There are times in history, more than you may think, when each one of us needs to choose. The nature of that choice takes on different clothing at different moments, but often it boils down to a simple decision: right or wrong, good or bad, love or hate.
Right now, over in America, there are white supremacists on the march. Their rhetoric is racist, their iconography inspired by the Third Reich and the Klan. They chant of blood and soil in a land saturated with the blood of genocide, in a land where the soil was worked by slaves.
At the same time, a line of clergy is singing ‘This Little Light of Mine’. This line is more diverse and it’s talking about how love has already won. That’s a difficult thing to say unless you’re talking theologically. If you’re talking politically or socially then a white supremacist march being normalised feels like something’s been lost. Or maybe something that’s been there forever feels emboldened.
St. Paul, writing millennia ago, described the Church as “one body”. This should mean something when churches are surrounded by Nazis, when dog collars face off against assault rifles. Each Christian is a brother, a sister to all the other Christians out there; one Body, one Church, one Lord. Faith should trump our other identities. Not that those identities aren’t important – this isn’t about erasing anyone. But it is about putting Jesus before our power, our privilege, our systems, our empires.
So this is a time for one of those choices. White Christians have to decide whose side they – we – are on. Because we can’t sit in pews tacitly accepting the intimidation, the oppression, of our brothers and sisters next door. We’re already too complacent about this globally – we cannot ignore it in our own communities. We can’t ignore it in our churches. We can’t ignore it in our own households.
Making this choice will be uncomfortable, challenging, confronting. It will mean facing history and sociology and a host of stories and tears. It will mean recognising our privilege, it will mean having to change. But whichever way you go, you need to decide on which side of the line you’ll stand, you need to decide how you’ll answer some age old questions:
Who is my neighbour?
Who is my family?
Who is my Lord?
I’ve never heard a sermon preached on Zipporah. She never got mentioned in Sunday School, and is often airbrushed out of the Exodus story. But Zipporah is someone we need to pay more attention to, especially in a world full of racial tensions and an emboldened KKK. Because on the few times I heard her mentioned, no-one pointed out that she was black.
The daughter of a priest of Midian, Zipporah became Moses’ wife during his forty-year exile from Egypt, eventually accompanying him and the rest of Israel into the wilderness. But in Numbers 12 we encounter an uncomfortable story: Moses’ siblings, Miriam and Aaron confront their brother – he’s married a Cushite woman, an African, and they’re not pleased. They may be the spiritual leaders of a fledgling nation, but that doesn’t mean family dinners aren’t uncomfortable.
What happens next is dramatic – God himself descends, rebukes Miriam and Aaron, and curses Miriam with leprosy.
Knowing that Zipporah is African casts a new light on this punishment – leprosy turns Miriam’s skin “as white as snow”. It’s a form of poetic justice, made all the more shocking and heart-breaking because it’s Miriam, the prophet who danced through the Red Sea singing of liberation and freedom and God’s justice has a problem with her sister-in-law because she’s black. Two women who saved Moses’s life were at each other’s throats. Doesn’t matter how much of an ally someone might see themselves as, there are still underlying prejudices to confront, systems to dismantle. Black lives matter, and Zipporah matters as much as Moses, as Aaron, as Miriam.
(Note that God agrees with this, by the way: it’s the racism that earns a punishment, not the inter-racial marriage.)
But let’s not limit Zipporah to being the victim of racism and injustice; she’s also a hero in her own right. Either intellectually or intuitively she seems to grasp whatever the heck is going on in Exodus 4:24-26. She gets between her husband and the Wrath of God, saving Moses and getting things done; while Moses saved the Children of Israel from Egypt, Zipporah first had to save Moses. In that sense this woman of colour can be seen as a Christ figure. That’s not an image we see portrayed that often; maybe we should ask why not.
This would be a fascinating story in itself, but it speaks to us today. As long as Sunday services remain the most racially segregated time of the week, Zipporah’s story, and the reactions of her in-laws, remain relevant. As long as people of colour face prejudice and injustice, as long as the white church remains silent about its complicity in structures that enable that, Zipporah remains a woman whose story needs to be retold and reclaimed; this obscure story tucked away in Numbers becomes a story for our times.
There’s a cemetery in St. Louis where the headstones are overturned and smashed. The name of the place is Chesed Shel Emeth, ‘true kindness’, referring to the act of compassion and dignity of burying someone after death. You’d expect a place like this to be a place of peace but yesterday it was targeted for the same hatred that keeps resurging across history. Police haven’t yet said if they’really treating this as a hate crime, but as 69 other Jewish facilities have received bomb threats over the last month, it’s difficult not to see this as yet another manifestation of an ancient prejudice.
It’s not just the US. Similar things have happened in Manchester, in Ottawa, in Austria, in Germany… Swastikas never go away, and while we can be shocked by the vandalism and the threats of violence, the fact is that if you normalise Nazis, you get antisemitism.
It’s a prejudice with its own vocabulary: blood libel, Dreyfus, Irving vs Lipstadt, the Protocols of the Elders of Zion. Read a few conspiracy theories and sooner or later someone will trace the Evil Other back to ancient Israel or a family with a Hebrew name or dogwhistle-lizard people standing in for Jews. Antisemitism, like many other prejudices, has its own mythology to sustain it. It’s a mythology that’s led to pogroms and internment and exile and genocide; it’s a mythology that once consumed Europe and it’s a mythology that’s now threatening cemeteries and community centres.
And much of this mythology has been transmitted by the Church. Sorry, but it’s true. We honour Bonhoffer because so many other German pastors were complicit with genocide, and that’s a family sin we have to confront.
We can’t change history, that’s sadly obvious, but we can stand up to the present and choose our future. We don’t have to tolerate anti-Jewish hate, we don’t have to give antisemitism any more oxygen. We don’t have to agree with and rubber-stamp every Israeli politician in order to love and support our Jewish neighbours. We don’t have to rerelease Medieval paranoia every time society’s shadow is fertile.
Because in our conspiracy-saturated alt-truth world, the old mythologies are on the march again, and after the mythology comes the icons; the stars and the Swastikas, then the broken glass and barbed wire. It can happen here in a heartbeat; sometimes we even vote for it.
But we can stand. If someone who once lived seven miles from my parents can save thousands of Jews from the Holocaust, the absolute least I can do is speak out against prejudice and antisemitism. That’s the least any of us can do. History always wants to repeat itself; we don’t have to give it the satisfaction.
As a Brit, I first learned of Executive Order 9066 through George Takei’s autobiography. Best known as Sulu from the original Star Trek, George grew up in one of the Japanese-American internment camps established across the US in the aftermath of Pearl Harbour. It’s a warning from both history and memory rooted in the imprisonment of people still alive today; this isn’t black-and-white images of something that happened ten generations ago, it’s the lived experience of someone I follow on Twitter.
That’s a lesson that never gets old: all the ‘never agains’ we talk about aren’t that far away; the locations change, and the focus, and the words and the images on the propaganda posters, but the underlying fear and prejudice remain constant. Because fear gives us motivation and prejudice gives us targets, and suddenly ‘never again’ is being replayed once more. We’ll vote for imprisonment and internment, we’ll cheer on deportations, we’ll read the dehumanising editorials in the newspapers. We don’t sleepwalk into the darkness, we dance with it.
EO9066 was aimed at neighbours, not enemy combatants. So was the Holocaust. So was the Rwandan massacre, so are the attacks on Royhinga in Myanmar, so are the ways in which we talk about Muslims in the West. When we say “Never Again” we vow not to turn on the people next door, we vow not to turn on our brothers and sisters. And yet too often those vows are broken. Maybe they’re in the process of being broken right now.
In times in which this is a recurring truth we have to make a conscious choice over how we live. We live in a world of Never Agains, creeping around the edges of our societies and our discourse, and we have to draw a line against them. The borders we have to protect are spiritual, psychological, they’re the borders between us and our own darkness, between our neighbours and internment camps, they’re the lines we refuse to cross lest we turn into monsters.
It’s our side of our walls we have to protect. Walls can hide a multitude of horrors, the horrors of our own hands. It’s easier than we’d think to become a picture in a meme that an activist in the future uses to say Never Again.
That picture could be our neighbour.
That picture could be us.
The camps and the exiles and the violence are never far away.
The Never Agains are always in our hands.