Defending Human Dignity
Holocaust Remembrance Day

By Dan Clendenin

For Sunday April 19, 2015

Lectionary Readings (Revised Common Lectionary, Year B)

Acts 3:12–19

Psalm 4

1 John 3:1–7

Luke 24:36b–48

           Last Easter weekend, my family traveled to San Diego for my son's birthday. After church on Sunday, we drove down the Point Loma Peninsula to the Cabrillo National Monument. At an elevation of 422 feet, you have spectacular views — the Pacific Ocean to the west, Tijuana to the south, and Coronado Island and San Diego to the east.

           On September 28, 1542, Juan Rodríguez Cabrillo sailed into San Diego Bay on a ship called San Salvador — literally, "Holy Savior." He was the first European to land on what became the west coast of the United States. Dominating the National Park is a 14-foot statue of Cabrillo. A plaque describes him as a "distinguished Portuguese navigator in the service of Spain."

           Well, that's one way to describe him. My family agreed that Cabrillo was also something else — a conquistador. In that regard he was a man long before his time. Spain eventually built 21 "missions" in California, religious and military outposts to convert the indigenous peoples, but they didn't start until two hundred years after Cabrillo. The first one was in San Diego in 1769.

Cabrillo National Monument.
Cabrillo National Monument.

           Christian colonization had catastrophic consequences for the indigenous Americans. Tzvetan Todorov estimates that the conquest of the Americas killed 70 million people by murder, maltreatment such as slavery, and disease — about 90% of the population. Juan Rodríguez Cabrillo was but the tip of a long and deadly spear.

           This Thursday we observe Holocaust Remembrance Day. We honor the six million Jews who were systematically exterminated by the Nazis in 35 countries, and the additional three to four million people whom the Nazis deemed undesirable and inferior "enemies of the state" — gays, gypsies, Jehovah's Witnesses, Soviet prisoners of war, Slavic people, the physically and mentally disabled, and political dissidents of every sort.

           The word "genocide" was coined by the eccentric and brilliant Raphael Lemkin, a Polish Jew who single-handedly thrust the issue 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.

           Before he died in 1959, Lemkin broadened the notion of genocide beyond the extermination of six million Jews. 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).

           Holocaust Remembrance Day thus reminds us of other genocides — a million or more Armenians under the Turks (and 800,000 more exported); two million Cambodians under the Khmer Rouge and Pol Pot; Kurds under Saddam Hussein; Muslims, Croats, and ethnic Albanians under the Serbs; thirty million Chinese under Mao; tens of millions under Soviet atheism; nearly a million ethnic Tutsis and moderate Hutus by extremist Hutus in Rwanda; and in Darfur the Fur, Zaghawa, and Massaleit peoples by Sudan's government.

           The deadliest war of our generation has also been the most under-reported conflict — the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Since the start of conflicts there in 1996, five million people have perished out of a population of fifty million — a staggering 10% of the population. Over half of those deaths occurred since the war ended in July 2003.

Juan Rodríguez Cabrillo.
Juan Rodríguez Cabrillo.

           We often hear the well-meaning mantra "never again," but in his book Worse Than War; Genocide, Eliminationism, and the Ongoing Assault on Humanity (2009), Daniel Goldhagen describes how 127–175 million people have been "eliminated" in the last century. These people came from all regions of the world, and from all social, economic and political groups.

           The vast majority of them were killed in their own countries, by their fellow citizens, by willing and non-coerced murderers, and almost never with any substantial dissent. By Goldhagen's count, "mass murder has deeply scarred countries home to 4.4 billion people, two-thirds of the world's population." Civilian deaths and injuries outnumber military ones by a factor of nine to one.

           According to Genocide Watch, as I write, there are at least six genocides occurring right now.

           The lectionary this week illustrates why Christians should be leaders in defending the dignity of every human being.

           Peter says that God is the "author" of all life. He concludes his sermon by proclaiming that in Jesus "all peoples on earth will be blessed" by God. This echoes the global promise first made to Abraham four thousand years ago in Genesis 12:3. This story of Jesus, says Peter, anticipates the "restoration of all things." We can say with unqualified confidence that God knows and loves every name of every person in every nation.

           Christians are thus geographic, cultural, national and ethnic egalitarians; for us there's no geo-political center of the world, only a constellation of peoples equidistant from the heart of God. Proclaiming that God lavishly loves all the world, each person, and every place, the gospel doesn't privilege any nation as exceptional.

           No one should think they are forgotten, and no one can claim special favor.

           Much has been written about American "exceptionalism." Dick Cheney even has a new book with that title (2015). In terms of economic, political, military, scientific and cultural dominance, America is unrivaled, and in that broad sense "exceptional" — although there's no reason to think that will last forever.

US postage stamp celebrates Cabrillo.
US postage stamp celebrates Cabrillo.

           But from a specifically 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"), this 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.

           This Christian global vision requires me to care as much about every country and its people as I do my own. Christians grieve the deaths of Iraqis and Congolese as much as Americans. This implies that our politics become reoriented, non-aligned, and unpredictable by normal canons. No state or political party can indulge in the self-sacrifice that Jesus demands when he asks his followers to place the interests of others ahead of their own.     

           After returning from San Diego thinking about Cabrillo, I remembered the poem ascribed to the German pastor Martin Niemoeller (1892–1984). Niemoeller protested Hitler's antisemitic policies in person to the fuehrer. For that he was arrested, then imprisoned for eight years at Sachsenhausen and Dachau (1937–1945). His poem comes in different versions, and its exact origins are debated, but that's besides the point.

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.

Niemoeller lamented the passivity and indifference of German intellectuals as the Nazi's purged group after group of targeted people. I pray that his poem won't describe me.

Image credits: (1); (2); and (3)