April, noted as Genocide Awareness Month, marks many dark dates in our global history: 27 years since Rwanda, 46 years since the start of the Cambodian genocide and 78 years since the start of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. Millions upon millions of people, made in God’s image, have been killed in the 20th and 21st centuries, yet the evangelical church in the United States has had little to no response to preserve the memory of these individuals.
Just as the churches in Germany and Rwanda fell silent, and even complicit, in the face of unspeakable evil, we as the church have followed suit, allowing memories to fade out of ignorance and evil to continue out of fear. The United States evangelical church must step into the depths of unimaginable loss if we are to truly reflect the image of our suffering Messiah.
Etched into the memorial in the Hall of Remembrance at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., Deuteronomy 4:9 calls visitors to remember the six million Jews who were killed under Hitler’s regime: “Only guard yourself and guard your soul carefully, lest you forget the things your eyes saw, and lest these things depart your heart all the days of your life. And you shall make them known to your children and to your children’s children.” As Christians, we are held to this calling so that these victims and their stories are not lost to time. However, we can only share this history if we are willing to acknowledge the complicity of the church in mass atrocities, including the Holocaust and Rwanda.
In the midst of the Holocaust, the German church or “Deutsche Christen” movement became unrecognizable from those who call themselves followers of a Jewish Messiah. Removing all Jewish references in their teaching, placing swastikas on their robes and praising an Aryan (white German) Christ, the German church compromised Scripture for the ideology of Hitler. They refused to speak out for their Jewish neighbors and became bystanders, with a so-called faith that was cruelly devised to destroy millions made in the image of God.
One German pastor, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, stood up against the church, saying, “Only the person who cries out for the Jews may sing Gregorian chants,” according to the Religion News Service. In 1945, the Nazi Regime executed Bonhoeffer for conspiring to assassinate Hitler.
The church also propagated violence during the Rwandan genocide in 1994, where at least 800,000 Tutsi and moderate Hutu individuals were killed in 100 days. Church buildings, seen as a refuge for fleeing Tutsi families, became killing sites as Hutu fighters blocked off entrances, murdering everyone inside. James Waller, Holocaust and genocide professor at Keene University, writes that human rights groups “charge that some church leaders from various denominations used their authority to encourage the massacres and join in the killing.”
Carl Wilkens, Seventh-Day Adventist aid worker in Rwanda during the genocide, was the only U.S. citizen to remain in the country. He chose to stay in order to protect two Tutsi individuals living in his home. Wilkens, when looking back on those 100 days, said, “I think we need to remember, recognize, the potential that each of us had for evil, and the potential that each of us has for good … we need to have a connection. We need to live for each other.”
The church needs more individuals like Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Carl Wilkens today—those who are willing to go against the religious status quo in order to preserve the imago dei, the inherent image of God, of those who are suffering around them, even at the risk of their own lives. Ignoring this history or saying that it is not our responsibility will lead to a second death for the victims as they fade from our memory. While we hide our history and shy away from contentious dialogue, the ultimate transgression for the U.S. evangelical church is our fear of suffering.
We rush through Maundy Thursday and Good Friday, unwilling to sit in the sorrow and uncertainty of Christ’s death as the disciples did, in order to celebrate the Resurrection on Easter Sunday. We ignore the suffering and grief of our neighbors because it requires questions that we do not have answers to. We cannot begin to unravel the immensity of genocide when we cannot even behold the suffering of our Savior and our fellow human beings.
However, when we step into the depths of the unknown, that is where we meet God. We are forced to reckon with the complete depravity of our hearts as we witness the horrors that humans commit against each other.
When we cannot see the coming of the resurrection or the hope of salvation, we sit in the valley of the shadow of death. Remembering the victims of genocide enters into the suffering of Christ as we see the deaths of innocent individuals made in His image. We will begin to question the goodness of God—how can you not when you see the evil that humanity is capable of?
Entering into the work of bringing justice also means that we must be the ones to start the conversation because many Christians are afraid to ask these questions, to openly doubt the goodness of God when confronted with evil. However, a faith that is not questioned is not faith-it is merely belief that has not wrestled with reality.
There is no greater need for Christ than in a place of absolute devastation and unexplainable suffering. We must look back to the crucifix and see our suffering Messiah, the crown of thorns crushed into his brow, his flesh cut into ribbons across his back, his face soaked in blood. Here, we see the unexplainable suffering of an innocent man, echoed in the emaciated faces of Jews imprisoned in concentration camps, the tears of families whose children were forcibly disappeared in Guatemala and the scars of those who survived mass killings in Rwanda.
We do not have the liberty to forget the darker portions in the history of the global church. The very people called to share salvation with the world failed overwhelmingly in the genocides of the 20th and 21st century. Millions of individuals have had their voices stolen from them, and, if the church does not speak out, history will steal memory of them as well. These things must not and cannot depart from our hearts.
Photo courtesy of Newsweek