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"Peace to You"
Holocaust Remembrance Day

For Sunday May 1, 2011

Lectionary Readings (Revised Common Lectionary, Year A)

Acts 2:14a, 22–32

Psalm 16

1 Peter 1:3–9

John 20:19–31

           In a coincidence of the calendar, Sunday May 1 marks two important anniversaries. Both of them are disturbing reminders of humanity's will to war that is utterly at odds with the story of Jesus.

           On May 1 the world commemorates the genocide of six million Jews 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 enacted 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 word "genocide" was coined by the eccentric and brilliant Raphael Lemkin, a Polish Jew who almost single-handedly thrust the issue onto the world stage. On October 16, 1950, after seventeen years of Lemkin’s tireless labor, the United Nations finally ratified the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide. 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. 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).

           Thus, on Holocaust Remembrance Day we rightly honor the memory not only of the six million Jews who were systematically exterminated by the Nazis in 35 countries, but also 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.

           Yom Hashoah reminds us of other mass murders of the last hundred years — 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 the Janjaweed (literally, "devils on horseback") supported by Sudan's government.

           The most under-reported war relative to its death toll has been the conflict in the Democratic Republic of Congo (former Zaire), which conflict has involved at least eight other African nations. Since 1998 when the war started, about 3 million people have perished. With a population of about 50 million Congolese, from about 200 different ethnic groups, that's 6% of the population. A comparative figure for the United States would be 18 million deaths. Millions more Congolese have been displaced or fled to countries that are barely more stable. Even though this war is officially "over" after numerous peace accords, the economic, political, cultural, social, and human costs are mind-numbing.

Darfur refugee.
Darfur refugee.

           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" (273). Civilian deaths and injuries outnumber military ones by a factor of nine to one (573). Eliminationism is thus "worse than war."

           May 1 is also the eighth anniversary of the day in 2003 when George Bush landed on the deck of the USS Abraham Lincoln in a bomber jacket and boasted that after six weeks of war, America's major combat operations in Iraq were over. The incident remains an iconic reminder of the hubris and folly of American militarism. Come this fall, the United States will have been at war in Afghanistan for ten years (since October 7, 2001) — its longest war.

           The United States maintains over a half million soldiers and dependents on 1,000 bases in 175 countries, and another thousand bases at home. In 2009 it accounted for 43% of the world's military expenditures (Stockholm International Peace Research Institute). Many analysts have thus commented on the permanent war economy required to sustain what amounts to perpetual war (cf. Andrew Bacevich, Chalmers Johnson, William Pfaff). Some people might argue whether American militarism is politically imprudent, economically profligate, and inherently hypocritical — for preaching democracy while practicing imperialism and supporting dictators, but for Christians it ought to be morally abhorrent.

Congolese girl holds her sister (Reuters by Finbarr O'Reilly).
Congolese girl holds her sister (Reuters by Finbarr O'Reilly).

           John's gospel for this week describes how the followers of Jesus huddled in fear behind locked doors. Jesus then appeared among them and said: "Peace be with you." He repeats this benediction of peace three times (John 20:19, 21, 26), and blesses them with the Holy Spirit of comfort and encouragement. He then commissions his followers: "As the Father has sent me, I am sending you." The followers of Jesus thus proclaim God's peace to all the world, insisting that the creator of the cosmos wishes human health and wholeness for every person.

           Christian prayers for peace are both a pastoral and a political act. We pray for soldiers and civilians alike, for governments and diplomats, for peace makers and treaty negotiators, for Iraqis and Congolese, Palestinians and Chechnyans, as much as for Americans. We take our prayer from the psalmist for this week, "Lord, keep us safe (16:1). Somehow. Some way. Save us from our warring impulses. Please, Lord, keep us safe."

For further reflection

The Peace Prayer of Saint Francis

Lord, make me an instrument of your peace.
Where there is hatred, let me sow love;
Where there is error, truth;
Where there is injury, pardon;
Where there is doubt, faith;
Where there is despair, hope;
Where there is darkness, light;
And where there is sadness, joy.
O Divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek
To be consoled as to console;
To be understood as to understand;
To be loved as to love.
For it is in giving that we receive;
It is in pardoning that we are pardoned;
It is in self-forgetting that we find;
And it is in dying to ourselves that we are born to eternal life.

We don't know the author of this classic prayer, and it was not until the 1920s that it was even ascribed to Saint Francis. By one account the prayer was found in 1915 in Normandy, written on the back of a card of Saint Francis. But it certainly emulates his longing to be an instrument of peace, reconciliation and redemption in our fallen world.

Image credits: (1) Rwanda: The Abandonment; (2); and (3) The Big Picture.

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