As often happens with me, disparate things I have read recently gel together in ways that provide insight. One of those things I read a number of weeks ago. It was a piece written about the effect of Christianity (or lack thereof) on Nazi Germany. I don’t have a citation anymore.
The other piece I read today, I Met the Man Who Killed My Entire Family, by Katelyn Beaty, Christianity Today (Aug. 2017), summarizing an interview with Immaculee Ilibagiza about her experience with the Rwandan genocide. Aside from the harrowing details and utterly transformative reality of real forgiveness, this statement jumped off the pages at me: “United Nations tribunals have found many church leaders guilty of murdering neighbors or aiding Hutu in hunting down Tutsi and moderate Hutu.”
How could that be?! About one million people were killed in Rwanda, a country about the size of Maryland, and “the Church” was not only complicit in the killings by looking the other way; it was directly involved!
That is a hard reality for believers to accept, but we need to grasp the reality of it. Church leaders, not just people who sat in the pews, were directly involved in the Rwandan genocide.
We might be tempted to discount the conclusions of the United Nations, which is not a particularly faith-friendly institution, but I think that is a mistake. I felt the same way reading the account of the Christian influence in Nazi Germany.
To be sure, some of the conclusions of the author of the article about Nazi Germany were unfair and (I believe) misinformed, but that doesn’t mean there was no truth in it. I came away having to acknowledge that I can no longer claim that the Nazi influence in post-World War I Germany was grounded solely in atheism.
Reality is more complicated than that, and we (the church) need to be careful of glossing over painful realities that don’t fit into how we see ourselves. The recent exposure of the problem of sexual abuse among Southern Baptist churches is another example. We can’t turn a blind eye to evil in the church just because it doesn’t line up with the way the church ought to be.
If something doesn’t line up with the commands of Christ to love others as ourselves and the litmus test, “they will know us by our love”, we should be all the more vigilant to acknowledge the short falling and quick to respond appropriately – especially if the failure arises in the Church!
I think part of the danger, as we might learn from Nazi Germany, is that we see ourselves as the “good” people. We tend to think that evil is “out there”. Other people are evil. The church is just as susceptible to this thinking as anyone… maybe even more so!
I believe the Gospel message is hurt more by our silent refusal to acknowledge evil, even when it might arise “in the church”, than it would be by quick and candid acknowledgment and appropriate responses. I think we do the Gospel a disservice when we fail to acknowledge evil that arises in the church, and by failing to acknowledge it we become complicit with it.
Of course, that begs the question: what is an appropriate response? I am not here to say that I have a definitive and ultimate answer to that question. Perhaps, we need to start with acknowledging the facts and move forward from there.
In Nazi Germany, for example, Hitler came to power in a largely Christian nation with a long legacy of Christian influence. We can’t lay the blame only at the feet of Hitler and his inner circle of henchmen. Hitler used religious passion and symbolism to draw people into what he was selling. It took a whole nation of people to buy into it.
To be more graphic about it, people heard the rhetoric. They saw the Jews being rounded up. Many common, everyday people, like you and me, worked in the offices and grounds of the concentration camps who saw what was going on and simply put their heads down and said nothing. There were hundreds of concentration camps, not just the few that became famous. Fathers and mothers and their children joined the Nazi party by the tens and hundreds of thousands.
It took a nation to allow Hitler to do what he did, and that nation was “Christian”. Rwanda, too, was largely “Christian”, and we come to find out that Christian leaders were directly involved in the targeted killings. The woman whose story is explored in the interview described the killer of her family:
“This was a man who used to have children, a beautiful family, and a great job. I would go with his family to eat. He was a friend of our family’s, never an enemy.”
Let that sink in.
It’s easy to picture a monster in our minds, but we forget that people who do heinous acts are … people. Like us. This man had children and a “beautiful family”. He was a “friend” of the family or people he killed in cold blood!
I have read that Eichmann, one of Hitler’s henchman was known as a very devoted family man. I know it’s hard to say “Nazi” in the same sentence as “good family man”, but we have to face the reality of it. Nazi Germany was full of “good” people who not only looked the other way; these “good” people participated in one of the worst atrocities of people against people the world has ever known.
We are doomed to relive history if we fail to understand the potential for great evil that resides in “good” people. Eli Weisel, the great 20th Century thinker and Holocaust victim made this message his life’s mission. If we don’t see the potentiality of evil in our own selves and our own culture, if we don’t understand that vigilance is ever necessary, we are certain to repeat history.
Given the right circumstances and influences, it could happen anywhere. It can happen even in the church. And we shouldn’t be surprised. Jesus warned that the tares would grow up with the wheat. (Matthew 13:24-30)
If the story of Immaculee Ilibagiza is to be of any benefit to us as we try to grapple with these things, it is that the radical evil that is always a potential in the world, and sometimes surfaces around us, is to be addressed, it can only be addressed by the radical message of and commitment to the Gospel.
We can’t fight evil with evil. As Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “Returning hate for hate multiplies hate, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate, only love can do that.” Ilibagiza experienced the truth of Dr. King’s words personally and intimately when she embraced the darkness as her initial reaction:
“I didn’t think of revenge as wrong. But it did hurt. It physically hurt me. I had a headache and a stomachache, and my blood was running out of anger. It became obsessive. Anger and hatred become obsessive. Like a sickness literally, and it came for me. I was tired.”
But she returned again and again to God. She prayed the Lord’s prayer, hanging on each word, even when those words did not express her inner feelings: “Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who have sinned against us.”
She could say the words, but she couldn’t mean them. She didn’t want to mean those words. “Forgive? I thought. No I can’t say that. I thought I would remove that from the prayer.”
But, she realized, as we should realize, that God is God, and we are human. We make mistakes, but God doesn’t make mistakes. When she came to the end of herself, unable to mean the words of forgiveness in the Lord’s prayer, but acknowledging that God is God, “that was the beginning of forgiveness” for her.
As Jesus prayed on the cross, “Father forgive them for they know not what they do”, she began to realize that the people who perpetrated genocide on her nation “don’t get it”. They didn’t know what they were doing in the same way as the killers of Jesus didn’t get it.
That isn’t the way. Ilibagiza realized, “I was hating back exactly as they were doing to me.” We participate in the same evil when we feed anger, hurt, unforgiveness and the desire for revenge. The same evil that swallowed up the perpetrators threatens to swallow up the victims who do not turn to God for the power of forgiveness.
Great evil most be conquered by great good. There is no greater goodness than God as He revealed to the world in the form of Jesus Christ. It is a radical goodness that requires radical acknowledgment of both the truth and of the evil in the world, even evil perpetrated by “good” people.
In the end, there are no good people. Only God is good. (Mark 10:18) But, all people are made in the image of God. We are all capable of being good – even the “worst” among us. And even the “best” among us are capable of great evil.
We can’t combat evil in the world by looking the other way. We must confront it, but we dare not confront it with anger, hurt, unforgiveness and revenge. We need to confront evil prayerfully, humbly acknowledging God as God, submitting our own desires and tendencies to participate in the darkness to God, and allowing Him to wash us and empower us to transcend it.