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The Rector: Vive la différence

The Rector

Bolton Abbey Parish Magazine

June 2015

Vive la différence

‘There will be no mixture of populations to cause endless trouble. A clean sweep will be made.’ This was Winston Churchill’s summary of the agreement at the Potsdam Conference in 1945 that redrew the boundaries of Europe. Fourteen million German speaking civilians, who had lived for centuries across Eastern Europe, were forcibly expelled from their ancestral homelands. Two million of them died during the westward migrations. The survivors arrived, destitute and bewildered, in a post-war Germany whose population did not understand their strange dialects and resented the extra demands they made on scarce resources. These refugees – mainly old men, women, and children – paid a high price for the barbarity of the defeated Nazi regime. The Allied victory in Europe presaged, for them, the loss of everything they had known.
Churchill’s observation that mixed populations cause ‘endless trouble’ is a bleak and pessimistic analysis of the human capacity for accommodating difference. Sadly it is an analysis that, in our own time, Rwandan Tutsis, Bosnian Muslims, and Iraqi Christians (among many others) would probably share: suspicion of ‘the other’ begets persecution; expulsion or, worse, genocide follow.
The witness of our scriptures, too, reveals something of the struggle between those who are willing to embrace difference and those who resist it: the Jewish widow Naomi and her Moabite daughter-in-law Ruth chose to define themselves, not by their racial difference but by a love and loyalty forged through marriage and shared bereavement; on the other hand, in the Books of Ezra and Nehemiah we find harsh and unequivocal condemnation of those Jews who have married foreigners (including Moabites). For Christians, however, such struggles find their resolution in Jesus Christ. Ignoring the conventions of his faith, Jesus spoke with non-Jewish women and Roman soldiers; he expanded his listeners’ understanding of the concept of neighbour by telling the story of the Good (even though foreign) Samaritan; and through his Holy Spirit he set the Gospel free to be preached to Jew and Gentile, slave and free, women and men. In Christ, pessimism never has the last word.

With my very best wishes,

Simon