For all of your work and all of your study in this area, do you ever get towards believing in such a thing as ‘never again’?
I think that’s become rhetoric, I think it’s empty. I think we see just how self-serving all of our countries are. Take today, look at what’s happening in Sudan, in Somalia. How many of our national governments are really stepping up and doing anything? We look to see well, how’s this going to benefit or not benefit us in our national interest? This thing about ‘never again’, that’s not language I use.
Unfortunately I think the human condition is such that we don’t learn. One of my favourite stories as a child was the story of the little dutch boy, who puts his finger in the hole in the dyke and saves the whole town. He holds back the water. I say that’s all we can do. We put our finger in the dyke.
Most of us, we feel like ‘oh my god, it’s so overwhelming, what can I do?’, and I say we have to do what we can, where we are, with what we have, for as long as we can.
During the holocaust, I think people felt overwhelmed, and so they retreated into their little private worlds of self-concern. After all, there was a war going on, people had families to take care of. I say look, I’m not the messiah, you’re not the messiah, we’re not going to save the world, but we do what we can.
A few years back, you turned your attention to Rwanda, where the lessons of history were not learned. Philip Gourevitch’s great book on the genocide there takes its title from an unheeded letter written by those trapped in a church to their bishop, We Wish To Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families. What did you take from studying the role of faith, or perhaps more so of the church, in Rwanda?
Let me put it in a cliché. We don’t practice what we preach. Or maybe we do practice what we preach, and sometimes what we preach is that the ‘other’ is not like us, and is outside our universe of moral concern. When you ask me what I take from it, well: shame. Enormous shame. Look at what happened during the holocaust. We can’t let the few who did live out the highest ideals, who did follow in the footsteps of Jesus, who were compassionate, who were willing to lay down their lives for their friends, balance off the many who failed. What we, the churches, were good at, was baptising. We weren’t so good at evangelising, of helping people to get the message: greater love than this, a person does not have, than to lay down his or her life for his or her friends.
I take away from it that the numbers are not important, the message is important. It was shocking to me to realise that Rwanda was, not in terms of gross numbers but percentages, the most Christian country in all of Africa. That’s shameful to me. Sometimes I joke to my Jewish friends, ‘move over, you may get another.’ It’s shameful, it’s terrible to hear and to realise that we have failed in an unspeakable way.
The other thing that I take from the Rwanda situation is that you should not cosy up to government. It annoys me every time I go into a Catholic church and I see, in the sanctuary, a papal flag and an American flag. You have those two flags sitting in the sanctuary and you can’t preach in a way that is healthily critical.
The churches, particularly the Roman Catholic and the Anglican church were very, very tied into the government and were part of the major political party in Rwanda. I think we should be involved in the political process in any country, but involved in such a way that we can critique it.
As a questioning voice, or a dissenting voice.
Absolutely. But when we’re in a situation where we have something to lose, then we tend not to critique, which was one of the situations in Germany during the Hitler era. The church had a lot to lose, and so its voice was silenced, because it would have lost its schools, its institutions, its power base. I think that there are people who think that’s it’s better to criticise from the inside than from the outside, and I think they tend to be silent. I think we do it in my country, and I’m sure in your own country, where church people who are cosy with political people tend not to be very critical of them.
It reminds me of the famous story of the Lutheran martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and his journey through that in Germany in the 1930s and 40s. Stepping outside of that involved immense personal sacrifice. At the time, perhaps, it may not have achieved what he wanted to achieve, but history remembers him.
Absolutely. There’s a man who was willing to give his life for his principles. First of all, he could have stayed in this country—he came to this country, he was teaching at union theological in New York—he could have been safe. But he went back to Germany, and he was part of that very minor voice, the resistance. The resistance within the church, within his church and the churches, and in the resistance within Germany. But to do that you have to be prepared for the consequences.
You know what they say, if you want to be like Jesus, you’re going to end up like Jesus. Daniel Berrigan once said if you’re going to be like Jesus, you better be sure you look good on wood. It is really, really tough. Bonhoeffer, he’s a great example. Or Franz Jägerstätter. He was an Austrian peasant, a fairly uneducated farmer. He was a peasant, he was married, he was drafted into the German army after the Anschluss, when Austria was incorporated. He refused to serve. Everybody, from his parish priest to his wife, pleaded with him, but he said he couldn’t; it was an evil regime and he wasn’t going to serve it. They beheaded him. It’s only recently, in the last ten or fifteen years, that he’s really been recognised as one of those voices who was prepared to go the whole way. I look at myself and ask, am I prepared to go the whole way? I don’t know that I can say I am.
Can you know the answer to that question before you’re asked it?
Well, one is asked it in more ways than just verbally. I think we get hints, we get hints of what we would do. This is what I say to students all the time, of course we don’t know, we can look at what we do. Am I willing to say to someone who tells a joke that demeans people of colour, Jews or Muslims? Today, there aren’t so many jokes about Jews, but there are jokes about Muslims. Or women. Do we have the courage to say I don’t think that’s very funny? If a group of guys are out having a drink at a bar or a fraternity party or whatever, or girls, it’s pretty tough to stand up and say I don’t think that’s funny at all. I do think we get hints, but ultimately of course we never know.