In this podcast we speak to The Reverend Dr Toby Howarth, Secretary for Interreligious Affairs for the Archbishop of Canterbury and Interreligious advisor for the Church of England.
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Could you tell us why you think Holocaust Memorial Day is important to Christians?
I think it’s important to Christians because there’s something very, very deep in Christianity about not just being there for yourself. In the Christian tradition, you’ve got God, in Christ, coming for everybody; particularly in Jesus’ own ministry there’s quite a strong sense particularly in Luke’s gospel of him being there for people who other people didn’t think he should be there for. So he would be talking with Samaritans or gentiles, people outside his own community, and he was there for them, and we believe as Christians that he died for the world; that he gave his life for the world. Now if that is an example of Christ then Christians cannot go tribal and say well, we’re just here for ourselves.
Our theme this year is Speak Up, Speak Out. Why do you think it’s important we do speak up when we see discrimination or persecution happening in our own communities?
I remember being part once, of an amazing experience – it was something called the International Summer School on Religion and Public Life – big, long title! But it was a group of people who were brought together from all over the world, and we were together for a couple of weeks doing all sorts of things, learning all sorts of things. One of the things we did, was we watched a documentary about Bosnia. And I remember, we were left kind of stunned by these interviews with people who had shared coffee together for decades, neighbours, friends – they would be popping in and out of each other’s houses and the documentary had actually gone and recorded interviews with these people before, and then kind of followed the story through until they were completely abandoning one another. And we were left, as a community in this summer school thinking well, how could that happen? I think where we came to was to realise, we were asking that question, as it were, too late. Actually what had gone wrong, had gone wrong decades earlier. It had gone wrong because people didn’t speak up, and speak out. And if you’d asked somebody two decades before does it matter that your primary school kid says something about some other community – it’s only a joke, whatever, probably people would have said it doesn’t matter. But actually if you look back, that’s where it began, that’s where it’s important. I don’t want to be overdramatic and say we’re all going to fall apart here because I don’t believe we will. But I do believe that we need to act now about these things which we sometimes consider little – the way that children talk to one another, or the way that we tolerate jokes, or the way that we allow other people to speak about other people in our presence and don’t challenge that, when actually we need to be saying, actually this does matter, this matters a lot, this is something that is intrinsic to the way that we do our faith, and do our humanity.
Do you know of any examples of people who have spoken up when they’ve seen injustices from your own experiences within the Church of England?
I think the example I would probably use is something that happened in a school, not that long ago where a couple of kids were picking on a particular girl in the school. And another little girl, who was quite small, just walked up, and just said, you don’t do that, she’s my friend. And they turned round and said, well she shouldn’t be your friend, because… And she said, well she is. And she just pushed them away – she was half the size and they walked off. Now that’s not about communities, it’s not about world peace, whatever, that’s about a little example of proto-bullying or something in a school, but what it shows me is two things. One of them was that – those are the same issues, they’re people picking on people from different communities or whatever, but what it also shows me is that when you stand up to a bully, they often just walk away. And that girl was very brave, and if it had come to fisticuffs, she would have lost, but it didn’t, and she won actually. And they walked off. And that maybe we can be a little bit more confident and maybe a little more brave than sometimes we think we can.
And finally then, what will you be doing for Holocaust Memorial Day ?
Well, in my capacity as the Archbishop’s Secretary for Interreligious Affairs, we’re very keen that the Archbishop, and he’s very keen to support Holocaust Memorial Day, and he does it every year. And he always records a little recording which then goes out and can be used across the nation in all the different events which are happening as appropriate. But I think what I would say is what our office is trying to do is to encourage this to happen at a local level. It’s all very well the big-shots getting together and saying things, but actually the real impact is when this happens at a local level. I’ve been involved in the last few years in Birmingham where Holocaust Memorial Day is a big event in the calendar from the council’s perspective but also from the faith communities’ perspective. They go to the town hall and it’s often full and it’s a really great event, and I would just be encouraging all of our churches, particularly from the Church of England, but all of us anywhere to be getting out and supporting our local events. And not just in terms of city events, but maybe doing something in school, maybe our church can get together with other faith communities, maybe with a synagogue, maybe with other communities and looking at these issues and picking up this theme of Speak Up, Speak Out.