbour secretly”. 

The heart of “A Commination” is reciting Psalm 51 kneeling, a psalm of deep and profound penitence. The fact that Christianity has inherited this psalm and the entire Psalter from Judaism, of course, would be especially resonant on Holocaust Memorial Day. As Christians we should be kneeling in penitence, seeking forgiveness for our tradition’s sins against the Jewish people, in words bequeathed to us by the Jewish tradition.

Alongside lament and penitence, such Christian observance of Holocaust Memorial Day would also call us to be alert to the continued evil of anti-Semitism in our society. Lord Mann — the Government’s Independent Advisor on anti-Semitism — opened his recent report with these words: 

This year, Jewish girls and boys have been abused and threatened on public transport, at school and on the street because they are identified as being Jewish. Government, Parliament and society needs to consider whether this is acceptable in our country, and if not, what additional action is needed to stand up to the oldest hatred of all.

This is a reminder to us that society needs deep wells of ethical teaching and moral insight in order to discern, challenge and overcome abiding evils. A vague invocation of rather innocuous “values” is not sufficient in the face of the dark evil of anti-Semitism. The United Kingdom’s Christian, Jewish, Muslim and other religious traditions can each contribute to this, providing a deeper meaning to Holocaust Memorial Day than can be offered by a purely secular discourse.

Whilst rightly praising Tony Blair’s leadership in establishing Holocaust Memorial Day, we might also question a naive Blairite optimism that the language of “values” is sufficient both for commemoration of the uniquely depraved evil of the Holocaust and challenging anti-Semitism. Placing a lighted candle in our windows on Holocaust Memorial Day can, of course, be a helpful symbol but it is a poor substitute for lament and penitence.

Civic observance of Holocaust Memorial Day; the significance given to teaching the history of the Holocaust in British schools; the post-Corbyn restoration of the political consensus in Westminster regarding the evil of anti-Semitism; and the proposal by Lord Mann that secondary schools should teach about contemporary anti-Semitism — all emphasise the need for the churches to offer meaningful recognition of Holocaust Memorial Day, drawing deeply on the Christian tradition’s rich resources for lament and penitence. The Christian tradition can also refute anti-Semitism, not through an invocation of vague “values”, but by providing an account of why the Jewish people and tradition should be particularly revered.

Holocaust Memorial Day, marked by Christian lament and penitence before the memory of the Shoah, could lead us to a renewed reverence for the Jewish people, in a time when the ancient hatred of anti-Semitism is again casting its foul shadow over Europe.

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