Prelude The Humming Chorus from Madame Butterfly by Giacomo Puccini
Before our service begins, a caveat: the words of the address are the opinion of the author alone, not of the Midland Unitarian Association as a whole….
Opening Words Prayer said on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the death of Anne Frank
God, you created us all in your own likeness.
We thank you for the wonderful diversity of races and cultures in your world.
Enrich our lives by ever-widening circles of fellow feeling and understanding;
show us your presence in those most different from us, so that in all our relationships,
both by what we have in common and by things in which we differ,
we may come to know you more fully in your creation.
Chalice Lighting (you may wish to light a candle in your own home at this point).
words by Cliff Reed (adapted)
As the true prophets of God have always told us,
the Divine will is for mercy and compassion,
love and justice.
May we never suppose that vengeance and cruelty,
hatred and murder, serve the Divine purpose.
In the spirit of human solidarity and oneness,
we light our chalice flame,
we join in worship.
Spirit of Life and Love,
be with us as we gather for worship,
each in our own place.
Help us to feel a sense of community,
even though we are physically apart.
Help us to care for each other,
in this world in which Covid has not yet gone away,
and the clouds of war and climate change overshadow us.
May we keep in touch however we can,
and help each other, however we may.
May we remember that
caution is still needed,
that close contact is still unwise.
Help us to be grateful for the freedoms we have
and to respect the wishes of others.
May we hold in our hearts all those
who are grieving, lost, alone,
victims of violence and war,
suffering in any way, Amen
Reading from Poisoned by the past by Cliff Reed, from The Inquirer, 11th November 2023
Since 7 October and its utterly inhuman acts of murderous terrorism in Israel, and all that has followed, our focus has been on that disputed land that has been called ‘Holy’ or, maybe more accurately, ‘too Holy for its own good’. The seat of the sacred shrines of three great religions, it is the homeland of two peoples who show little sign of being able to share it or to live peacefully together. There are, of course, those in both communities who wish they could – and who try to make it so – but they are constantly forestalled by religious and political extremism and a variety of other powerful factors. One of these is geography. The land in question is simply too small for all the people who claim it. Another is history, for there are few – if any – more egregious examples of the poisonous influence of the past.
Some will point to the Yom Kippur War of 1973, some to the Six Day War of 1967, some to the war of 1948 that accompanied modern Israel’s independence and which also saw the expulsion of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians from the land they regarded as theirs. Is that when the problems started? Of course not. Just before that there was the Holocaust and then the desire to find the Jewish people a homeland where they would be safe after – not just 12 years of Nazi persecution and murder, but after centuries of anti-Semitism, with its appalling pogroms stretching back to at least the middle ages. Much of this can be laid to the charge, not of Christianity as the Way taught by Jesus and his true disciples, but of Christianity as a corrupt, arrogant and intolerant institution, which all too often it has become.
Alternative Lord’s Prayer
Spirit of Life and Love, here and everywhere,
may we be aware of your presence in our lives.
May our world be blessed.
May our daily needs be met,
and may our shortcomings be forgiven,
as we forgive those of others.
Give us the strength to resist wrong-doing,
the inspiration and guidance to do right,
and the wisdom to know the difference.
We are your hands in the world; help us to grow.
May we have compassion for all living beings,
and receive whatever life brings,
with courage and trust. Amen
Reading from Poisoned by the past by Cliff Reed, from The Inquirer, 11th November 2023
It was… after the First World War, when the ‘Holy Land’ came under British administration, that triggered more recent problems. The Palestinians hoped for independence, like other former Ottoman territories, but Britain’s Balfour Declaration of 1917 offered what it called ‘a national home for the Jewish people’. For reasons of history and religion, Palestine was chosen. On the strength of this, Jewish people – mainly from Europe – began to settle there even before World War II, something which Palestinians, given little say in the matter, feared and resented even then.
So is this when the trouble started? Well, not really. It all depends on how far back you go. With the Romans,… who brutally crushed a Jewish revolt and destroyed Jerusalem and its temple in AD 70? With the Greeks, under Alexander’s successors, who… tried to replace the Jewish religion with worship of their king, so provoking the Maccabean revolt? With the Babylonians, who defeated the successors of King David and reduced the people of Israel and Judah to exile or servitude? With King David himself and his defeat of the Israelites’ enemies, rival claimants to the land he made his own? With the wars of the Judges, like Samson, against the Philistines and all who resisted the claims of the invading Israelites to the ‘Promised Land’ – as the followers of Moses, fleeing slavery in Egypt believed it to be? It is a long tale involving a great deal of war and violence.
Prayer Prayer for Peace by Feargus O’Connor
Eternal Spirit, we pray for peace in the Middle East, for the people of Palestine, Israel, Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan and wherever in the world war, strife and discord afflict and divide people.
We pray for a just peace everywhere, for the fair resolution of all grievances, disputes and wrongs and that just ordering of the world which alone opens the way to true reconciliation and lasting peace.
We pray for all victims of war, those maimed in body and spirit, their families and all who suffer pain, loss and sorrow caused by bloodshed and war.
We pray for the United Nations and its agencies, the Red Cross, Red Crescent and all international humanitarian bodies helping to build a just global order and laying down the foundations for enduring universal peace.
We pray for all peace makers and bridge builders who act and campaign for international peace. May they never lose heart and be ever mindful of the justice and rightness of their cause.
Reading from How does a place become a homeland? By Margaret Kirk, from The Inquirer, 20th January 2024
On the one hand, we have Jews who have been the victims of pogroms and persecutions for centuries. As a past minister of the York Unitarian congregation, I couldn’t fail to sense the shadow cast over the town back in 1190 when Clifford’s Tower was the scene of a notorious massacre of Jewish people…. Cliff Reed… says much of this persecution has stemmed from Christianity… and he goes on to say that medieval Christianity bears responsibility for the appalling lie that the Jews were to blame for the death of Jesus….
The Palestinians, the occupants of the Holy Land, forced from their ancestral land, have quite legitimate reasons to feel aggrieved: there was no state of Palestine created in 1948 at the same time the state of Israel was recognised by the international community and perhaps, most shockingly at this present time, the Israeli government ignores the legal rights of Palestinians to live in the West Bank, and Israelis are settling there in larger numbers while threatening and killing their Palestinian neighbours. There are raw feelings on both sides and deep roots that give them succour.
We need men and women of extraordinary vision and commitment and compassion to find a path through this tragic human struggle, [based] on what we believe is humanly just. It will have to begin with huge acts of forgiveness leading to reconciliation that will test the powers of any mediator. There are few political solutions but I believe there are always routes… to deepen understanding of each other’s pain and in that way to make it a mission not to repeat ‘the poison of the past’.
Time of Stillness and Reflection Praying for Peace by Cliff Reed, from The Inquirer, 28th October 2023
…in every part of the wide world, he puts an end to war;
he breaks the bow, he snaps the spear,
he burns the shields in the fire. Psalm 46:9
We pray for peace ‘in every part of the wide world’.
We pray for an end to hatred and bitterness wherever
they are fed to babies with their mothers’ milk.
We pray for the healing of festering wounds
that poison human souls with vengefulness.
We pray for the withering of old resentments and
inherited grudges that blight new generations.
We pray for the downfall of false ideology and
bad religion that turn idealism into bigotry and
faith into intolerance.
We pray for the clarity to see our unity as
one people on this good earth.
We pray for an end to the injustice that makes
of ‘peace’ an empty word.
We pray for these things, but who will grant them?
We cannot wait for supernatural salvation.
We cannot wait for God to intervene, because that
isn’t what God does, that isn’t what God is.
We pray to the Divine within us.
We pray to be God’s presence and activity.
We pray to be the answer to our prayers.
We pray to be loving, just and true.
We pray to speak peace – and to make it –
in the world as it really is: messy and
complicated, where there are no easy answers.
We pray to be the companions of all
who walk the path of one humanity,
the shared path of healing and of hope,
the hard path to the mountain-top.
Musical Interlude Clair de Lune by Claude Debussy
Address Poisoned by the Past
Yesterday (27th January) was Holocaust Memorial Day. Seventy-nine years ago, on that day, the Russians liberated Auschwitz, the Nazi concentration camp, and saw for themselves the horrors of the Final Solution. It was not long before the world knew about it too.
Some years ago, my husband and I celebrated our Silver Wedding anniversary by spending a few days in Berlin, capital city of the reunited Germany. While we were there, we visited the newly-opened Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe. It was inexpressibly moving. Above ground is the Field of Stelae, a collection of unevenly-sized blocks of black concrete, with pathways in-between. Below ground is the Information Centre, which provides information on the victims, the places of extermination and today’s memorial sites.
Of all the rooms in the Exhibition, I found the Room of Names the most moving, and the most chilling. It is empty, except for a few under-lit plaques on the floor. But in it, the names and short biographies of Jews across Europe who were murdered or presumed dead are read out. At the same time, the name, year of birth and year of death of each victim appears on all four walls. Reading out the names and biographies of all the victims in the form presented in the room would take approximately six years, seven months and 27 days. It brought home to me in a very personal way the sheer scale of the Holocaust.
I had planned to write this service about the necessity of remembering the horrors of the Holocaust, and I still believe we should. But in the face of the current conflict in Gaza and Israel, I found that I could not in all conscience do this – or at least, not only do this. Because in this appalling conflict, unlike during World War II, the right is not all on one side. As we have seen in our three readings, written by two wise Unitarian ministers, the situation today is very far from simple. Perhaps, in speaking about the Holy Land, it never was, going back thousands of years.
The current violence has now been going on for over a hundred days, and more than 25,000 people have lost their lives in the Gaza Strip, according to the Palestinian Health Ministry, and nearly 63,000 people have been wounded. Each one a unique human being, with the possibilities of their life cut short. Even the United States, long known as an ally to Israel, is pushing for the so-called “two state solution”, in which both Israel and Palestine are sovereign states. On 11th January, the US Secretary of State, Anthony Blinken, said that the region faced two paths, the first of which would see “Israel integrated, with security assurances and commitments from regional countries and as well from the United States, and a Palestinian state – at least a pathway to get to that state.” He argued that “The other path is to continue to see the terrorism, the nihilism, the destruction by Hamas, by the Houthis [in Yemen], by Hezbollah, all backed by Iran.”
But this is not a political address. It is a Sunday service address. And I am well aware that views about this conflict differ widely across the Unitarian community. Perhaps precisely because of the complexities of the situation, where both sides are simultaneously partly justified (in their beliefs, but not in their actions) through past experience, yet so wrong in the methods they’ve employed to fight for those rights; where it is possible to understand the reasons behind the continuing violence, even when we don’t condone them.
When I last wrote a service for Holocaust Memorial Sunday, three years ago, I explained some of the background to the Holocaust. As Cliff Reed said in his article in The Inquirer on 11th November, and Margaret Kirk in hers on 20th January, the persecution of Jews by Christians is a two-thousand year old problem. Since the death of Christ, and the supposed admission of responsibility for it by the Jewish people, as recorded in Matthew’s Gospel, “His blood be on us and on our children”, Jews as a people have been ostracised and vilified by Christians all over the world. The Nazis were by no means the first. In 12th century England, for example, waves of anti-Jewish hatred swept the country. The Jews had settled in England at the time of the Norman Conquest, and for nearly a century they had been allowed to live in their quarters in relative peace, under the king’s protection. A.L. Poole explains what happened next in his volume of The Oxford History of England: “In the course of time, however, this attitude of toleration was changed to one of antipathy. The ostentation which possession of great wealth enabled the Jews to display, and their unconcealed contempt for the practices of Christianity, made them an object of universal dislike; as usurers, moreover, they had gained a strangle-hold on the recently founded monastic houses whose splendid buildings they had financed, and on many of the smaller aristocratic families.” In the years 1189 and 1190, all the major Jewish settlements in England were attacked, with scenes of massacre, burning and plundering. The climax came in March 1190, when some 150 Jews, who had taken refuge in Clifford’s Tower in York, were either massacred or died at their own hands.
However, what I struggle to understand is this: why, having been the victims of persecution for so many centuries, do the Israelis not understand that what they are doing to the people of Gaza is exactly the same? Surely they should be horrified at the idea of inflicting such pain on others? And yet…
Part of the Statement of Commitment on the website of the Holocaust Memorial Day Trust reads, “We recognise that humanity is still scarred by the belief that race, religion, disability or sexuality make some people’s lives worth less than others. Genocide, antisemitism, racism, xenophobia and discrimination still continue. We have a shared responsibility to fight these evils. We pledge to strengthen our efforts to promote education and research about the Holocaust and other genocide. We will do our utmost to make sure that the lessons of such events are fully learnt. We will continue to encourage Holocaust remembrance by holding an annual UK Holocaust Memorial Day. We condemn the evils of prejudice, discrimination and racism. We value a free, tolerant, and democratic society.”
That, I can get behind. The current situation in Gaza is symptomatic of a far larger breakdown – too many political organisations the world over still seem to believe that “some people’s lives [are] worth less than others.” You only have to open the newspaper, watch the news, to see this in action, every day, all over the place. I believe it is our job as Unitarians to Stand on the Side of Love, as our sister Unitarian Universalist Association urges us. Because intolerance and its consequent violence are far more widespread than in Gaza alone.
We need to understand that one of the major reasons for religious intolerance and religious strife (or at least for intolerance and strife in the name of religion) is fear of the unknown. The vast majority of people know very little about other religions, and it is part of human nature to fear the unknown (or the different). I’m now going to embark on a wild generalisation. When a person brought up in the Christian tradition, for example, looks at a Muslim person (for example), they won’t know any of the beliefs in common that Muslims and Christians have. They will only see that the outside trappings are different – the mosque instead of the church, the taking off of shoes, the Halal meat, the wearing of headscarves by women and so on and so on. Muslims are Different to Us, (capital D, capital U) and therefore cannot be trusted, and are therefore feared. Or to take an example closer to home, until not so long ago, many Northern Irish Protestants and Catholics regarded each other as spawns of the devil.
Ignorance breeds intolerance, which in turn breeds fear and hatred, which can easily turn into all-out strife. Unfortunately, many unscrupulous politicians who sit at particular points on the religious divide, see it as their job in life to foment intolerance and fear, so that they can whip “their” people up to commit acts of aggression and violence in the name of religion or communism or the right for a homeland – whatever! The links between states and religions are very strong; the dividing line between tribalism and nationalism is a very thin one. There are no simple solutions.
And it is not only the Jews who have been persecuted and vilified as “the other”. The Palestinians, non-white people of all complexions, indigenous peoples, people of other faiths, the LGBTQ+ community – all have been persecuted for being “different”. It is up to us to Stand on the Side of Love, as the Unitarian Universalists urge, and take positive actions to end all discrimination and hatred, on whatever grounds. We need to help people to see past their entrenched differences to their common humanity. So they are able to let go the poisons of the past. Because all discrimination and hatred is dangerous and evil. It all leads to violence and death. It is all a senseless waste of human lives and energy, when there are so many other things we should be working towards: the eradication of poverty and inequality and discrimination, the climate change crisis. I think the only thing we can do is to follow our consciences and to do what we can, where we are, to work towards a more compassionate, more just world, in which we can all live together, in peace.
May it be so, Amen
Closing Words A Prayer for Peace by the Poor Clares of Galway, Ireland
For those who are fleeing: sanctuary.
For those who are staying: safety.
For those who are fighting: peace.
For those whose hearts are breaking: comfort.
For those who see no future: hope.
Postlude The Ashokan Farewell by Jay Ungar