It has been remarked that my choice of reading material for a holiday is not 'happy'. The American Civil War, a biography of Leonard Cohen, and now a book about the systematic extermination of Jews in Poland in 1941-2. OK, I see the point.

However, that is just for starters. And the reason I am sitting with my books and iPad in a cafe (with wifi) by a lake while my wife and friends do something else is because I have a seriously dodgy shoulder awaiting treatment when I get back to Bradford.

Right, that's the explanations and excuses dealt with.

Anyway, we had a conversation over breakfast this morning about how individuals, communities or entire nations manage to collude in inhuman behaviour while then proving totally incapable of coming to terms with that behaviour later. Austria has never seriously addressed its complicity with Nazism and the Final Solution; Switzerland's neutrality during the Second World War allowed it the freedom to cover both heroism and quiet cruelty; Rwanda sought to blame the Belgians and the French for sowing the seeds of genocide only twenty years ago.

We were discussing how the ground for dreadful collective behaviour and individual complicity in it is laid by years of cultural and linguistic corruption. Turn Jews and Bolsheviks into categories of 'enemies' and it becomes easier to justify getting rid of them. Spend years referring to 'the other tribe' as “cockroaches” and stamping them out becomes reasonable as well as achievable.

This reminded me of something I heard years ago at Greenbelt. I think it was the great and late-lamented Mike Yaconelli who claimed that the most common cause of death of cattle on the great plains of the American mid-west was “being hit by a train”. Trains and railway tracks were hard to find in the vast expanses of empty land. And the cows didn't set out to find them in order to get flattened by the iron horse. They simply put their head down, nibbled the nearest bit of grass… then moved on to the next piece of grass… and then the next bit… until they had moved a very long way and found themselves nibbling grass in front of tons of moving metal.

They nibbled their way to destruction.

People don't set out to collude in genocide. They just keep their head down and their eyes narrowly focused. They attend to the immediate business to hand and don't look up to see the bigger picture. But, one day they find themselves in front of a train.

Which is how and why Ordinary Men end up doing extraordinarily terrible things to other people.

 

The world is not a comfortable place just now. But, let's keep this in perspective: it is never comfortable, never has been, never will be. For most people with a pulse, life is tough and good times should not be taken for granted. Yesterday, spending an hour with a group of teenagers on a big outer-Bradford estate, we looked at who pays the price when we buy cheap clothes in England or drink coffee from companies that pay no tax here and probably don't pay the coffee growers a living or just price for their beans.

We do injustice and greed far better than we do justice and selflessness.

Italy is paralysed – demonstrating that Europe's financial crisis is more political than it is economic. It has to do with consensus, leadership and will… and not primarily the availability of cash.

Zimbabwe looks towards elections and the old tactics of violence and threat are already beginning to colour the process as Robert Mugabe seeks the protection of office (again) at the age of 89. Even the Pope can't persuade him to do the decent thing. And who suffers? Well, the 'wrong' tribes, for starters.

Just a few weeks ago we were in Sudan. President Bashir, already indicted before the International Criminal Court on charges of genocide in Darfur, continues to pursue what can only be described as ethnic cleansing in Darfur and the Nuba Mountains. Stories are coming out increasingly that allow no doubt of the nature of the oppression being exerted by the Khartoum government against its own people.

And there lies the nub of the matter: 'its own people'. The Africans are not seen by the Arab masters as their 'own people'. The Africans are aliens who should go south or disappear. Like all such cleansings – and here, despite the claims of the government, it is clear that the roots of Sudan's bombing and terrorising of civilians is ethnic and racial – people are reduced to categories that then become dehumanised: it is easier to get rid of them, if they cease to be 'people' and become simply 'objects that conform to a categorical type'. See Rwanda, Nazism, etc.

Today serious questions will be asked in the British parliament. Bishops will be urging action by the British Government and its partners in the face of Sudanese indifference to international rhetoric. These bishops are extremely well connected to the grassroots realities in Sudan (as many other places in the world) because we have very close partnership links with dioceses and bishops there. This means we get to see ordinary people living their ordinary lives away from diplomatic environments or media theatres.

After Rwanda we said we would never let this happen again. As Baroness Cox said on BBC Radio 4 this morning, “'again' is happening now”.

 

When Sudan went to the referendum polls last year, it seemed that partition was the only way this divided nation could move forward in relative peace. I look back and accuse myself of both ignorance and romanticism.

It looks obvious on paper. The Muslim north could live with their own integrity and a new nation of Southern Sudan would be shaped by it’s Christian character. That would clear it up, wouldn’t it?

Well, no, actually.

As we know, not from media reports alone, but also from personal contacts on the ground in the communities affected, what has been unleashed in the north (South Kordofan) amounts to ethnic cleansing or genocide – choose your own word. Bashir has already reneged on the agreements reached with mediators recently and seems unabashed about declaring open war on those in the north who aren’t ‘his people’. Conflict seems not only frighteningly likely, but also enthusiastically wanted by the Bashir government.

This is serious. And it isn’t just about conflict between north and south. The Nubans, who comprise Muslims, Christians and others, are being wiped out on purely ethnic grounds – northerners being attacked militarily because they refuse to move south where they have never lived.

The Episcopal Church of Sudan wants to remain a single church after partition. Given the ‘cleansing’ going on in the north, this is going to pose formidable challenges.

The General Synod will see a video during Evening Prayer tomorrow (Saturday 9 July) in which Archbishop Daniel Deng pleads with great urgency and dignity for intervention now in order to avoid genocide that otherwise looks inevitable. The Archbishop of Canterbury will ask the Synod to endorse his strong appeal to the British Foreign Secretary to act on behalf of Sudan now.

The celebration of independence in the south should not hide the cost of such independence in the north.

This stuff even puts the News of the World stuff into perspective. It also demonstrates why (a) democracy should never be taken for granted and (b) why journalists who get news out of places like this deserve massive respect.

Pray for the people of Sudan.

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPad

Location:York

It is impossible to visit the Holocaust Museum at Yad Vashem and not be moved, horrified, ashamed. It is one of those places where you feel it is an intrusion to talk, breaking the silence which can be the only real response to genocide.

I have visited concentration camps and studied the literature. I have spoken to all sorts of Germans who responded in diverse ways to Nazi totalitarianism. I have read deeply and thought long about the Holocaust. But, when you walk into Yad Vashem a good deal of the rationalising has to be left behind in order to be impacted afresh by the almost inconceivable inhumanity of systematic cruelty.

The most moving memorial (to my mind, at least) is that dedicated to the Warsaw uprising. On the left is a bronze relief of the 19 year old and others who led the armed uprising within the ghetto – resisting the crimes of the Nazis with all the power and arms they could muster. On the right there is another bronze relief of Jews being led to slaughter, accompanied by German guards who have been given no faces. These two reliefs display two different responses to the Nazi evil: resistance or acceptance of their fate.

After the War, many survivors struggled with this. Which was the right response? And was one wrong for choosing the other option? Should the Jews have simply succumbed to the power of military abuse; or should they have fought against it? The answer offered here is that there is no answer: there is simply the fact that people responded differently.

The more worrying aspect is the refusal of the artist to give the German sentries faces. Apparently, he felt that we couldn’t humanise such monsters. The last time I visited Yad Vashem I asked our academic guide if this was wise – that if we simply dismiss such people as ‘monsters’, we don’t have to deal with the human capacity (in all of us?) to collude in such monstrosities. It is only when we give the ‘monster’ a face that we can begin to understand and respond to what they have done. Only then can we begin to face the common human problems of cruelty and violence.

However, as indicated by the above, the brain does have to be engaged at Yad Vashem. Sir Jonathan Sacks has spoken of the dangers of ‘memory becoming history’ – when the ‘story’ becomes a commodity useful for justifying other ends, easily disconnected from reality and turned into an ideological weapon. Miroslav Volf has written eloquently about the ways in which ‘memory’ is turned into a justification for violence and the exercise of power.

And this is the struggle that goes on at a place like Yad Vashem: how does the story of the Holocaust relate to how states behave now?

As you enter there is a quotation by Kurt Tucholsky:

A country is not just what it does – it is also what it tolerates.

I saw this a couple of days ago – painted onto the wall that imprisons Bethlehem. To whom does it apply? Just Nazi Germany – or Israel and other states that oppress other people? Or does the incalculable suffering of the Jews in Europe excuse all subsequent abuses by Israel? This is a tough question that inflames passions, but goes to the heart of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Alongside all this, Yad Vashem celebrates the people who resisted the dehumanising violence of the Nazis. It points out that two-thirds of those who planned the Final Solution had university degrees and of them half had doctorates in philosophy, law, politics and economics. Yet it also quotes the German pastor who said:

We don’t know any Jews; we know only human beings.

We see recorded the humanity of a priest in Mlyny who – and it must have seemed like a futile and miniscule gesture at the time – “instructed the village undertaker to write on a note the numbers that were tattooed on the arms of the murdered inmates he buried”. It is this that brings us back to the greatness of Yad Vashem: this place records the names of all those who suffered and died in the Holocaust, remembering their names and ensuring that although their lives ended in anonymity they will never be forgotten. The fact that they lived will be recalled and honoured.

Primo Levi wrote:

Then for the first time we became aware that our language lacks words to express this offence, the demolition of a man… we had reached the bottom. It is not possible to sink lower than this… Nothing belongs to us anymore: they have taken away our clothes, our shoes, even our hair… They will even take away our name.

Even where, as in Mlyny, the name is now a number, Levi was to be proved wrong. Yad Vashem insists that the memory of these people will be honoured – whether they resisted or succumbed. The question is now: how does the power of this act in Yad Vashem affect not just our view of the past, but our behaviour in the present and our potential for the future? Or are we simply condemned to repeat history because although we remember, we do not learn – and we see the cruelty in the faceless others and fail to look in the mirror?

There is a cattle truck standing on the end of rails that hang over the precipice outside the museum. On the wall in front of it is inscribed a poem found written in pencil inside the sealed railway car. It reads:

Here in this carload / I am Eve / with Abel my son. / If you see my other son / Cain son of man / tell him

What are we to tell him?

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