Topic: History

A Light-Hearted Requiem for Old Europe

Reflections on The Grand Budapest Hotel

One must forgive some viewers for mistaking Wes Anderson’s recent film The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014) for comedy. The film was billed as such. But, as in the case of its titular edifice and the rest of Anderson’s corpus, beneath a light-hearted veneer lurks deep melancholy. Ostensibly this is a caper about a hotel concierge dodging murder charges while chasing a vast fortune. At the same time, it is also a portrait of Old Europe—along with its Jewishness—in the midst of its dying. Beneath the film’s cartoonish frivolity lies that tragedy.

Read More »

Our Cross to Bear

Conclusions on Shared Human Responsibility (Communal Guilt Part 7 of 7)

We as a society are busy pointing out crises. Some pending disasters merely threaten to destroy individuals, while others threaten communities or even our species. Yet, we often seem disinclined to take action. The reasons include disagreements about which crises are real, which ones are critical, and how to best approach them. We should be not only resolving present crises but discerning their source and how to prevent future ones.

In the preceding weeks’ meditations on the nature of collective guilt and shared human responsibility, a number of general principles are evident.

Read More »

The Air We Breathe

The Environment and Shared Human Responsibility (Communal Guilt Part 6 of 7)

The polar caps are melting. Extreme weather events occur with greater frequency. Air quality has reached abysmal levels in major urban areas worldwide. Global consumption vastly outstrips the replenishment of natural resources. Many individuals respond to these realities with denial, cynicism, and a sense of futility. Rather than defining terms and demonstrating premises, this post will take these facts as givens; those seeking to contest them had best look elsewhere.

As urgently as any current crisis and with great clarity, the state of the environment demonstrates both the at times collective nature of guilt and the shared nature of human responsibility. In fact, to a greater extent than other issues explored thus far in this series, the environment illustrates with particular clarity a general principle governing guilt and responsibility: distribution is uneven. While guilt and responsibility may transcend individuals, some individuals are implicated more directly and fully than others.

Read More »

Their Blood Cries Out to God

Reflections for Holocaust Remembrance Day

Not long after the beginning, Genesis tells us that there were two brothers. One killed the other. “And the Lord said, ‘What have you done? Listen; your brother’s blood is crying out to me from the ground’” (Gen. 4:10). This is the Lord’s response when the murderer denies knowing where his brother is and asks, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” We humans are our brothers’ and sisters’ keepers; and yet we have been disowning and killing each other since the beginning.

On this day seventy years ago, the last prisoners were liberated from Auschwitz. On this day today, we commit to remembering the more than six million Jews, Gypsies, homosexuals, and others who were rejected and murdered by their fellow humans. Their blood still cries out to God from the ground.

Read More »

From Brother to Brother

Gender, Sexuality, and Shared Human Responsibility (Communal Guilt Part 5 of 7)

Many people in the world face the persistent threat of sexual assault and see their career prospects diminished because of their gender, as a recent study shows. Some of these same individuals—but also many others—face ridicule and rejection because they find themselves attracted to people of the same gender. Some face similar treatment because they find themselves from a very early age alienated from their own bodies, understanding their gender identity to be other than their biological sex.

And then there is the rest of humanity. Some of us have the luxury of being able to ignore others’ struggles and to deny that gender and sexual identity define our lives in significant measure. Not all of us do ignore or deny their impact—and none of us should—but many can and some do. Straight, non-trans men, that’s us.

Ironically (and perhaps unfortunately), the cause of justice for women, including transwomen, for transmen, for gays, and for those who reject traditional binary definitions of gender and/or sexuality, depends in part measure on us.

I am not advocating the idea that women need men more than men need women. Neither am I proposing an androcentric noblesse oblige. Rather, I am drawing attention to the facts that those who are straight, non-trans, and male have been among the greatest perpetrators of injustice against those who are not, and that those of us who are not perpetrators are too often silent. People need people, and humanity needs all the people—or at least the vast majority of the people—to be on board with solving its most pressing issues. Issues of justice relating to gender and sexuality are no different.

You do not even need to believe that non-traditional approaches to gender and sexuality are moral to recognize that you and people like you, including your faith community, have been complicit in failing to love all people and love them well.

Read More »

A Threat to One of Us is a Threat to All of Us

Genocide and Shared Human Responsibility (Communal Guilt Part 4 of 7)

Few of humanity’s transgressions seem as weighty as genocide. The average American high school student knows this, if they have paid any attention at all. Some see Schindler’s List or excerpts of The Holocaust miniseries. Many read Night, The Diary of Anne Frank, or Maus. The Holocaust looms large.

A focus on the Holocaust risks endowing it with a sense of uniqueness. Yes, it was unique in its scale, intensity, and efficiency; but genocides had happened before and they have continued to happen since. We must not teach with depth at the expense of breadth, lest students falsely assume that genocide is either a phenomenon of the past or will remain perpetually someone else’s problem.

Read More »

Your People Are My People

Race, Racism, and Shared Human Responsibility (Communal Guilt Part 3 of 7)

“What are you?” sometimes strangers and new acquaintances ask me, whether obliquely or directly. I have come to learn that this is short-hand for “What race/ethnicity box(es) do you check?” The racial categories on current U.S. census forms are more complex than they ever have been, yet they remain simplistic. (See a helpful article here. http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2014/03/14/u-s-census-looking-at-big-changes-in-how-it-asks-about-race-and-ethnicity/ ) “Black, African-American, or Negro” stands in contrast to the deceptively straightforward appearing “White.” Citizens of Asian ancestry have six boxes to possibly check, along with an “Other Asian” fill-in blank. By contrast, Arab- and Persian-Americans have no obvious option (“Other”? “White”?), leading to controversy within their respective communities (http://www.cnn.com/2010/US/04/01/census.check.it.right.campaign/ ).

The history leading up to these designations is serpentine and rife with contradictions (whether to count “Latino” as a race or as something else, for example). Until relatively recently, the forms also required respondents to check one box and one box only, implying that racial categories are mutually exclusive, in fact a long-standing attitude in the U.S. and elsewhere, especially regarding the purity of whiteness.

Read More »

Sometimes Seeing Clearly Means Knowing When to Look Away

Grasping the Horrors of the Holocaust is a Struggle. It Ought to Be.

As a Ph.D. student, I spent the better part of three years researching the Holocaust and its legacy. While I focused on the response of a group of Protestant nuns living in its aftermath, my research was broad enough that it spanned both the poetry and theology of Jewish survivors, as well as the propaganda of those who promoted and committed it. For example, I read Mein Kampf and I loathed it, but I do not regret it. One cannot understand humanity without understanding the depths of human evil. At the same time, one can only understand the potential height of faith and hope by learning from those who confronted such senseless hate first-hand. Convinced of this necessity, I have continued to explore the theological legacy of the Holocaust and its emotional toll on the survivors and their families.

Yet sometimes the weight is more than I feel I can bear. And so it is that for the second time I will be presenting on religion and science-fiction at the Annual Meeting of the American Academy of Religion. Neither my initial presentation nor my latest one has had anything to do with the Holocaust. When one of the staff members at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum asked me if I would consider applying for a research fellowship, I answered, “I want to… but not yet. Sometimes part of seeing clearly is knowing when to look away.”

Read More »

“Never Forget” Means “Never Again”

The Continued Relevance of the Holocaust

The rallying cry of the survivors of the Holocaust has been “never forget.” This is not an exhortation to live in the past. Never forgetting implies action in the present. “Never forget” implies “never again” and a commitment to undertake whatever actions are necessary to that end.

We must keep our eyes open to the genocides and potential genocides happening in the world around us. Rwanda wasn’t that long ago. Kurdish populations are perpetually under threat in Iraq, Syria, and Turkey. And the persecution of Christians throughout the Middle East is often paired with ethnicity as a category for exclusion and extermination. This is not new, although with the ascendance of ISIS, the threat is more acute than ever.

Read More »