ON APOLOGIES AND HATRED
At the end of July, 1941, something quite remarkable happened at the infamous death camp Auschwitz - an escape. Little is known about the men who managed this astounding feat, but a great deal is known about what happened afterwards. To dissuade further attempts, SS-Hauptsturmführer Karl Fritzsch, the deputy camp commander, chose ten men to die by starvation in an underground bunker as a warning to anyone else who might try to escape.
One of the ten men chosen for death, Franciszek Gajowniczek, cried out “My wife! My children!” Standing amongst the other prisoners was a man named Maximilian Kolbe. Kolbe stepped forward and offered to take Gajowniczek’s place, which the deputy commander permitted.
Kolbe was a Polish Franciscan friar and priest, whose vocation was very much tied into evangelisation through media and publishing. He had founded several publications and was in possession of an amateur radio license as well, and had travelled throughout China, Japan and India both founding religious communities and seeking to spread the Gospel message that he felt he had received in a very intense way when he was still a boy.
In 1936 ill health forced him to return to Poland, where he continued his work in the publishing field. The friars’ publications were judged by the Nazis to be subversive, and in February of 1941 they were closed down, and Kolbe and three of his companions were arrested. In May of 1941 he was transferred to Auschwitz as prisoner number 16670.
After he offered to take the man’s place, Kolbe and the others were placed in the bunker, where an eyewitness recounted that he continually led the others in prayer. After two weeks of dehydration and starvation, Kolbe was the only one of the ten left alive. Wanting to use the starvation bunker for other prisoners, the Nazi officials decided to end his life, injecting him with a solution of carbolic acid, causing his death on the 14th of August, 1941. His remains were cremated on the Feast of Mary, 15th August, a day which he had always held particularly dear.
There are countless stories like Kolbe’s, stories of people whose bravery in the face of unspeakable horror inspire us. And there is, I’d posit, no horror more unspeakable than the Holocaust, when mankind seemed to go completely mad and theologian and common man alike tried to wrestle with an evil so widespread and systematic that notions of a benevolent God which had held sway for millennia suddenly seemed incomplete. How could this happen? God has a lot to answer for.
And indeed He does. But so do we all. Because as much as we would like to point out that our brave soldiers fought against Nazism; as much as we would like to highlight that it was the Germans who perpetrated such savagery - not us; as much as we would - in any way we can - distance ourselves from those atrocities, the fact remains that at the root of it all is prejudice and hatred of which we have all been a part, be it personally or systemically. As someone commenting on a blog article I read recently pointed out: “The glorious and brave military which helped defeat the tyranny of Nazism was the same institution which oversaw the massacre at Amritsar. We like choosing our history.” And please don't think I am beating up on the British here, as I am well aware of my own country’s horrid and shameful past (and present, sadly) of genocide and racism.
So, it seems to me, the first armament that we should take up in battling the presence of evil is to understand where beloved institutions have got it wrong in the past. Glorious things have been done in the name of King and country, in the name of the American dream and freedom, and - yes - in the name of the Church, and our informed and critical assessment of how these institutions have failed us and caused harm does not exhibit a lack of patriotism, loyalty or faith, but rather a desire to know that we must learn from these mistakes. Taking responsibility for these actions does not weaken the institution, but indeed makes it stronger and more focused. And aware of how we have got it wrong in the past, we need to apologise - plain and simple. We need to understand that as a nation and as a Church we have been a part of institutions which have, at times, caused harm to others, and we need to humbly ask for their forgiveness. Instead of revelling in some glorious past, we need to ask forgiveness of the people to whose detriment so frequently those glories came and - in some cases - still come. We need to follow the example of our own Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, who, in response to the Church’s treatment of LGBT Christians said: I want to take this opportunity personally to say how sorry I am for the hurt and pain, in the past and present, that the church has caused and the love that we at times completely failed to show, and still do, in many parts of the world including in this country. We need to follow the example of the Bishop of Rome, Pope Francis, who, speaking of the Rwandan genocide in which 800,000 people were killed, asked forgiveness for the sins and failings of the Church and its members which had disfigured the face of Catholicism. We need to follow the example of former Canadian Anglican primate, Archbishop Michael Peers, who in addressing residential schools in which indigenous children were forcibly removed from the influence of their own culture and assimilated into the dominant Canadian culture (resulting in the death of more than 6000 of them), said: I accept and I confess before God and you, our failures in the residential schools. We failed you. We failed ourselves. We failed God. I am sorry, more than I can say, that we were part of a system which took you and your children from home and family. I am sorry, more than I can say, that we tried to remake you in our image, taking from you your language and the signs of your identity. I am sorry, more than I can say, that in our schools so many were abused physically, sexually, culturally and emotionally. On behalf of the Anglican Church of Canada, I present our apology.
But institutional awareness and responsibility are only part of the solution in fighting the particular virulent form of hatred which seems to be on the rise in our world; we must also take responsibility for our own actions as well. Being aware of our own harmful attitudes is necessary in making sure that common sense and - I would say - Christian charity and love rule the day, and not prejudice. “I am not racist!” we might say, as we cross the street “just to be safe” when a black man in a hoodie is approaching us. “Some of my best friends are gay!” we might say, whilst shaking our heads in disgust at what we consider unseemly or flamboyant. “I discriminate against no one!” we might say, whilst in the same breath denigrate immigrants and refugees for coming to “our” country and availing themselves of “our benefits.” Racism and bigotry can be deeply woven into the fabric of our psyches, but it is important to remember they are not innate - they are learned. If we can learn them, we can unlearn them. And we must do so - now more than ever.
Ultimately, Christians should be the first to acknowledge institutional and individual actions and attitudes which have promoted racism, division and bigotry not because doing so helps the world to heal (although it does), or not because it would help establish a civic order which would be more advantageous to a better society (although it would), but because we follow a Saviour whose life and words about repentance and love can lead to no other conclusion (as diligently as some would try and tell us otherwise). I truly believe that those who trot out the Scriptures to justify policies of division and hatred make a very mockery of the love for all people which compelled Jesus to die, and I want nothing to do with them.
I’ll cast my lot with love. Every time. And I hope all of us will do what we can to make sure that the seeds of bigotry, racism, and intolerance will not find fertile ground in our lives and in our institutions. Saint Maximilian Kolbe was right when he wrote: “The most deadly poison of our time is indifference.”