Sunday, March 4, 2012

Genocide and the Church/es

Racism, Genocide and Holocaust Seminar
Monday, 26 March 2012
Sydney Jewish Museum 0900-1600

I will be presenting at this seminar.  This is part of the presentation.  Other references will be made to resources that are linked on the homepage of the blog.

Genocide and the Church/es.

Type in the words “genocide and church” into Google and look at the results.  My initial search scored 23.9 million hits with these words.  And many of the results focused on recent genocidal activity in Rwanda, possibly the first genocide of the digital age.

How to proceed with such an unwieldy topic?

There are some basic definitions that need to be made in order to address the topic.  The most important one is the word “church”.  We must have a clear working definition in order to avoid the pitfalls arising from generalization and misinterpretation.

The word “church” is a Christian term, deriving from the Greek εκκλησία, meaning “assembly” or “congregation” and is applied to any liturgical gathering of Christians, the formal structures or institution of the Christian people/s and the theological and religious beliefs that flow from it.  From earliest times there has been a religious profession of faith in one church, but a lived experience of many different ways of being that one church. 

Given its size and global spread, the term “church” is often, in the popular imagination, equated with the Catholic Church, and in particular with the Roman Catholic Church, the largest body within the Catholic family of churches.  Historically, it has often been difficult for those with a limited understanding of the realities of the different variants within Christianity to discern with accuracy just which part of the Christian Church, which denomination, which cultural variant of a denomination and whether people acting or otherwise were clergy or laity.  The potential for confusion is, I hope, self evident.

If we are able to discern which part of the Christian church/es we need to examine, we can then proceed to distinguish the differences between the institutional forms of the church/es and those who claim adherence to them in varying degrees of intensity.  It is historical fact that many anti-Christian leaders have used Christian religious language to persuade the Christian leaders to support aspects of policy.  Hitler’s “professions” to the Catholic and Lutheran bishops in early 1933 are one typical example.  It is also historical fact that the institutions of the church/es and their leaders are as susceptible to the ebb and flow of economic, social and political movements as the rest of the human society.  By their own self-definition, the church/es claim a divine mandate and reliance on the grace of God, but this is interpreted through very human agencies, and mistakes are made – sometimes with horrific consequences.

The history behind this topic is, quite, simply, enormous and goes beyond anything I could hope to cover in a short essay.  What I propose is to make several points and then provide directions for further reading.  If one begins with an idea of the huge scale behind the questions, then one will move carefully.  If students are led to discover that the involvement of Christians and aspects of Christian church/es is complex and tangled, it will be a step towards creating a more inclusive and authentic narrative.

What does the Church teaches about genocide?

The Hebrew Bible is held as sacred text by Christians.  The prohibitions against unlawful killing – murder – are valid and without exception.  Exodus 20.13: “You shall not murder” and its repetition in Deuteronomy 5.17 are unambiguous; murder is wrong and a direct violation of God’s will for humanity.  And lest there be any sense that the prohibition could be conditioned by cultural or social norms, the scriptures have multiple references to the care and protection that must be afforded to the stranger and alien (e.g. Deut 1.16-17, 24.17-18, 26.5-11).  The evangelist Luke has Jesus tell the parable of the Good Samaritan which makes it beyond doubt that all people are neighbours for the Christian; it is immoral and unethical to not go to the help of someone in need. (Luke 10.25-37)

The high ethical principals contained in the Hebrew Bible and the Christian New Testament have never changed.  That parts of the Christian church/es and many Christians have not abided by them is a cause for serious reflection.

John Paul II & Benedict XVI

Pope John Paul II (1920-2005) publicly spoke about the culpability of many Catholics who remained silent or were part of the machinery of the Holocaust in his letter “We Remember – a reflection on the Shoah” (1998).  In 2000 he led a service of repentance in St Peter’s Basilica within the Mass asking for forgiveness for the sins of Catholics against Jews throughout Christian history.  Perhaps lesser known were his constant appeals for the end of genocidal killing in other places.

1. Condemnation of the killings in Bosnia during the 1992-1995 war and “ethnic cleansing” 

2.  Condemnation of the killing in Rwanda on 27 April 1994.  John Paul was the first world leader to use the word “genocide” to refer to the murders. 

3. Condemnation of the Armenian genocide in November 2000. 

The weakness in John Paul’s condemnations lay in refusal to accept that the Church itself was responsible in any way for the killings, only members of the Church.  The stories of professional religious people including nuns, ordained ministers including at least one Anglican bishop, and several priests, engaged in genocidal activity make for disturbing reading.   

And there is no shortage of material on line and in print that has attempted to grapple with the issue.  

However, I argue that despite the theological nuances over institutional and individual responsibility, the clear papal condemnation of genocides since the Holocaust are positive steps and point to the Catholic church’s preparedness to speak out and speak out loudly.  It is a significant movement from the guarded and extremely cautious approach of Pius XII during the 1939-1945 war.

Benedict XVI has had a troubled record on sensitivity to genocide.  Comments made during his visit to Brazil in 2007 suggested a lack of awareness of the brutal reality of the conquest of Latin America and the destruction of indigenous civilizations. 
Reaction from indigenous groups was understandably less than impressed with Benedict’s Euro-centric world view.  The current pope has also refrained from using the word “genocide” with regard to Armenia.


The Christian church/es are complex realities with equally complex histories.  That some Christians participated in genocidal activity is undeniable.  It is also undeniable that some Christians took seriously their call to be neighbour to the people they saw in need, and were prepared to risk their own life to try and help.  Looking at human history and our blood-spattered record of treating each other, perhaps we should study not only why genocides occur, but why do some Christians seek to prevent them, others participate and most are somewhere on the sidelines.

For information about the Seminar please contact the Museum: +61 2 9360 7999 or email via the website:

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