I was reminded today of this post from June 23, 2011. It seems as relevant today as it did then. I have slightly adapted it from Talk to Action.
A few years ago Rev. Steven D. Martin a Methodist minister, produced a documentary film called Elizabeth of Berlin about a remarkable woman who called on her church to speak out against the Nazis on behalf of the Jews. I wrote an article about the film for Religion Dispatches at the time.
I was recently reminded about that article, the film, and what Steve said when I interviewed him. Elizabeth of Berlin was his third film about the Church in the Nazi era, and so I asked him why he was so interested in this subject. His answer has haunted and informed my thinking about many things ever since.
The short version of his answer is another question that became the title of the story: "What Kind of a Church Can Prevent a Holocaust?". Elizabeth Schmitz challenged her church in her time, just as Steve Martin takes her story forward as a "parable" for ours.
But Steve's is a question that could just as easily be reframed as "What Kind of an Organization Can Prevent a Holocaust?" We have created many organizations for that purpose since World War II, including the United Nations and the International Criminal Court. Most of us in the U.S. have been profoundly affected by our exposure to the meaning of the Nazi Holocaust via books, films, and our educational system. And we have had to consider what the idea of "never again" means in our lives and in the world. But taking Martin's question more broadly, we might also ask ourselves: "What Kind of a Society Can Prevent a Holocaust?" Bill Clinton says that one of the greatest regrets of his presidency was his failure to act to prevent the holocaust in Rwanda. And human rights groups have wondered out loud if the ongoing crisis in Sudan is Barack Obama's "Rwanda moment." For all of our many genuine efforts, if we are honest with ourselves, we have not yet come near developing an adequate capacity for holocaust prevention.
I got to thinking about all this again in light of my interview with Sudanese Anglican Bishop Andudu, who contrasted the dominionist Islam of the genocidal Khartoum regime with the peace-seeking, religiously diverse peoples of the Nuba Mountains region, whom I think have something to teach us. He said, "there are marriages between Christian and Muslim families, so we are showing the world how to live together. We know how to build relationships based on mutual trust and respect."
The BBC told a similar story:
The area offers a remarkable alternative vision of how Christian and Muslims and animists can live together. I have witnessed after Eid, the Christians bringing breakfast for their Muslim brothers and sisters, and at Christmas and Easter all the people from the mosque coming to say "congratulations".
But people there feel the government in the last few weeks has revealed it has no interest in allowing a political solution that gives rights to an alternative voice in the north, where there is religious tolerance and Christians and Muslims living together.
There is so much anguish. People say they don't want war but they say until the policies of Khartoum change, they see no alternative.
They are asking for help from all northern Sudanese to come back from this madness and have a look at how to build a peaceful, tolerant society in the north.
We are getting very strong reports that house-to-house executions are going on by internal security forces where summary executions are taking place based on ethnicity, political affiliation and even how black you are. These are civilians, intellectuals, teachers, community leaders, Muslims and Christians, and often they are killed by their throats being slit.
Elizabeth Schmitz privately called-out even the leaders of the Confessing Church movement, which refused to be coopted by the Nazis, but who nevertheless thought that the Church need only be concerned with the problems faced by baptized Christians in Germany, while the fate of the Jews was "the problem of the state." That, Schmitz insisted, was just not good enough: "We must, as Christians," she declared, "act for all the Jews as much as is our possibility."
Now, you may be wondering, what does all this have to do with the topics of this site? Am I comparing the American Religious Right to the Nazis and to Islamic war criminals? The answer is that no one should come away from this post thinking that was my intention. It is not. The point here is not whether our situation is in any way analogous to those in other places and times.
This post is not about them. It is about us.
I think we need to recraft the questions that Schmitz and Martin raised for our purposes. What kinds of people do we need to be, individually and collectively; and what kinds of institutions and ideas do we need -- to preserve and advance democracy and to thwart theocratic political movements in our time? And what kind of a society do we need to have that is capable of inoculating itself against the theocratic temptation?
The United Nations has not done well in preventing genocides, and while the International Criminal Court has tried and convicted some war criminals, a lot of outstanding arrest warrants have gone unenforced. Similarly, we have not done nearly as well as I would have hoped in defending democratic pluralism against the advances of contemporary theocratic movements.
I think we can do better. I'd like to encourage all of us to consider how we might do that.