Remembering is not enough


Monday was Holocaust Remembrance Day, marking the 75th anniversary of the Soviet liberation of the Nazi death camps at Auschwitz.

As is usually the case, today has been marked by a flurry of social media memes, articles and public statements by politicians and religious leaders, all urging us to remember the victims of the Holocaust, and vowing with all possible solemnity, “Never Again.”

And, it is noble and necessary to remind people to remember roughly 6 million innocent people were murdered by forces now resurgent in our world. According to a recent Pew Research poll, only about 45% of Americans guessed correctly — from a four-part multiple choice question — that “approximately six million” people died in the Holocaust. Only about 43% knew Hitler rose to power through a democratic political process. Americans are, generally, woefully ignorant of history and the world around us. That is a disgruntled post for another day. For now, suffice it to say it is necessary to continue reminding people of, well, anything that hasn’t been featured on their social media feed in the last 12 hours.

We should remember and honor the victims of the Nazi Holocaust, and all the victims of genocide who have died, and who continue to die today. And that is my problem with today’s many public statements of “Never Again.”

At risk of offending many, and with all due respect to all those — including myself — who’ve long made, shared and believed these “Never Again” statements, I have to say, in hopes anyone will listen, these statements are utter bullshit. “Never Again” rings hollow to my ears, because genocide never stopped. It continues today, and we are as utterly, willfully, blissfully oblivious and callous as we were when the first Jews were unloaded at Auschwitz.

In the interest of time, I bring back a selection from a piece I wrote last April for Genocide Remembrance Day, named for the Armenian Genocide, 1915 to 1923, when the Ottoman government murdered upwards of a million minority, predominantly Christian, Armenians.

But, the Armenian Genocide was not the beginning or end of humanity’s grossly efficient inhumanity. When the Mongols swept through Europe in the 13th century they killed roughly five percent of the world’s population. The Crusades — launched in the name of Christ — killed more than a million people (some estimates go as high as nine million). European invaders and colonial powers — often, again, under the banner of Christ — decimated and sold into slavery untold millions of indigenous people across the Americas, Australia, Asia and Africa. The Holocaust claimed more than 6 million lives. Stalin killed anywhere between 3 and 20 million (without bothering to keep count), and in the 1970s Pol Pot killed 1.8 million people — one in five Cambodians. More recently, in the 1990s, we stood silently by while the Rwandan Genocide played out — the murder of about a million Tutsis, about 70% of their population, at the hands of the majority Hutus. The Rohingya continue to face genocide in Myanmar. These are but a few examples.

In each of these cases, governments — motivated by greed, nationalism, racism, perversions of faith and more greed — were allowed to murder millions of people because of the general indifference of humanity. This wholesale murder did not occur all at once. It occurred one bloody act at a time, one act of cold indifference at a time.

All these atrocities played out, while we solemnly promised “Never Again,” because of the generally callous indifference we have toward others, especially when those others don’t look, talk and pray like us.

As I write this, an estimated 1-3 million Uighurs and other Muslim minorities are being held in Chinese detention camps — all part of a Chinese plan to eradicate Uighurs and other minorities over the course of a generation, by imprisonment, torture, forced abortion and sterilization, and planting party officials in Uighur homes to prevent activity contrary to party interests (meaning procreation).

Azeem Ibrahim, a research professor at the Strategic Studies Institute at the U.S. Army War College and a director at the Center for Global Policy in Washington, estimated in a recent “Foreign Policy” article as much as a third of the Uighur population (10 million people) currently are held in detention camps and prisons.

The reason, according to Ibrahim: Chinese President Xi Jinping “appears to believe that social harmony requires a monolithic cultural and national identity,” and is following an “explicit policy of cultural eradication of Islam and Islam-associated ethnic identities—complete with torture, murder, the destruction of family life, and the potential extinction of these groups over the coming generations.”

That doesn’t kind of sound like genocide. That is the textbook definition of genocide. American and NATO diplomats know that. Muslim nations know that. All world leaders know that. All of them who today promised “Never Again,” know that. And they know damn well it’s happening. But, like Rwanda, and Cambodia, and all the others before them, it’s simply not expedient, politically, and much less financially, to give a shit about the genocide being committed as we throw hollow platitudes at the ghosts of Auschwitz.

One of the popular memes making the rounds today offers this somber and mind-bogglingly-horrible statistic: “If we held a minute of silence for every victim of the Holocaust, we would be silent for 11 years.” That is horrible. And we can never honor enough the men, women and children murdered by our complacence.

But, the fact of the matter is, if we started holding minutes of silence for genocide victims beyond the Holocaust, we would forever be silent. Because we keep filling that silence with new deaths, with our continued apathy and willful ignorance, and our hollow promises of “Never Again.”

Our silence is comfortable and easy. And, as humans, we like nothing more than comfort and ease. We don’t like giving up the comfort and ease of our silence for others, especially when “the other” feels unlike us. And, to Americans of today, Uighur Muslims feel even more unlike us than did European Jews in 1940.

There is a popular quote on silence and inaction usually attributed to Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the Lutheran minister who was executed by the Nazis for opposing Hitler: “Silence in the face of evil is itself evil: God will not hold us guiltless. Not to speak is to speak. Not to act is to act.” There’s no actual evidence Bonhoeffer ever uttered those words. But, they are nonetheless true.

Our silence is the greatest and most necessary accomplice to evil. There is risk to speaking up, to demanding action, to acting outright — yes, this is sure. But, until we stop seeing our fellow children of God as “others,” and begin to see and love them as ourselves — to truly see and love them as God sees and loves us — we will continue to rest in our comfort and ease while innocents are murdered.

As Bishop Jake Owensby pointed out today, love is “the only power great enough to resist and finally conquer those persistent forces that would erect death camps yet again.”

Unfortunately, “yet again” is today. And until we really embrace that love — a self-sacrificial, radical, self-outpouring love that outstrips compassion and empathy in its strength and beauty — our vows of “Never Again” will remain what they have been. Hollow. Self-serving. False. Utter bullshit.

“Never Again” needs to mean something. Unfortunately, right now, it does not.

2 thoughts on “Remembering is not enough

  1. I am learning Polish, and in my class last night, my teacher (who is from Poland) shared your lament. I sometimes feel powerless to have an impact–beyond prayer, speaking up when someone makes hateful comments, writing my reps in Washington and financially supporting organizations like the Mennonite Central Committee in their efforts toward peace and justice around the world. Other suggestions? Especially for the situation in China. Thanks

    • Madeline, sorry for the delay in responding. Thank you for sharing your perspective. It sounds like you’re doing great things now. I don’t underestimate the power of prayer, and sending letters to politicians and supporting organizations like the MCC, or Amnesty International, are all good steps. I think the biggest thing we can do is keep it in the foreground, in our communications with our legislators, but just as importantly, in conversations with friends and acquaintances. I think the reason these things persist is because we simply forget about them.

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