back on the Church's poor judgment in relation to war and genocide, Waller
now asks, ‘To what degree can Christian institutions redeem themselves--and
the world--by being involved in postgenocidal reconciliation?’ How
can the Church seek forgiveness for its faults and help cultivate forgiveness
between other nations?...”
That the Christian Church has participated in genocide, even passively, is a difficult issue for Christians to consider. But it is the subject of James Waller's research, and the issue he brought before his audience in Reid Chapel during Samford's Christianity and Human Rights Conference in November.
In his plenary address, "Deliver Us From Evil: Genocide and the Christian World," the professor of psychology and Edward Lindaman chair at Whitworth College shared his study of the Church's role in the genocide of the Holocaust (1939-45), Rwanda (1994) and Bosnia (1992-95).
In each of these case studies, Waller found that, pre-genocide, there existed in the Church a fusion of religious belief systems with ethnic and national identities, providing theological justifications for an "us vs. them" perspective. He said that this can limit the people an entity (or individual) feels morally obligated to help.
Waller also found that the Church was silent, compliant and resigned to mass murder during each of these incidences of genocide. In Rwanda, there is even evidence that the worst massacres occurred in churches and mission compounds, and that some clergy participated in the killing.
As evidence that Church intervention does make a difference, Waller pointed to an event in the early stages of the Holocaust. Before Hitler began killing Jews, he gassed hundreds of Germans with physical or mental disabilities. The Church spoke out against Hitler's actions, and those killings stopped. Waller found that later, when Hitler began killing Jews, the Church was silent and the killing was rampant.
In addition to the Church's passivity during genocide, Waller found that, postgenocide, the Church tended to overstate its degree of victimization or persecution. It retold the story of genocide in a way that appropriated the victim groups' suffering. He also said that the Church often glorified individual Christian heroes or martyrs, such as Dietrich Bonhoeffer, taking credit as an entity for what was done by an individual.
Although the Church typically has made official declarations of contrition in the wake of genocide, Waller found that these lacked any real self-analysis or acceptance of culpability. The Church seems to assume that self-critique doesn't matter because genocide “won’t happen again.”
Looking back on the Church's poor judgment in relation to war and genocide, Waller now asks, "To what degree can Christian institutions redeem themselves--and the world--by being involved in postgenocidal reconciliation?" How can the Church seek forgiveness for its faults and help cultivate forgiveness between other nations?
Above all, Waller encouraged Christian communities to think about what the Church did wrong in the past, and what it can do differently next time. Because, he said, "there will be a next time."
James Waller is the author of Prejudice Across America and Face to Face: The Changing State of Racism Across America. His most recent book is Becoming Evil: How Ordinary People Commit Genocide and Mass Killing (Oxford University Press). He is under contract for two additional books on social evil.
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