Storytelling Against Mutual Genocide
Stories aren’t just stories. Because we humans tend to act out the ones we know best, we need to hear, understand, and tell a variety of stories that are adequately nuanced and humanizing. Otherwise, we are doomed to perpetuating cycles of violence. We also need shared stories to help hold us together and to provide some common points of reference. On numerous occasions, I’ve witnessed groups of people born before 1990 find sudden solidarity around a mutual commitment to having “more cowbell.”
Several weeks back, I spent the day at Costco. My laptop brimmed with grading and drafts in need of revision, so I camped out in the café while I waited for my tires. By lunchtime, the other tables had filled, so when an older gentleman asked if he could join me, I gladly obliged. I asked him about the aircraft carrier on his hat and he swelled with pride as he spoke of cramped quarters, duty, honor, Custer’s Last Stand (family vacation), and Vietnam (his war). The landscapes of the western U.S. and the vast expanse of the Pacific spread before us.
Then we came to the U.S.S. Arizona Memorial, suspended over the battleship-turned-tomb in Pearl Harbor. My conversation partner leaned in and whispered, “I saw a group of Orientals chattering away there and I wanted to ask, ‘Does anyone here have a gun?’” (Subtext: he would have gladly used one on them.) He added, “They’re buying up all the land in Hawaii, you know.” At a loss for words, I sat back and wondered what I could possibly say to redeem the conversation and my neighbor. I wonder still.
Why would someone expand “the enemy” of his own war to include civilians from an entire continent? Surely part of the answer lies in the kinds of stories we tell. It has long been standard fare in wartime (viz. pre-war, preemptively aggressive) rhetoric for governments to weaponize the fear of their own populace against the civilian populations of enemy states, not merely their governments, as a tool for justifying and soliciting support for violence.
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An Open Letter to the Great Test Generation, Including the Class of 2020
have journeyed far to arrive at this point in your life. Further than you
realize, perhaps. The elements that constitute your physical being traveled
hundreds of lightyears across the millennia to arrive in their current form as
your body. Folk singer Joni Mitchell put it best: “we are stardust.”
are other parts of you beyond the merely physical. Those, too, have a long
story. Indeed, your story isn’t just your story. Your life is the latest
chapter in the story of your family. You are the descendant of survivors. Those
who came before you, your ancestors, lived, loved, worked, and risked their
lives, some of them more than others, so that you could be here today. Some
crossed borders, even oceans, to give you a better life. All made sacrifices.
All made mistakes, some moreso than others. But, in one way or another, all
lived so that you could live. In innumerable ways, who they were has given shape
to who you are. Never forget that.
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Although unique in its scale and intensity, the Holocaust was not original. Less well known, contemporaneous actions by Stalin in the USSR sought to eliminate entire groups of people (specifically Ukrainian peasants by means of well-orchestrated famine) to accomplish the goals of the state. After the Holocaust, many have offered the twin vows “never again” and “never forget.” Yet, ever again, people seem to forget. 1970s Cambodia. 1980s Iraq. 1990s Bosnia and Rwanda. Early 2000s Sudan. Late 2010s Iraq (again). Today Myanmar—or, if not yet, probably soon. At least in the short-run, it is more comfortable for many of us to forget, to ignore, and to avoid learning such things in the first place.
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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.
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Personal Correspondence in Christianity
Christians have always read each other’s mail. Many have written profound letters with every intention of a broader audience reading them. Now that tradition may be at risk, although a few simple steps provide plausible solutions.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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