Column
Comment
War & peace
4 min read

Looking evil in the face

After viewing a new documentary on the Holocaust in Ukraine, a harrowed George Pitcher ponders his duty not to look away.

George is a visiting fellow at the London School of Economics and an Anglican priest.

A mother cradles a child while another stands close by. They wear winter clothes of the 1940s and are amidst others waiting.
A Jewish family at Lubny, Urkaine, prior to the massacre there.
Hamburger Institut für Sozialforschung.

It’s a commonplace to remark that Ukraine has a troubled history. It’s almost a means of assimilating its current Russian conflict; Ukrainians are used to suffering and fighting, so here we go again. 

But, lest we forget, it’s as well to be reminded on a regular basis of the nature of Ukraine’s suffering. This week, Channel 4 broadcast a documentary called Ukraine: Holocaust Ground Zero, which traced through contemporaneous photography, academic commentary and survivors’ witness how Ukrainian Jews suffered and died in their hundreds of thousands, perhaps as many as 1.6 million, at the hands of Nazis, Soviets and Ukrainian nationalists. 

Vocabulary fails. Harrowing doesn’t begin to touch the experience of watching a programme like this. But, I think, watch it we must, especially those with a religious faith who use words like hope and faith. 

The “problem of evil”, known in scholastic circles as theodicy, has been a stumbling block for the Christian faith for centuries. If God is all-powerful, the problem states, he cannot love us if he allows this to happen; if he loves us, he cannot be all-powerful for it to happen. Ergo, he cannot both be all-powerful and all-loving. 

Counter-arguments, which needn’t detain us here, are many and varied: That the gift of free will includes the freedom to abandon God for evil; that the light of love shines brightest in darkness; that the world is fallen – lapsarian – and has to find its way back to the Garden; that God is joined to the suffering of humanity on the cross. 

After Channel 4’s film, I have to say that I’m less interested in all that than in what it actually means for us in a practical sense. I’m left wondering less why than how. I don’t want to know why God allows it. I want to know how we respond. 

Allow me to say, as honestly as I can, how I literally responded to this documentary. I had to watch it alone, on Channel 4’s website. I wonder why that is. Perhaps watching it with someone else is too much like entertainment. Perhaps there’s a fear that the act of sharing is dissipating in some way. Perhaps it’s a dirty little secret that I wanted to watch it, through clenched fingers. 

The second literal reaction I’d record is that when a photograph appeared of one of the most grotesque (though relativity here is invidious) perpetrators of the mass-murders, SS-Obergruppenführer Friedrich Jeckeln, I found myself saying at his image on the screen “rot in hell”.  

I find it hard to believe in a place of unending torment to which a benign God despatches human souls. I do believe in the hells, like this one in Ukraine, that men like him can create on earth. But I knew I’d found the limit of a human forgiveness and this was infinitely beyond it. And somehow I wished there was an eternal damnation to which Jeckeln could be consigned. 

A third reaction to identify is more passive. I had to watch it – or, rather, I couldn’t look away. Please God, may that not be said to be curiosity. Surely not, when you know how scarring it will be.  

It contained (and here perhaps I should issue a trigger warning for the rest of this paragraph) details of how the death squads moved on from men of military age to women and children, because they were too expensive to feed; how 90 orphaned children were murdered in one massacre for the same reason; how Jeckeln developed a system of execution to maximise space in mass graves called “sardines”. 

I’m conscious of the title of the site for which I’m writing when I say that what is seen can’t be unseen and the horror must stay with anyone who watched this programme. To look away is to conspire with a pretence that it isn’t there or couldn’t have happened.  

I wonder whether that means the Christian bears a duty not to look away, any more than we can look away from an innocent, naked young man left hanging in the midday sun, nailed to a cross. In witnessing these horrors, we’re not being brave, we’re acknowledging human reality. 

And that human reality means that it really is no good saying “never again”. From the ethnic cleansing of Muslims in the Bosnian war, to the Rwandan genocide of the Tutsi minority in the Nineties, to the Iranian mass graves of dissidents being revealed even today, that is a failed resolution. 

So is a faith in vain? It’s hard to argue a case for the divine in the face of 91-year-old Janine Webber, who says quietly on Channel 4:  

“They killed my brother. They buried him alive. He was seven.”  

Meanwhile, 86-year-old Bella Chernovets says of that countless million-plus:  

“God keep them in paradise.”  

Perhaps, we pray like that. I don’t know. 

It’s impossible to conclude a column like this without being glib, or fumbling for closure. Because there are no conclusions. So I’ll just stop here.  

 

Essay
Belief
Comment
1 min read

Everyone comes from somewhere

Why young people need to understand the religious landscape.

Roger is a Baptist minister, author and Senior Research Fellow at Spurgeon’s College in London. 

A young person stands in front of railway station platfrorms and below a large informaton display.
Rostyslav Savchyn on Unsplash.

I had never been so self-conscious of being British. I had flown into Denver, Colorado and for the first time I realised that I had an accent. I had gone to study and a Canadian instantly knew I was a Brit. The locals were less clear. Some had me down as an Aussie, others guessed a South African.  

But it wasn’t only accents. I quickly learned the differences between us went much deeper. Private health care, guns and the separation of church and state were a whole new cultural landscape. They felt very strange to my British sensibilities that were accustomed to the welfare state, the absence of guns and an established church.  

My exposure to all things American began in the early 1990s. The sociologist James Davison Hunter had just published his prophetic commentary, Culture Wars: the struggle to define America. For those I was beginning to get to know, the campaigns to reverse Roe Vs Wade and ban abortion, along with active attempts to introduce prayer into the public school system highlighted the cultural differences between us. 

Likewise, they found it hard to comprehend that in England Religious Education (RE) in state-funded schools was mandated by Act of Parliament. That I considered this a bad thing mystified them. 

The world we are living in has changed. Issues around religion have become more critical than at any point in my lifetime.

Of course, RE itself had a chequered history. The 1902 Education Act provided state funding for denominational religious instruction, mostly benefiting the Church of England. Nonconformist churches were outraged at the thought of the established church indoctrinating their children. Methodists, Baptists and Congregationalists withheld their taxes and, by 1904, 37,000 summonses had been issued, thousands had their property seized and 80 had gone to prison in protest.   

Thankfully things have moved on. During the twentieth century denominational instruction evolved through several stages to the present world religions curriculum. 

Still, over the years I have consistently felt that our approach in the UK was in danger of proving ‘the inoculation hypothesis’ with regard to faith. That is, providing a small harmless dose of exposure to religion in childhood can effectively prevent the real thing developing in adults. 

Of course, faith-based schools and RE remain hot topics. Only this month the government launched a public consultation on removing ‘… the 50 per cent cap on faith admissions’. Warmly welcomed by providers like the Catholic Schools Service, it was condemned by Humanists UK and others advocating a fully secular provision.  

This line of contention has become a familiar one. On one side sit around a third of mainstream state schools that are church or faith-based, most affiliated with the Church of England. On the other are groups like the National Secular Society who correctly point out that the privileged position of church-sponsored education is not reflective of wider society. 

These positions have become entrenched over the years. Arguments are laced with rhetorical hyperbole and are often either ill-informed or merely raise strawmen arguments to symbolically knock down. We can no longer afford to be so self-indulgent.  

The world we are living in has changed. Issues around religion have become more critical than at any point in my lifetime. It is now more important than ever that we have a handle on it.  

And then there’s the frequent stereotyping of religion in the media. Off-the-peg religious reporting ‘templates’ are easy to use but are ‘lazy’ journalism. 

The invasion of Ukraine by Putin’s Russia is no mere materialist land-grab. To fail to take into account the theological dimension compromises any understanding of what is going on. The history of Eastern Orthodoxy and the Russian Orthodox Church help define the Russian identity that sits behind this conflict. 

In Israel, the bloody atrocity enacted on Israeli citizens by Hamas, and the brutal devastation wrought in Gaza by Netanyahu’s Israeli Defence Force are beyond words. But this conflict is theologically as well as politically fueled. Hamas embraces a militant interpretation of extremist Sunni Islam, while Netanyahu’s religious-nationalist coalition sees his Likud party kept in power by ultra-Orthodox parties and far-right religious factions.  

In India, the world’s biggest democracy, 970 million voters this year participate in an election stretching over six weeks. Yet this formally secular state has been travelling on a different trajectory. Yasmeen Serhan observed in The Atlantic that under Prime Minister Modi the ‘Hinduization of India is nearly complete’. 

And then there’s the frequent stereotyping of religion in the media. Off-the-peg religious reporting ‘templates’ are easy to use but are ‘lazy’ journalism.  

A leading newspaper recently carried instant opposition to the thought of Kate Forbes being a potential First Minister of Scotland because of her ‘traditionalist’ views. Somehow, her commitment in a BBC interview to defend the right to same-sex marriage even though it clashed with her personal views was insufficient. 

Across one of my social media feeds as I was writing this piece came a plea, ‘I’m proud to be British. I’m proud to be a Muslim. I am not a terrorist. Why don’t they get it?’ 

Maybe the American approach to religion goes a long way to explain something of their culture wars. 

But always there is America. And here’s where a penny unexpectedly dropped for me. If you keep religion out of schools, for many young people you deny them the tools, the ideas, and a framework with which to understand the religious dimension of life. This can have catastrophic implications.  

As G.K. Chesterton is reputed to have observed, ‘when people stop believing in God they don't believe in nothing; they believe in anything.’ 

Then, for those living within a practising religious home, the absence of religion in school heightens the possibility that their thinking is siloed purely in their own rarefied tradition. 

Maybe the American approach to religion goes a long way to explain something of their culture wars.  

If it's true that whatever happens in America inevitably makes its home in Britain, we need to sit up and take notice. More than ever, we need our young people to be adept at understanding the religious landscape. With the ubiquity of social media, the unseen influence of echo-chamber algorithms and the nefarious activities of those bent on radicalising the vulnerable, we need them to have the tools and skills to be aware, see and understand. 

This is what has caused me to think again and, surprisingly, change my mind. We need to draw a line in the sand on our historic arguments, disagreements and differences of conviction. The situation is more pressing. We need a reset.  

If democracy is not a zero-sum game where the majority gets to impose its will tyrannically on the rest, this has to be a way forward. 

The encouraging thing is that the groundwork for such a step change is already in place. In 2018 the Commission on Religious Education (CoRE) proposed a reconceiving of the subject as Religion and Worldviews. Their intention was to make it more appropriate and inclusive for the twenty-first century. For them, the ‘complex, diverse and plural’ landscapes of different religions and worldviews deserved both understanding and respect. Yet, students also needed to develop the ‘necessary critical facility to ask questions and challenge assumptions’. 

Such an approach embraces the insights and philosophical commitments of non-religious worldviews too. ‘Everyone has a worldview’, said the report. Nobody stands nowhere was the title of an excellent animated short film on YouTube produced by the Theos think tank. 

The truth is, ‘everyone comes from somewhere’. This is as true for secular humanists as it is for cradle-to-grave Anglicans, majority-world Pentecostalists and British-born Muslims. Helpfully CoRE defines a worldview as: 

… a person’s way of understanding, experiencing and responding to the world. 

The report maintained that it was vitally important that different worldviews were understood as ‘lived experience’. This was not just about abstract beliefs, doctrinal understandings and theoretical convictions. This was about real people, the lives they live and what is important and gives meaning to them. 

If living in a genuine democracy is about learning how to rub along together. If it is about understanding and respecting those who have a different take on life than we do, no matter how ‘odd’ it seems. If democracy is not a zero-sum game where the majority gets to impose its will tyrannically on the rest, this has to be a way forward.  

Given the challenges that face us, it seems to me that not to change our approach to RE would be negligent. Yet to remove all reference to religion from our schools risks our young people falling prey to manipulation, subversion and control by bad actors, misinformed activists and cranks. 

These would be the seeds of our very own culture wars.  

Personally speaking, I’d rather not go there.