In the Christmas holidays when I was 12, I took the (for me) rather major step of going to spend 2 weeks on my own with a family in France. I knew one of its members already because Charles had been my elder brother’s French exchange; but the rest, including my own exchange, Francois, were unknown to me. As you might imagine, in 1970, some years before Britain entered what was then called the Common Market, and with my faltering French, there was plenty for me to find exotic. So in retrospect I excuse myself for the fact that it was probably 10 days or so before it dawned on me that there was an especially remarkable quality to the Duponts’ family life: they were Jewish. They had particular rituals and food for Friday evening, I went along with Francois to evening classes to learn Hebrew for his Bar Mitzvah, and so on.
Since then of course I’ve been much more alert to Jewish background and identity and have had numerous other friends and acquaintances; included among them several who have owed their lives to their own, or their parents’, flight from the reach of the Nazi regime; who knew the loss of everything they had owned, and lived with the knowledge of the disgusting humiliation and murder of family members, among millions of other innocents. Current attitudes, including towards politics, are affected by living with this background: later in the mid-1970s Mme Dupont told me that in the forthcoming presidential election, all the French Jews would be voting for the opposition candidate, because of the attitude the incumbent had taken towards Israel. Which was the kind of sweeping statement which was probably an exaggeration, but it was no surprise to hear if from someone who had grown up under occupation in north Africa.
To my knowledge of, and affection for, that family, I ascribe my concern about people whose livelihoods, homes, security and public respect have been threatened. Which brings us to a massive international irony, which I’ve heard summed up thus: ‘The first victims of Hitler were the Jews; his latest victims are the Palestinians’. These people now live with the daily fact of exclusion, dispossession, humiliation, and sometimes worse – and largely provoked by events on another continent, or in another age. They have no state, they have little political leverage. To abandon them, to regard their condition as merely an unfortunate by-product of a greater good in rectifying past wrongs, would be an affront to human dignity and to God whose children they are.
Which is why I was happy to agree, when some months ago I was asked to chair a forum in Salisbury in November on the thorny issues of Israel-Palestine, with a range of speakers to represent the range of ethnic and religious and political strands. Some while later I got a rather anxious late night email from my bishop, forwarding an email which had been sent to the Archbishop of Canterbury, drawing to his attention my involvement in this event and saying that “it would not be good for Salisbury Cathedral and its diocese to be seen actively peddling anti-Semitic/anti-Israeli hate would it?”
There are really two things I want to say to you tonight. Both bear on what each of you is doing in this place. The first is, never to lose sight of the preciousness of the right to diversity of expression, and of the good which can come from debate, discussion, difference. The ferment of ideas, contrasting and contending views, the capacity to argue: these things are necessary to the health of human society. So we need always to beware censorship, whether formal or, as in this case, attempted through moral pressure. The forum in Salisbury in a few weeks’ time may hardly advance the cause of peace in the middle East – but if discussions like that cannot happen, then there are no prospects for that peace at all.
The second thing I want to say is similarly, an apparent platitude when said against the background of a great university like this: be critical, test your sources of knowledge. Under God we have a duty to open-minded, unprejudiced, honest research; not to let special interests, including our own, obstruct the workings of our minds.
This can sometimes be a special challenge for Jews, Christians, and Muslims – those of us with scriptures we hold to be revelatory and which can bear directly on today’s practical reality. Earlier in this service we quietly sat and listened through the stirring account of a city on the west bank of the Jordan being conquered simply by marching around the walls and shouting; we finished at verse 20, and so were spared verse 21: ‘Then they devoted to destruction by the edge of the sword all in the city, both men and women, young and old, oxen, sheep and donkeys.’ Now of course most of our scriptures are not this shocking: but you can easily see how belief in a God who not only condones but actually orders this, smooths the path for the most intransigent of Israeli settlers and their fundamentalist Christian supporters in the USA and elsewhere. And you can see why generations of faithful people have engaged in archeology in the Holy Land with the express purpose of reinforcing their belief: the mother of the 4th century Roman Emperor Constantine dug out what she earnestly believed to be the true cross, and bits of it went all round the world as objects of devotion, and similarly questionable digs go on to this day, largely intended to demonstrate the truth of the biblical record.
Life is rarely as simple as we may wish it to be. If we retreat into social, intellectual or political enclaves, sealed off from things we find distasteful, we abandon the truth of God’s creation, whose complexity provides both its beauty and its challenge. When in the gospel Jesus says ‘Father… you have hidden these things from the wise and intelligent and revealed them to infants’, and tells us to ‘Come to me, all you who are weary and carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest’ – he is not offering us a lazy shortcut from the use of the gifts God has given us. He is offering us the hope of the redemption of all things under God, the hope which sustains every moment for the Christian. It was a redemption whose first fruits were yet to come, when Jesus went to the heart of the Holy Land, a multicultural place which groaned resentfully under foreign rule, and there was put to death. It is God’s very nature, revealed in Christ, to bring good from ill,
universal freedom from the confusion of human existence. We serve God, not by seeking false simplicity, but by embracing the complexity of the life he has made.