Reductio Ad Hitlerum

I recently listened to the Tuesday, 9/9/2014 episode of The Gist, a podcast hosted by Mike Peska entitled Reductio Ad Hitlerum. (It was such a good title I decided to plagiarize it.) In this episode he interviewed Ron Rosenbaum, author of Explaining Hitler: The Search for the Origins of His Evil. The book is evidently an overview of different interpretations and/or explanations of who Hitler was and why he did what he did. Rosenbaum argued that the topic is significant because the Holocaust was an event of singular evil in the world. If one Hitler arrived on the pages of history (implying that only one has), is it possible that a second one could do the same? Pesca, by the way affirmed these sentiments without any pushback whatsoever.

This line of thinking upsets me deeply. It implies a level of Jewish exceptionalism that is either supremely self-centered or shockingly naive. What happened to the Jews in the Holocaust is certainly abhorant beyond words. Furthermore, it is likely that the Jews have had to put up with more persecution than almost any other group in history. We should never forget that.

But while their historical experience has been horrible it has not been unique in history. Starting with recent history and working back, we’ve experienced the extermination of Christians in the corner of the world shared by Syria, Iraq, and Turkey. In conjunction with that, there has been an increasing hostility that is bordering on religious genocide of Christians throughout the Levant and on into northern Africa. There has also been the century long genocidal attempts to exterminate the Armenians, Assyrians, and Kurds and take their land. And then there was the Rwandan genocide that centered particularly around hatreds stirred up between the Hutu and Tutsi people groups. In southeast Asia there was the unspeakably evil Khmer Rouge and the genocide of Hmongs, and other groups in Cambodia. And of course there were are the Roma (the Gypsies) who are occasionally persecuted, occasionally exterminated, but almost always either ignored or hated, in Central Europe.

I’ve had this contentious argument before and the rejoinder has typically been, that yes, there have been other genocides in recent history, in not quite so recent history, and in ancient history, but the Holocaust is singular and unique because 6 million Jews were exterminated (and then as an afterthought, possibly the extermination of homosexuals and Gypsies gets thrown in as well). It’s the magnitude that makes it singular and sets it apart. (And even this is not so singular. Some have estimated the genocide in Belgian Congo to have killed 10 million people. Granting that this is almost certainly an inflated figure, for there are no accurate population statistics, that late 19th century abomination is among the most massive in modern history.)

Genocide is so unspeakable that to diminish the Rwandan genocide, for instance, simply because it was smaller and less organized than the Holocaust is in itself unspeakable self-centeredness or cultural centeredness (or possibly an unspeakably cynical form of racism). Compare it to the U.S. bombing of Nagasaki. (I only mention Nagasaki because we can safely dismiss Hiroshima. A 21 megaton bomb was used above Nagasaki–compared to the mere 16 megaton bomb dropped on Hiroshima–and Nagasaki is therefore singular and unique in the horrors of history.) To dismiss the first because the second was larger is to miss a significant part of the horror.

And as it was with nuclear weapons, so it is with genocide. Adolph Hitler is not unique in history (in spite of Rosenbaum’s claims). There is Leopold II, Pol Pot, Idi Ameen, Ghengis Khan, Bashar al-Assad etc. Our fascination with Hitler very possibly blinds us to the ongoing horror of genocide in the world.

Or, possibly, our fascination with Hitler is a convenient way of not saying out loud that we don’t really care as much about those other genocides: those people, after all, are not like us. Do we remember the Holocaust because Jews are such an integral part of our culture? Do we fail to appreciate the plight of the Kurds because they are so different from us. Do we dismiss (on the broad cultural scale) the horrors of the Khmer Rouge because of its emotional association with the Vietnam War, which was such a terrible open wound for many years after the war? Do we downplay the neverending series of genocides in Africa, simply because it’s Africa and not Europe or North America?

Donald Rumsfeld, in a report to congress, said the following.

A few weeks after September 11th, I was in the Middle East, and I met in a tent in the desert with the Sultan of Oman.  He expressed his sympathy for the loss of life in America.  But he said that perhaps that tragedy will wake up the world, so that nations will come together to take the steps necessary to see that there is not a September 11th that involves a biological, chemical or nuclear weapon.  Perhaps, he said, the loss of those 3,000 precious lives, in the end, will help to save tens of thousands of lives. (Thanks to Torie Clarke for the reference to this report.)

Clarke, during a radio conversation, went on to compare this to the video of the beheading of two American journalists by ISIS. Is their death the necessary price to wake us up to the threat, she wondered?

Or is it actually far more sinister than just that? Is it that the beheading of hundreds of Arabs doesn’t matter to us (just as the genocide of millions of Southeast Asians and hundreds of thousands of Africans doesn’t really seem to register). That’s what those people do, after all. It requires the death of Americans, of “our” folks who talk like us, for us to sit up, take notice, and be horrified enough to wake out of our slumber?

We Will Never Forget

Today, Sep 14, is the Feast of the Elevation of the Cross, or as it is called in the Roman Catholic Church, the Triumph of the Cross. It could be dubbed the “We Will Never Forget” feast of the Christian Church. The origins of the feast go back to the time of persecution of Christians, and especially to Emperor Hadrian.

The pagan Roman emperors tried to completely eradicate from human memory the holy places where our Lord Jesus Christ suffered and was resurrected for mankind. The Emperor Hadrian (117-138) gave orders to cover over the ground of Golgotha and the Sepulcher of the Lord, and to build a temple of the pagan goddess Venus and a statue of Jupiter. Pagans gathered at this place and offered sacrifice to idols there.

But this attempted eradication of history was temporary and by 326 the area had been returned to the church, excavated, and the holy things recovered. This is what is remembered today on this Feast Day.

The Elevation of the Holy Cross takes on a rather different meaning for me in my current context. Presbyterianism was historically extremely iconoclastic and that iconoclasm is still strong in certain parts of the Presbyterian Church, including some of the faculty here at Chamberlain-Hunt. There is a faint drum beat of sorts reminding us always that statues, symbols, pictures, and actions in a Christian context are bad. Some of the Roman Catholic kids are quietly told that it is not necessary to cross one’s self after prayer (ie, you ought not do it). In chapel services we are reminded that the Bible is a book that reveals God (I will note that the person of Christ is not mentioned in this context) and therefore words and thoughts are what are important not pictures and actions.

At the same time pictures and actions are deeply revered on the military side of the academy. Every cadet wears their rank. Each platoon has its own flag and wears the platoon symbol on their shirts. Covers (ie, hats) are never to be worn inside and never to be off outside, except for prayer. And my list of reverential military and national actions and symbols could go on and on.

In short, there is a certain schizophrenia on this topic among some of the faculty. Christianity is viewed through a narrowly rationalistic lens while everyday life is understood to encompass the whole being, mind, soul, and body.

This was certainly true on Saturday, 9/11. A moving ceremony was held in front of the main entrance of Chamberlain-Hunt. Everybody, faculty and cadet, were outfitted in their finest. Right at the time of the first plane crashing into the World Trade Center the flag was raised and then lowered to half mast, and a moment of silence was observed.

I was facing most of the cadets and several of them had tears in their eyes. I suspect that because of the carefully orchestrated ceremony, the reverential honor we gave to the American flag and the remembrance of that day, these cadets will indeed never forget.

Three days later – 9/14 – the church around the world, in similar fashion remembers the evil of the terrible persecution of the church, the attempt to force Christians to forget all that is holy to the church – the passion, the cross, the burial, the resurrection – and in defiance of Satan and his battalions of servants, remembers the Triumph of the Cross.

As today’s antiphon for Phil. 2:6-11 proclaims: “We must glory in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ.” It seems that the process of remembering such a glorious thing would be greatly enhanced if we took as much care to address the body, will, and soul, as well as the mind when we recall that “though in the form of God … Jesus Christ emptied himself … obediently accepting death, even death on a cross … so that now we know Jesus Christ is Lord!”

Or, as we might say, in the wake of 9/11/01, “In spite of Emperor Hadrian and his evil designs, you, Christian, must never forget.”