In David P. Gushee’s In The Fray: Contesting Christian Public Ethics, 1994-2013, there are two essays back to back about genocide. First published in 2002, “The Church, the Nazis, and the Holocaust: A Reconsideration” examines the roles of the Protestant and Catholic Churches in Europe in the Nazi era to see how they could have failed so spectacularly to thoroughly denounce and subvert the Holocaust. He points out that even the Confessing Church, that thorn in Hitler’s side with leaders such as Dietrich Bonhoeffer, spoke out primarily against the Nazi attempts to control the church, not against the Nazis’ plan for the Jews, and very few leaders (with Bonhoeffer being an exception) connected these two issues. At the same time, the debate between historians of the Catholic church during that period on whether or not Pope Pius XII did enough, or anything at all, to stop the Holocaust is still fierce, but it’s clear that the Vatican’s political role hampered his ability to denounce and work against the Nazis.
Right next to this is an essay, first published in 2004, called “Remembering Rwanda: Lessons from the Church’s Complicity in Genocide,” which points out that 90% of Rwandans self-identified as Christian at the time of the Rwandan genocide. I had no idea, and that number stuns me.
There are a number of reasons, in both cases, for the inaction of the church; and it occurred to me as I read these essays that those same reasons likely still stand today in the church’s response to the conflict in Israel. I want to be clear at the beginning: in spite of claims on both sides, neither side in the Israeli/Palestinian conflict is carrying out genocide. Genocide is, according to Dictionary.com, the “deliberate and systematic extermination of a national, racial, political, or cultural group.” The word was invented to describe the Holocaust, and is very applicable to what happened in Rwanda. Hamas has killing Jews as part of its charter and states it in such a way that genocide is implied, but this charter was written in 1988 and has since been declared irrelevant and outdated by Hamas leadership – nor is Hamas in a position to actually carry out a genocide even if they still wanted to. Israel, on the other hand, has all of the means to carry out a genocide, and could have done so a hundred times over if they chose to; charges of genocide against Israel are naive at best, but are consistently used to undermine Israel and those who support Israel in the eyes of the international community.
So no matter which way you slice it, this is not a genocide. But that doesn’t mean that the church has done a good job of responding to it, and I think we’ve been failing for the same reasons that we failed in Germany and Rwanda. So let’s look at a few of them now, instead of in hindsight.
1. Political entanglements.
In Nazi Germany, the church was state-sanctioned. The Nazis were able to control the Protestant church through its association with the state: pastors were paid by the state, and the mainline Protestant church was quickly co-opted into a state church that assimilated Christianity into Nazism. The Protestants who resisted the Nazis were so busy fighting for their independence from the state that they lacked the social capital to actually speak out against the treatment of the Jews, and those who finally did (with notable exceptions) waited way too long: it doesn’t seem quite enough to speak out about the mistreatment of an entire people group only at the point of them being corralled for killing. And even then, most were silent, or worse, more directly complicit. On the Catholic side, the Pope tried to maintain neutrality during the war, not only to act as an intermediary for diplomatic solutions but also to keep the Vatican from being a military target; because the Pope was both a religious leader and a political leader (Vatican City is a mini-nation), he had a conflict of interest, and his role as a political leader won out over his religious mandate to care for the oppressed.
I don’t know much about the status of the church in Rwanda, but Gushee mentions that it had a very cozy relationship with government, to the point where its interests were intertwined with the government’s interests and it was unable to speak out against government actions.
The nation of Israel was founded by Western governments (Britain) and is still supported by Western governments (USA, Canada, etc.), but there has always been an element of Christian Zionism in the founding and support of Israel. Some people claim that it was and is the primary element of support for Israel; this isn’t true, but the role of Christian Zionism isn’t unimportant, and I mention it here because it is the way that the church is tied up with politics. The word Zionism is used to describe the position of supporting a Jewish state in Israel, but religious Zionism – including Christian Zionism – is the belief that the existence of a Jewish state fulfills biblical prophecies and is one of the signs of, or will even bring about, the imminent coming/return of the Messiah. Jewish Zionists in Israel continue to build settlements in the West Bank, believing that they are accomplishing God’s promise of giving them the land as in the book of Joshua; Christian Zionists support Israel, believing that the re-establishment of the state of Israel is one of the signs of the second coming of Christ; and the government of Israel, which is always a coalition, hangs on the swing-vote of the Zionists and therefore generally can’t risk stopping the settlements, which are the most contentious issue in peace talks. Obama has taken a fairly hard line against settlements in the US’s latest attempts at getting peace talks started again, but faces tremendous pressure from Zionist Christians and Jews in the US because of it. So even though Zionist Christians are relatively few in number, their religiously-motivated support for Israel undercuts the entire peace process, as well as the voice of the church against the atrocities being committed on both sides of this conflict.
2. Political theology.
There is a passage in Romans that says that Christians should obey the government. This passage, and the rest of Scripture, puts some pretty major limits on such obedience, but historically it hasn’t been interpreted that way. The German church during WWII soundly believed that the state was God-ordained, and that obedience to the state was a Christian duty and virtue, to the point where they would proudly enlist to fight a war that they couldn’t help but believe in. One of Bonhoeffer’s biggest challenges was that many of his seminary students willingly enlisted, or didn’t utilize their exemption from the draft as pastors.
This misinterpretation of Romans has led to an inherent church complicity in the actions of the state. I can only imagine that some version of this was true in Rwanda, and it’s certainly true in Israel. This misinterpretation is also at the heart of just war theory at its worst, legitimizing anything the government does in war and stopping the church from speaking out against it. Many Christians, even those who aren’t Zionists, have difficulty thinking of a government as unjust, even if it’s committing atrocities.
There’s also a general lack of awareness of the nature of the Powers and Principalities of this world, or what becomes of governments treated as idols. A revival in this theology came about after WWII, as a way of attempting to explain the Holocaust on a spiritual/theological/social/psychological level. Walter Wink has recently been the biggest voice in this area of theology, and points out that we’re all complicit in systems of violence, and that we’re all also victims of such systems of violence. The Domination System takes on a life of its own, and its power is greater than that of any political or religious leader. It takes collective action and resistance to overturn such a system, but the church has neglected its purpose as the nexus of such resistance, leaving those who are being killed by this system to form their own resistance – which of course only feeds the conflict further.
The church was actively antisemitic for way, way too long. Gushee points out that there was nothing the Nazis said about the Jews that the church hadn’t already been saying for years. It’s absolutely shameful, and it fed the antisemitism that culminated in the Holocaust, and that same antisemitism and lies about the Jewish people are still used in many Arab countries today.
The church in Rwanda was part of the colonial system that set up arbitrary and racist social systems in Rwanda.
The church today is party to antisemitism, even among the Zionists. Christian Zionism is, effectively, Christians supporting the Jews as a means to an end. Christian Zionism tends to come from the same churches that believe in dispensationalism, which is a doctrine that holds that the age of the Jews is over and that they have been replaced by the Church. Many Zionists love Jews as a way to convert them, or as a way to bring Jesus back, but not for their own sake. This is not true of all Christian Zionists, but there’s an uncritical assumption among many Christian Zionists about the reasons they support Israel, and it’s subtly antisemitic. To put it another way, it objectifies Jewish people. And of course there are still those out there, Christians included, who are still just openly antisemitic. The church in general is not speaking out about antisemitism.
But more obviously, the church today is party to Islamophobia. Groups like ISIS only reinforce this, but we’re responsible for the way that we reduce all Muslims to a single, homogenous group in the way we think and talk about them. There are about a billion Muslims in the world, and we imply that most of them are terrorists in the way that we talk about them. Many Christians in the West have no idea that there are Arab Christians in Palestine; we assume that Arabs are all Muslim, and Muslims are all bent on genocide of non-Muslims. The church has done little or nothing to combat this racist, Islamophobic attitude.
So there’s my quick analysis of how the church, in general, is failing. I’m happy to commend Pope Francis for his subtle yet obvious criticisms of both sides of the conflict on his recent trip to the Holy Land, but the rest of us need to get on top of this. I’ll end with a quote from Gushee:
To oppose Nazism with unmitigated passion as a vicious idolatry; to weep with sorrow over the humiliation and then the destruction of the Jews of Europe; to disobey Nazi laws and risk everything to “rescue those being led away to death” — these were the passions and the actions that the times demanded of the Christian churches from 1933 to 1945. We know that now. A very few knew it then. What will be known in 2050 about what we should have known and done in 2002? – Gushee, In the Fray, 51.