I stayed up late last night finishing a fascinating book: Another Darkness, Another Dawn: A History of Gypsies, Roma and Travellers by Becky Taylor from University of London. It is an amazing look at more than half a millennium of Europe’s relating to the Roma. As the author makes clear, this history teaches us as much about “mainstream” culture as it does about the Roma themselves. Today, I wanted to start by reflecting upon the most recent history, and what it means for those of us who feel a call to serve the Roma (or, better, serve with them) in Europe.
I’ve spent a good deal of time with our ReachGlobal team in Berlin. I have been deeply affected by the German culture’s commitment to come to grips with the evil of the holocaust and the genocide perpetrated against the Jewish people. There seems to be a palpable wrestling with collective complicity and guilt – One work I saw there spoke of “The Duty to Remember.”
As we know from history, this genocidal campaign (like so many others) was driven by dehumanizing of Jewish people and life: they were referred to as vermin, and made scapegoats for all the ills of interregnum Germany. When the end of the war brought the collapse of both the Nazi state and its ideology, the Allies’ offer of “reconstruction” “made… clear that German attitudes towards its remaining Jewish population would be taken as a measurement of German desire to be included in the democratic world” (Taylor, 189).
Was the same approach taken toward the victims of the Roma holocaust, to the hundreds of thousands who were killed? Far from it. Instead, officials reinstated pre-war codes that institutionalized the stigmatization of Roma, commenting that Roma had “not been persecuted and imprisoned for racist reasons, but rather because of their asocial and criminal attitude.” (Taylor, 190) In other words, they had it coming: the thousands gassed, sterilized, deported, hounded… it was all “within the scope of standard police and security measures,” said the courts ten years later. It was not until a generation had passed that it was admitted that the persecution of Roma was, in fact, racially motivated.
The genocide was almost total: their victimization made it “almost impossible for… customs and culture to be maintained; the humiliations and treatment faced by individuals within the camps had destroyed the fundamental structures of authority and respect, which formed the basis of traditional culture; and the deaths of most elders in the camps ensured there were fewer people to pass on traditions” (Taylor, 192).
Of course, Germany is not unique here: after the war, the European allies as well reinstituted old racist laws against the Roma, making it practically impossible for post-war Roma to find a place in society.
The consensus, voiced by Anne-Marie Kool in her address at the Roma to the Nations consultation in Budapest this past autumn, is that things have only worsened for Europe’s Roma in the time since the Berlin wall fell a quarter-century ago: throughout the landscape they are seen as a “scourge,” a “plague”. Consider some of the things we’ve heard from Europe’s politicians recently:
“Maybe Hitler didn’t kill enough of them.” (France). “A significant part of the Roma are unfit for coexistence. They are not fit to live among people. These Roma are animals… These animals shouldn’t be allowed to exist.” (Hungary). “These are dark-skinned people, not Europeans like you and me …. Our final goal is to have zero Gypsy camps” (Italy).
Why does this matter? First, it is just wrong. Roma men, women and children bear the image of God every bit as much as anyone else does. Scapegoating is not only unjust – it spits in the face of the Eternal who has created them, and all other cultures, setting “the times of their existence and the boundaries of the places where they would live, so that they would search for God and perhaps grope for him and find him” (Acts 17).
And insofar as we allow such blasphemy to go unchallenged we not only miss an opportunity to bear witness to truth, but our thinking becomes tainted and we become complicit in this evil. As I’ve shared some of my experiences among the Roma with others, they have reciprocated. And in the majority of these interactions I hear variations of “we went to (City X) and they told us to watch out for the Gypsies, because they’re so nasty and crooked.”
As A.M. Kool reminded us (and Taylor’s book explicates wonderfully), the history of the Roma is a “history of inventions,” of “created images” of Roma (as threat, as perpetually foreign menace). These “images” give rise to attitudes and practices of exclusion. Or worse. And, frankly, most churches are part of the problem, not the solution. We must “repent of our participation in the process of exclusion.” We can do this by getting involved… but involvement is not enough. The Roma need the Gospel (as do we).
Friends, Jesus is alive. His Spirit burns and his kingdom is on the move. The Good News is spreading powerfully throughout Roma communities in Europe, and entire communities are being transformed – not by good social workers, but by the hope and power of faith in God.
This should not surprise us – God has always chosen “what is foolish in the world to shame the wise… what is weak in the world to shame the strong… so that no one might boast in the presence of God” (1 Cor. 1). And (as Andrew Walls reminds us) the entire history of Christianity could be summed up as a cyclical process of dying at the center and flourishing at the margins. This is why you, if you are a Jesus-follower, need to be hip to this. We have hope because of the incarnation – the time when the Eternal God took on humanity and (scandalously!) entered into a particular culture in order to “reconcile us to God.” This message of reconciliation must be taken to the world and its dizzying array of cultures. This has always involved a process of translation. And as Professor Kool stated, “incarnation + translation = transformation.”
The drama of redemption is continuing to unfold and it deserves to be asked, (as one Roma pastor shared with me), “Wouldn’t it be just like God to use us, the Roma, the despised, to bring the Gospel to light and life in Europe?”