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Well, Are You Your Brother’s Keeper?

Tomorrow, January 27th, has been held as Holocaust Memorial Day in the UK since 2001. This is a message recorded by Rowan Williams, Archbishop of Canterbury, to mark the day. You can read it in full, together with some background here. For once, I am in complete agreement with ++Rowan about the message, ‘Speak Up and Speak Out’, but we differ in our interpretations.

Although I am neither a woman priest who is called to be a Bishop, nor a member of the LGBT community seeking acceptance in an Inclusive Church, I will, in the words attributed to Voltaire, defend to the death the rights of women priests and the LGBT community to be fully accepted into a loving and inclusive Anglican Church.


In 1933, Martin Niemoeller, a leader of the Confessing Church, voted for the Nazi party. By 1938, he was in a concentration camp. After the war, he is believed to have said:

“In Germany, the Nazis came for the Communists, and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a Communist. Then they came for the Jews, and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a Jew. Then they came for the trade unionists, and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a trade unionist. Then they came for the Catholics, and I didn’t speak up because I was a Protestant. Then they came for me, and by that time there was no one left to speak for me.”


A similar point is made by Maurice Ogden in his poem, “The Hangman.” Though it may be doggerel, this is a chilling poem, made all the more thought-provoking  by the memorable accompanying film. If you can spare it, this is well worth ten minutes of your time, though I do not guarantee you an unclouded night’s sleep afterwards.


Into our town the Hangman came, Smelling of gold and blood and flame–
And he paced our bricks with a diffident air And built his frame on the courthouse square.
The scaffold stood by the courthouse side, Only as wide as the door was wide;
A frame as tall, or little more,Than the capping sill of the courthouse door.
And we wondered, whenever we had the time, Who the criminal, what the crime,
That Hangman judged with the yellow twist of knotted hemp in his busy fist.
And innocent though we were, with dread We passed those eyes of buckshot lead;
Till one cried: “Hangman, who is he For whom you raise the gallows-tree?”
Then a twinkle grew in the buckshot eye, And he gave us a riddle instead of reply:
“He who serves me best,” said he,“Shall earn the rope on the gallows-tree.”
And he stepped down, and laid his hand On a man who came from another land.
And we breathed again, for another’s grief At the Hangman’s hand was our relief.
And the gallows-frame on the courthouse lawn By tomorrow’s sun would be struck and gone.
So we gave him way, and no one spoke,Out of respect for his hangman’s cloak.
The next day’s sun looked mildly down On roof and street in our quiet town
And, stark and black in the morning air,The gallows-tree on the courthouse square.
And the Hangman stood at his usual stand With the yellow hemp in his busy hand;
With his buckshot eye and his jaw like a pike And his air so knowing and businesslike.
And we cried: “Hangman, have you not done,Yesterday, with the alien one?”
Then we fell silent, and stood amazed:“Oh, not for him was the gallows raised…”
He laughed a laugh as he looked at us:“…Did you think I’d gone to all this fuss
To hang one man? That’s a thing I do To stretch the rope when the rope is new.”
Then one cried “Murderer!” One cried “Shame!”And into our midst the Hangman came
To that man’s place. “Do you hold,” said he,“With him that’s meant for the gallows-tree?”
And he laid his hand on that one’s arm,And we shrank back in quick alarm,
And we gave him way, and no one spoke Out of fear of his hangman’s cloak.
That night we saw with dread surprise The Hangman’s scaffold had grown in size.
Fed by the blood beneath the chute The gallows-tree had taken root;
Now as wide, or a little more,Than the steps that led to the courthouse door,
As tall as the writing, or nearly as tall,Halfway up on the courthouse wall.
The third he took – and we had all heard tell –Was a usurer and infidel, And:
“What,” said the Hangman, “have you to do With the gallows-bound, and he a Jew?”
And we cried out: “Is this one he Who has served you well and faithfully?”
The Hangman smiled: “It’s a clever scheme To try the strength of the gallows-beam.”
The fourth man’s dark, accusing song Had scratched out comfort hard and long;
And “What concern,“ he gave us back,“Have you for the doomed – the doomed and black?”
The fifth. The sixth. And we cried again:“Hangman, Hangman, is this the man?”
“It’s a trick,” he said, “that we hangmen know For easing the trap when the trap springs slow.”
And so we ceased and asked no more,As the Hangman tallied his bloody score;
And sun by sun, and night by night,The gallows grew to monstrous height.
The wings of the scaffold opened wide Till they covered the square from side to side;
And the monster cross-beam, looking down,Cast its shadow across the town.
Then through the town the Hangman came And called in the empty streets my name.
And I looked at the gallows soaring tall And thought: “There is no left at all
For hanging, and so he calls to me To help him pull down the gallows-tree.”
And I went out with right good hope To the Hangman’s tree and the Hangman’s rope.
He smiled at me as I came down To the courthouse square through the silent town,
And supple and stretched in his busy hand Was the yellow twist of them hempen strand.
And he whistled his tune as he tried the trap And it sprang down with a ready snap –
And then with a smile of awful command He laid his hand upon my hand.
“You tricked me, Hangman!” I shouted then,“That your scaffold was built for other men….
And I no henchman of yours,” I cried.“You lied to me, Hangman, foully lied!”
Then a twinkle grew in the buckshot eye:“Lied to you? Tricked you?” he said, “Not I
For I answered straight and I told you true:The scaffold was raised for none but you.
“For who has served me more faithfully Than you with your coward’s hope?” said he,
“And where are the others that might have stood Side by your side in the common good?”
“Dead,” I whispered; and amiably “Murdered,” the Hangman corrected me;
“First the alien, then the Jew…I did no more than you let me do.”
Beneath the beam that blocked the sky,None had stood so alone as I –
And the Hangman strapped me, and no voice there Cried “Stay!” for me in the empty square.



Do visit Emma Major’s blog of today called ‘Speak Up, Speak Out’ on Holocaust Memorial Day. You may also like to visit the Holocaust Memorial Day website, whose theme this year is ‘Speak Up, Speak Out.


5 comments on this post:

UKViewer said...

The Arch Bishop, gets it right on the holocaust.

Lay Anglicana said...

Yes, he does, doesn’t he? Odd, though, that he doesn’t think it need concern the Church of England!

26 January 2012 17:30
26 January 2012 17:22
Anne Peat said...

“And who is my neighbour?” It is actually harder to speak up for the neighbour on your doorstep who disgusts or frightens you or your friends, or who makes your life uncomfortable (Lazarus?) than to speak up for the stranger from a faraway place, who you may never have to defend in person.

Lay Anglicana said...

So true. Maybe this is what is at the heart of the problem still? It is a sort of middle-class, middle-aged desire for conformity – anything else makes people uncomfortable. As if unusual lifestyles (not just gay – I’m thinking of the young couple who turned up in church out of the blue with punk red hair and safety pins. Collective intake of breath from the other pews was audible!)

26 January 2012 18:27
26 January 2012 18:20
Erika Baker said...

It’s also easier to speak out in retrospect when history has settled who was right and who was wrong.
It takes much more courage to speak out at the time and to risk someone of oneself.

What a powerful poem, Laura, thank you for that.

27 January 2012 10:21

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