Canon Angela Tilby – BBC Radio Four Today Programme, Thought for the day
Good morning. Last week 150 Christian refugees from Syria were flown to Poland to start a new life. They owe their deliverance to Lord Weidenfeld, the philanthropist and publisher who as Chair of Weidenfeld and Nicholson, published Vladimir Nabakov’s Lolita and the autobiography of Pope John Paul II.
He hopes to rescue up to 10,000 people, using Jewish money and Christian effort on the ground.
George Weidenfeld knows what rescue means. Aged 19, he fled the Nazis in Vienna and was taken in by a couple from North London who were members of the Plymouth Brethren. They not only gave him shelter, they helped him financially and ensured that his parents were eventually able to join him.
His relationship with Christianity has been described as one of ‘affection’. He is hugely knowledge about the Catholic Church and about Christian art, he even claims to speak Church Latin. His initiative towards the Syrian Christians has made me think about how far Christians and Jews have come to understand and care for one another in recent times. I think of brave Christians in occupied Europe who offered sanctuary and escape to Jews, often at risk to their own lives. Today the Syrian Christians can’t make sense of why they have been forgotten by the once-Christian West but they have found a deliverer who wants them to have a new start and to flourish.
This is hard for those who are drawn to totalitarian viewpoints. If you believe that your nation, faith, or race is superior to others you either want to make other people agree or you feel persecuted because they don’t. We see that with ISIS of course, where it seems to be conversion or death, but I know it has also been true of Christians at times. The Catholic historian Donald Nicholl once described a moment of revelation when he realised that, in spite of being taught as a child that the Catholic Church contained all truth, he did not really want non-Catholics to accept this meekly. He simply liked the Baptists, Muslims and Jews that he encountered because they were different. I remember myself growing up in North London with Jewish girls at school and encountering customs and practices which at first seemed alien and challenging, and then became familiar and finally became – well I would use the word ascribed to Lord Weidenfeld, I realised I had a real affection for this different way of being and acting and believing. In one sense I was not part of it at all. In another sense it became part of me.
This ‘affection’ is a powerful motivator. It speaks to me of how God is in the world, drawing us to holy work by stirring our curiosity, our pity, our sense of indebtedness and sometimes our outrage. It would be good in all the current talk of combating extremism to remember that the greatest enemy we have to overcome is our own indifference.