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Every Name in Every Nation
Holocaust Remembrance Day

For Sunday April 26, 2009

           Lectionary Readings (Revised Common Lectionary, Year B)
           Acts 3:12–19
           Psalm 4
           1 John 3:1–7
           Luke 24:36b–48

Raphael Lemkin.
Raphael Lemkin.

           Armenia. Auschwitz. Cambodia. Kurdish Iraq. Bosnia. Rwanda. Srebrenica. Kosovo. And now Darfur. Thanks to a person who died fifty years ago this year, and who has been all but forgotten to history (see below), this week the world pauses to consider man's inhumanity to man. The readings this week explain why, of all people, Christians should be leaders in this vigil.

           After his resurrection, Jesus told his followers to spread his message "to all nations, beginning at Jerusalem" (Luke 24:48; cf. Matthew 28:19). In his parallel passage, Mark renders the universal scope more emphatic by writing "to all the world [and] to all creation" (Mark 16:15). Similarly, in Luke's sequel to his gospel, Jesus told his timid followers, "you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth" (Acts 1:8).

           In the lectionary this week, Peter concludes his sermon by proclaiming that in Jesus "all peoples on earth will be blessed" by God (Acts 3:25 = Genesis 22:18, 26:4), which global promise was first made to Abraham 4,000 years ago (Genesis 12:3). The story of Jesus, says Luke, anticipates the "restoration of all things" (Acts 3:21). God remembers every name in every nation.         

           Two radical corollaries follow from this robustly global vision — the decentralization of your geography and the reorientation of your politics.

           First, Christians are geographic, cultural, national and ethnic egalitarians; for them there is no geographic center of the world, but only a constellation of points equidistant from the heart of God. Proclaiming that God lavishly loves all the world, each person, and every place, the Gospel does not privilege any country as exceptional. No one can say they are forgotten, and no one can claim special favor.

           Much has been written about American exceptionalism. In terms of economic, political, military, scientific and cultural dominance, America is unrivaled, and in that sense "exceptional" (although there is no reason to think that will last forever). But from a theological or Christian point of view, America is no more "exceptional" in God's eyes than any other country. While allowing for a natural and wholesome love, even pride, in your own country ("there's no place like home"), geo-political egalitarianism subverts the claim of absolute allegiance to any one nation. The claims of the gospel are absolute and unconditional; the claims of the nation and state are relative and conditional.

           Second, because of this, Christian global vision asks that we care as much about any and every country and its people as we do our own. Christians grieve the deaths of Iraqis as much as Americans. We lament the tragedy of the Iranian and Pakistani earthquakes as much as Hurricane Katrina. This implies that our politics become reoriented, non-aligned, and unpredictable by normal canons. No state or political party, says Garry Wills, can indulge in the self-sacrifice that Jesus demands when he asks his followers to place the interests of others ahead of our own.

           This week the world commemorates the genocide of six million Jews in the Holocaust by observing Yom Hashoah — Holocaust Remembrance Day. In 1951, Israel's parliament designated the 27th day of Nissan as Holocaust Day, a day to remember the Jews who perished and those who heroically resisted. In 1959, the parliament designated Holocaust Day as formal law. Since 1989, the Knesset, in cooperation with Yad Vashem — The Holocaust Martyrs' and Heroes' Remembrance Authority, performs a ceremony called "Everyone Has a Name" in which the names of all of the Holocaust victims are read aloud.

           The term “genocide” has a specific history. The word was coined by the eccentric and brilliant Raphael Lemkin, a Polish Jew who almost single-handedly thrust the issue of genocide onto the world stage. On October 16, 1950, after seventeen years of Lemkin’s tireless labor, the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide was finally ratified by the United Nations. The United States signed thirty-six years later on February 11, 1986, after ninety-seven nations had already ratified the convention.

           When Lemkin died of a heart attack at the age of fifty-nine on August 28, 1959, he was penniless. Before he died he broadened the notion of genocide beyond the extermination of six million Jews. "Lemkin had nearly completed a magisterial analysis of a long list of historical cases and themes of genocide, which remains unpublished." He expanded genocide to include "the attempted destruction not only of ethnic and religious groups but of political ones, and [thought] that the term should also encompass systematic cultural destruction" (Kiernan).

Alexander Solzhenitsyn.
Alexander Solzhenitsyn.

           No person or people is immune from the horrors of holocaust, either as a perpetrator or a dissenter. Solzhenitsyn once observed in his Gulag Archipelago that it would be nice if we could neatly divide the world between the insidiously evil and the obviously good. Instead, he wrote, “the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being.” A Holocaust survivor once told me that he didn't believe in the "collective guilt" of an entire people.

           There can be good "bad" people. A Holocaust survivor once described to me how a young Nazi guard secretly gave him a sandwich, and as he did, tears streamed down the soldier's cheeks. Conversely, there can be bad "good" people. In his book Unspeakable Acts, Ordinary People: The Dynamics of Torture, John Conroy says that we tend to caricature torturers as sadistic monsters. But “there is ample evidence that most torturers are normal people, that most of us could be the barbarians of our dreams as easily as we could be the victim.” Consider the following example from Christian history.

           The Spaniards came to America for gold and glory, but they also came for God, to spread the Gospel. In a letter to Pope Alexander VI, February 1502, Columbus wrote of his goal in the new world: “I hope in Our Lord to be able to propagate His holy name and His Gospel throughout the universe.” The natives they encountered were deemed pagan and subhuman, as their cannibalism and human sacrifices surely "proved." Oviedo, a 16th-century conquistador and historian of the five volume work Natural History of the West Indies, describes the solution to the problem of Indians who did not want to convert:

God is going to destroy them soon. . . . Satan has now been expelled from the Island [Hispaniola]; his influence has disappeared now that most of the Indians are dead. . . . Who can deny that the use of gunpowder against pagans is the burning of incense to our Lord?

The results of these evangelistic efforts? Tzvetan Todorov estimates that the Spanish conquest of the Americas killed 70 million people by murder, maltreatment such as slavery, and disease — about 90% of the population. These "good" Christians construed the wholesale genocide of "bad" Native Americans as wholehearted piety.

           Genocides don't have to happen. We are not destined to slaughter our neighbor. But when we reduce people to a singular identity (Jew! Gay!), it feeds a sense of fatalism, resignation, and a sense of inevitability about violence. Simplistic labels partition people and civilizations into binary oppositions. They ignore the plural ways that people understand themselves, and obscure what Amartya Sen calls our "diverse diversities." In particular, Sen objects to the "clash of civilizations" thesis made popular by Samuel Huntington. No, we should never concede that civilizations have to clash.

           Sen argues against identity violence caused by the illusion of destiny in three ways. First, he appeals to our common humanity; everyone laughs at weddings, cries at funerals, and worries about their children. More important than any of our external differences, even though these are powerful and important, is our shared humanity. Everyone has a name, a name known and loved by God. Every one of us, Paul affirmed, is "God's off-spring" (Acts 17:29).

           Second, all people enjoy plural identities. To understand a person one must consider factors of civilization, religion, nationality, class, community, culture, gender, profession, language, politics, morals, family of origin, skin color, and a multitude of other markers. Plus, these diverse differences within a single individual depend on one's social context, whether the trait is durable over time, relevant, a factor of constraint or free choice, and so on. People are complex; we shouldn't reduce them to a single trait.

Elie Wiesel.
Elie Wiesel.

           Finally, Sen urges us to transcend the illusion of destiny and identity violence by "reasoned choice." Instead of living as if some irrational fate destines us to slaughter others who are different, a person needs to make a rational choice about what relative importance to attach to any single trait. Although Sen never explains why rational people succumb to the irrational violence of identity, instead of choosing enlightened self-interest, economic incentives, and geo-political peace, he reminds us of the obvious: "We can do better."

           I pray to move to the place described by the Yale theologian Miroslav Volf in his book Exclusion and Embrace: “The theme of divine self-donation for the enemies and their reception into the eternal communion of God. . . . As God does not abandon the godless to their evil but gives the divine self for them in order to receive them into divine communion through atonement, so also should we — whoever our enemies and whoever we may be.” Thus the embrace beyond exclusion — “the will to give ourselves to others and to ‘welcome’ them, to readjust our identities to make space for them, is prior to any judgment about others, except that of identifying them in their humanity.”           

For further reflection

* Consider the words of the German pastor Martin Niemoeller (1892–1984), who protested Hitler's anti-semitic measures in person to the fuehrer, was eventually arrested, then imprisoned at Sachsenhausen and Dachau (1937–1945). He once confessed, "It took me a long time to learn that God is not the enemy of my enemies. He is not even the enemy of His enemies."

* Consider the poem ascribed to Niemoeller (although its different versions and exact origins are debated), First They Came. The poem describes the passivity of German intellectuals as the Nazis purged group after group of targeted people.

First they came for the Communists,
- but I was not a communist so I did not speak out.
Then they came for the Socialists and the Trade Unionists,
- but I was neither, so I did not speak out.
Then they came for the Jews,
- but I was not a Jew so I did not speak out.
And when they came for me, there was no one left to speak out for me.

And for further reading see below. Except for the books by Wiesel and Todorov, all of the following are reviewed in the book and film review pages of JwJ.

Philip Gourevitch, We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families; Stories From Rwanda (1998).
Samantha Power, A Problem From Hell; America and the Age of Genocide (2002).
Amartya Sen, Identity and Violence; The Illusion of Destiny (2006).
Brian Steidle, The Devil Came on Horseback; Bearing Witness to the Genocide in Darfur (2007).
Tzvetan Todorov, The Conquest of America: The Meaning of the Other (1984).
* Elie Wiesel, Night.
Watch the films Forgiving Dr. Mengele; Paper Clips (about a school project to collect one paper clip for every victim of the Holocaust); and Promises(about Israeli and Palestinian children).

Image credits: (1) P.O.V. at; (2) Shelf Life by Laura T. Ryan; and (3)