When It's About Us
Frederick Clarkson printable version print page     Bookmark and Share
Tue Apr 02, 2013 at 03:27:23 PM EST
I was reminded today of this post from June 23, 2011. It seems as relevant today as it did then. -- FC

A few years ago, Talk to Action contributor 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 me ever since, and helps to inform my thinking about many things, including the themes of this site.  

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 are currently wondering out loud if the 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 tells 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, and I'd like to encourage all of us to consider how we might do that.

I don't think we can much consider how we can do better, when we adopt the language and framing of the religious right; when we marginalize our own principles and allies in favor of highly elusive conservative allies; and when we poison the well of our own conversation with terms and phrases of labeling and demonization that act as thought and conversation stoppers.

There are better ways available to us. But it is up to us to recognize what is not working and why, and to further recognize that we can climb out of our silos and consider our options.

by Frederick Clarkson on Fri Jun 24, 2011 at 06:13:23 PM EST

No matter the denomination, or even the theological catageory - Conservative/Liberal/Progressive/Protestant/Catholic/ the simple invitation to follow Jesus fits into the ideal Church member profile. After that simple invitation it's gets more difficult - as even those who most faithfully attempt to keep true to this simple invitation, find that "walking in the real world" involves confronting many issues which cause us to wander and leave the master's footsteps. Your question chalenges me with the reality that many groups would agree with the desire to prevent a Holocaust, churches of almost every persuasion - and hundreds of secular groups as well. Wish so many wanting this same goal the question looms "why are we still not more optimistic of success?" It seems this battle should have been won already. My simple two word solution is that we are distracted by so many good things - from battles against "cultural sins", administrating our success, struggling for leadership within our groups, and distractions from prosperity and the demands of protecting our possessions - that we forget the effectiveness and transformation power available when people are simply helped to "follow Jesus". John the Baptist used that simple formula as the great prophet - simply pointing people to Jesus. We have to many today, who would like to be Jesus themselves, fixing the worlds problems, controling events and lives, and so busy in their own "ministry" that they have wandered by frorm Jesus walk through the world. Fred I hope your words actually result in our local congregations becoming all they can be - to provide neighborhoods with the kind of people who follow Jesus so closely that others see the poor, the sick, the hungry, the imprisoned and they dynamic difference when Jesus and his followers touch their lives.

by chaplain on Wed Apr 03, 2013 at 09:44:09 AM EST
for Christians of all sorts to be more like Jesus. And I certainly think Steve's question should be on the minds of all Christians.  But of course, there is a lot of differences among Christians about what it means to be a follower of Jesus.

And of course too, calling on non-Christians and non-religious people to be a followers of Jesus is going to have very limited appeal.

I think part of the challenge for everyone living in a religiously plural society, and all of us who value secular constitutional democracy, is going to be to get beyond and think outside of our particular traditions, even as we hold to our own beliefs.


by Frederick Clarkson on Wed Apr 03, 2013 at 07:45:13 PM EST

"Keep it simple, stupid" (borrowed from AA/12-step talk), or KISS (seen on bumper stickers):

We don't do such a great job. Much political and religious discourse stays in the realm of abstraction or generality. We get caught up in buzzwords that put our brains to sleep. George Orwell's essay "Politics and the English Language"  ( https://www.mtholyoke.edu/acad/intrel/orwell46.htm ) is a reminder to use simple words with concrete meanings. It is harder to camouflage scapegoating, cowardly acts, bloodthirstiness, greed, and other sins and base acts when such acts are described in simple (grade 6 reading level) vocabulary and applied to specific individual victims.

Why did Jesus use parables? Why do politicians talk about particular individuals with problems that should be addressed - a working woman without health insurance, worrying whether that growing breast lump is cancer, but unable to afford a mammogram, let alone a biopsy or treatment. Our human imagination and empathy respond to stories about individual people.

We need to counter vague B.S. claims. To cite the topic du semain, same-sex marriage: "Marriage is Under Attack by the Powerful Homosexual Lobby" versus "Do you expect your happy marriage to fall apart if plumber Jack and nurse Joe in your neighborhood get married? If so, how?" Anytime a person or group claims that the sky is falling because some other person or group exists, there needs to be a "Get A Grip, Already" counter-narrative challenging the claim and then stating that the group making the claim has the strength to stop scapegoating, capacity to be compassionate and maintain sincere belief at the same time, and the common sense to apply their energies to helping individual people with concrete needs (food, clothing, housing, job).

by NancyP on Wed Apr 03, 2013 at 12:02:41 PM EST

The embryo looks so little like a human being. At different stages it resembles a worm or a fish or some other kind of creature entirely. And even after it's born into this world, the infant is uncoordinated, self-centered, ignorant, helpless. By love, training and education, the infant becomes a child and eventually a fully functional, responsible, morally guided and productive adult.

Only in the last 200 years or so has humanity abolished legal slavery, begun to promote the rights of women, disbanded colonial empires and begun to build a world order in which international norms of justice are applied, however rudimentarily, to the appalling crimes of genocide. I would not make so bold as to suggest we are anywhere near completing any of these tasks, but I would recommend patience in judging our progress.

We are in the embryonic stage of building a new world. The final result will not resemble what we see today. It will be infinitely, gloriously, astonishingly greater. Trust the promises of Scripture.

by eeyore on Fri Apr 05, 2013 at 09:50:36 AM EST
Many religions have sacred texts, aka scriptures.  Whose are you referring to?

What if the scripture you refer to is not sacred to someone else?

by ArchaeoBob on Fri Apr 05, 2013 at 03:45:52 PM EST

The scriptures and traditions of every major religion--Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, even Zoroastrianism and Native American spirituality--point to a time when universal peace and justice will be established and prevail. I am a Baha'i, so I consider the scriptures of all to be divinely revealed or inspired by the one God who created all. So take your pick and focus on the scripture that is sacred to you.

Granted, people who do not believe in God do not have scriptures to refer to. I suggest, however, that they study history for evidence that human society and civilization have constantly advanced in a humane direction. The progress for most of humanity's time on Earth has been glacial, so you have to look at a very long sweep of history to discern it, but it doesn't take much perception to know that change, and progress, are occurring at an increasing rate of speed now, far greater than anything in the past.

by eeyore on Sat Apr 06, 2013 at 11:58:49 AM EST
the progression has not always been "upward".  There are a number of points in "history" where if you think of evolution as an increase towards some goal (which it's not), severe reversals happened.  (It's more accurate to think of them as evolution in a direction opposite to a humane direction.)

It takes hard work from people like us to work towards a more humane society (and be careful about Native American spirituality... too many people claim to know about what we think or believe, and they're generally (1) dead wrong, and (2) think we're monolithic when we aren't).

by ArchaeoBob on Sun Apr 07, 2013 at 12:14:50 PM EST

But whoever has ears to hear, let him hear.

by eeyore on Mon Apr 08, 2013 at 10:24:09 AM EST

As last standing superpower, it's always about us. Making deals with murderous tyrants so we can consume foreign resources; propping up and later deposing dictators to control oil or bolster our arms industry; manipulating international human rights instruments to invade other states under the guise of humanitarian intervention--it's always about us. The hypocrisy of U.S. policy, foreign and domestic, includes not a small amount of Christian dominion philosophy. It comes up every day in administrative policy and court rulings against the indigenous self-determination of American Indians, Palestinians and West Papuans. Even the Obama Administration condones genocide by arming Uganda, Rwanda, Israel and Indonesia. While it is comforting to suggest we need to speak out against other people's atrocities, it is more important to put our own house in order.

by Jay Taber on Sat Apr 06, 2013 at 01:34:28 PM EST

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