Next weekend, a couple of days after Holocaust Memorial Day [I prefer the Jewish term Shoa, or calamity, to the Greek term Holocaust, or burnt offering to a god; for even if we accept that these events were offered to false, pagan gods, calamity is the deeper reality, not only for the Jewish people but for humanity as a whole], I am due to preach on Jesus in the synagogue (Mark 1:21-28; 3:1-6).
The thing that impresses itself on me in this account is the collision of two approaches to faith: concern to avoid sinning; and concern to embrace freedom, and to use that freedom responsibly, to bring freedom to others. (Both these approaches to faith are alive and well, in the Jewish and the Christian communities today.)
Let us consider a scenario that relates to the Holocaust, or Shoa. There were Christians who sheltered Jews from the Nazis. The Jewish community honours them as Righteous Gentiles, and you can walk – as I have done – along the Avenue of the Righteous Gentiles at Yad Vashem, the national Shoa memorial in Jerusalem. One fateful day, Gestapo officers arrive at the door, and ask: “Are you sheltering Jews?”
The person who is concerned to avoid sinning is compelled, however regretfully, to answer “Yes.” They cannot bring themselves to break the Command “You shall not bear false witness” by intentional deceit – even if it cost them their own life; even if other men will choose not to obey the Command “You shall not kill” (that is, surely, between them and their Creator).
The person who is concerned to embrace freedom is compelled to answer “No.” They will fulfil the Command “You shall not bear false witness” by refusing to hand over lives into the grasping hand of death. Intentional deceit is absolutely necessary for their witness to be true and not false. If found out, death will take them, too, by force: but they will embrace the freedom to lay down their life. Knowing what will be done, to abdicate responsibility for the deaths of others would be to be complicit in that murder. (Indeed, some were compelled to conclude that they must take responsibility for killing Hitler, not out of expediency and pragmatism but deep Christian conviction: deliberately owning a rejection of a shallow interpretation of the letter of the Law in order to act according to the spirit of the Law – God himself does this – and trusting themselves to God’s judgement and mercy.)
Of course, this seems to us to be an extreme example, a clear exception to the rule: in our own lives, things are not so black-and-white, and claiming exceptions to the rule is surely just an attempt to justify our own failure or refusal to live as God sets out for us? No: such a response reveals deep-seated concern to avoid sinning rather than concern to embrace freedom. Things are never black-and-white for the person in the midst of them. Our response flows out of our motivation, which is often conflicted, requiring of us that we test it again and again against the person of Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith.
This is why a simplistic call to return to the Ten Commandments, as is made from time to time by British politicians, is utterly inadequate.
Concern to avoid sinning inevitably results in calamity: because unless we step out knowing that we will fall short of what ought to be done and trespass onto what ought not to be done, but that we can know forgiveness and experience reconciliation, we will never step out – never speak up, never take a stand against evil – at all.
Concern to embrace freedom inevitably lands us right in the middle of calamity, with Jesus, whose death and resurrection life ultimately consumes its flames. It is the costliest, and most alive, place to be.
In a society caught up in economic crisis and political turmoil, where shrill voices draw attention to immigrant scapegoats, and honeyed voices argue the financial need to sacrifice the least productive and most vulnerable members of our communities – in a society touched by calamity – these issues are absolutely pertinent. We need to ask:
Where are we being called to embrace freedom today? To whom will we take responsibility to extend freedom today? Whom must we shelter? Whom must we speak out for?