Lessons from History

On this day, the 70th anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp in southern Poland,  I am reminded of the senselessness and bizarre nature of violence in the name of religion.  I visited Auschwitz in 1988 and was deeply moved by the spectre of what occurred there so many years ago.  The thought of men, women, and children murdered simply because they existed were haunting.  At the time of Auschwitz’s liberation, the horrors that came to light seemed to hold the promise of shocking some sense into the world.

However, as time passes and the events of the Holocaust fade further into the past, it seems as if the human race remembers nothing.  Have we forgotten the lessons of the past?

The recent events in Iraq and Syria involving the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and in Nigeria involving Boko Haram are of great concern to the West and rightfully so.  ISIS has singularly proven itself to be one of the most brutal and bloodthirsty organizations the world has ever known.  The horrifying images of hostages being brutally beheaded on video in the name of Islam threaten to further fan the flames of sectarian conflict in the Middle East.  A secondary, but no less troubling, byproduct of these images has been the hostile reaction of many Christians in the United States toward Islam, believing that Islam is accurately represented by the barbaric acts of ISIS.

As part of a Church symposium on Christian-Jewish relations in 1996, Pope John Paul II spoke of the historical misinterpretation of Christian theology used to demonize Jews.  He decried the moral “numbness” this caused in the larger Christian conscience as part and parcel of the lack of Christian resistance to the Holocaust.  Similarly, questioning the true nature of Islam in the context of the brutality of ISIS is heating up, especially in the United States against the backdrop of the September 11 terrorist attacks.  There have been examples of politicians, religious leaders, military officials, and celebrities publicly calling into question the integrity of Islam.

Public statements by some who align themselves with conservative Christianity, such as that of Retired General and Vice President of the Family Research Council Jerry Boykin, seem to encourage sectarian strife between Christians and Muslims in the United States.  Boykin recently implored Americans to “…have more babies and populate this country with red-blooded Americans” to counter the population growth of Muslims in the United States.  Boykin’s statements imply that Muslim Americans are not patriotic which follows a common fear among some conservatives of a massive conspiracy among American Muslims to infiltrate American society in the hopes of establishing Islam as the dominant ideology.

The precursor to Kristallnacht in 1939 Nazi Germany was the assassination of German diplomat Ernst von Rath by a young Jew despondent over his family’s forced emigration from Germany to Poland.  Hitler used this act by one person as a pretext to increase wholesale persecution of an entire race writing, “for once the Jews should get the feel of popular anger”.

While the publicity that some public figures have received recently is concerning in terms of the impact their generalizations may have on uninformed listeners, I believe there is an opportunity to foster interfaith dialogue in this hostile environment.  The brutality of ISIS and Boko Haram is prompting Muslim advocacy groups in the United States to disassociate themselves and their understanding of Islam from the twisted theology these two groups use to justify their actions.  There has been a significant increase in such statements from Muslim groups since ISIS began to receive widespread media attention.  This has occurred despite the claim among many conservatives that Muslims remain silent in the face of these atrocities and, therefore, are somehow complicit with them.  As the acts committed in the name of Islam become more ghastly, the logical question becomes how can a faith produce both terror and beauty?  I encourage the reader to realize that true faith, any faith, does not produce brutality and oppression.  It is the misuse of religion to force political and social change that results in the acts of hatred we see on our computer screens.

German Christians largely allowed complacency to mute their opposition to the Nazi persecution of Jews.  As American Christians, let’s not miss this opportunity to join the Muslim voices in denouncing terror in the name of Islam as an abomination against Islam and, indeed, against anyone of any faith.

2 thoughts on “Lessons from History

  1. Well said, Guy. There seems to be far too little public outcry by the leaders of organized religion (all of them) protesting the hijacking of the name of Islam. We all must keep reminding ourselves and the general public that these extremists are not representatives of the true faith they claim to follow.

    Now if we could just get Bibi open a dialogue with the Palestinians, we’d be getting somewhere.

    Keep up the dialogue.


    1. Roy,

      I agree with you that religious leaders of all faith traditions have an obligation today to speak up against the anti-Muslim rhetoric that you rightfully described as “hijacking Islam.”

      The reason it is necessary for religious leaders to get involved is because we have noticed that most anti-Muslim rhetoric is coming from groups and individuals who identify themselves with Christianity or a religion. If these people start hearing other peoples of faith in town condemning their bigotry they will start to realize that they can’t fool the public.

      The reason it is obligatory on each religious tradition to denounce anti-Muslim rhetoric is that no faith tradition is safe from being the next victim of religious prejudice. If we don’t stand up as one block of people against religious prejudice we will risk a day where sectarian conflicts may well divide up Christians among themselves, or Jews among themselves, or Buddhists among themselves, etc…

      The good news is that there have been several efforts initiated by religious leaders to lead their communities and neighbors into a public condemnation of anti-Muslim rhetoric. Take for example the event that took place at North Haven Methodist United Church in Dallas. http://www.dallasnews.com/news/metro/20150125-north-texas-muslims-neighbors-gather-to-call-for-peace.ece

      Dallas and North Texas have recently witnessed a lot of hateful events against Muslims, yet has equally witnessed a lot of support from Christians to their Muslim neighbors. We need to speak more about these examples so that they become the norm in our nation. Not answering to religious extremists of any tradition means allowing them to kidnap our national narrative.

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