Christianity and the Holocaust

In my sermon “Who Do You Stand With?” I spoke of the shameful record the Christian church had when standing up for the lives and rights of the oppressed.  In fact, it has played a major role in the rise and continuation of racism, the suppression of women and LGBTQ persons, and, during the Holocaust, the support of Nazis.  There were exceptions, of course.  The Civil Rights Movement was to a large degree church-based, though the churches on the front line were mostly Black.  There was opposition to Nazi rule, too, from the so-called Confessing Church. One of its leaders was Dietrich Boenhoeffer, who wrote the great book The Cost of Discipleship, which begins with that startling sentence, “The great enemy of the church today is cheap grace.”  We want all the advantages of grace but don’t want to do anything for it.  We don’t want to stand with people, speak up for them.  Bonhoeffer was executed.  Another leader of the Confessing Church was Martin Niemoeller, who uttered the famous words: “When they came for the Communists, I didn’t say anything because I’m not a Communist.  When they came for the Jews, I didn’t say anything because I’m a Christian. When they came for the Trade Unionists, I didn’t say anything because I don’t belong to a Trade Union.  And then they came for me, and it was too late.  There was no one to speak up for me.”  Niemoeller spent seven years in a concentration camp.  But on the whole, the traditional German church whispered its objections.  Its virtual silence enabled the horrors of the war and the concentration camps, and much of the church openly stood with that evil regime.

The very first conference we ever put on at North Central College was “Christianity and the Holocaust,” November 8-10, 1989, directed by Dr. David Frolick, from political science,* and me as director of the two co-sponsoring entities, The Visiting Lecturer Committee and The Master of Arts in Liberal Studies.  Frolick had approached me about bringing Nachama Tec, who had written When Light Pierced the Darkness: Christian Rescue of Jews in Nazi-Occupied Poland,” and when I said, Why not more speakers? I remember him saying, “You mean an actual conference!?  We’ve got to get a good brochure!”  I remember, too, rushing by a group preparing lunch, saying, “No ham,” and hearing gasps as I sped away to take care of other business.

As part of that brochure shows below, we covered a wide spectrum of issues: the Holocaust and the Christian church, of course, but also Holocaust studies for high schools, the Holocaust in film, literature, and ethics, the Holocaust’s relation to contemporary racism—all culminating with Nechama Tec’s talk “When Light Pierced the Darkness: Becoming a Rescuer.”

It was a reprise of the central aspects of her book, which begins with noting that while the whole world knows so much about Anne Frank, it knows very little about the two people who hid the family.  The Encyclopedia Judaica, for example, refers to them only as “friendly Gentiles.” Their names, Tec tells us, were Mr. Koophius and Mr. Kraler.  They were both arrested and sent to camps. Koophius was released a few weeks later due to poor health, but Kraler spent eight months at forced labor.  In 1972 Yad Vashem bestowed upon them the title of Righteous Christians.

Tec—herself a Holocaust survivor helped by Polish rescuers—identifies six highly inter-related traits of those who became rescuers, including some who were actually anti-semites!  1) An almost marginal status vis a vis their communities, resulting in increased individuality and separateness.  2) Independence and self-reliance allowing them to act on their convictions. 3) Broad and lasting commitment to stand up for the helpless.  4) Consistently denying their actions were heroic, and seeing aiding Jews as a matter of fact thing. 5) Unpremeditated, unplanned beginnings of rescue efforts.  6) Universal perceptions of Jews as helpless and dependent on others, and the ability to disregard all other attributes except those that expressed extreme suffering and need.  In other important summary passages, Tec says:  “…it was this moral force that motivated the rescuers independent of likes or dislikes…Liking and helping, they knew, did not necessarily go hand in hand…The relative independence, strength, and freedom of these rescuers suggest that they were able to act in accordance with their personal moral imperatives, which involved a strong desire, almost a compulsion, to stand up for the needy, the persecuted, and the downtrodden.”

These sound to me like core values in Jesus’ ministry, values that are often forgotten, buried by our easy, comfort-seeking religiosity.  In the dismal history of the pain, the torture, the death we inflict on each other, and our usually feeble attempts to speak out against these, it was good to be reminded that light does occasionally pierce the darkness.

* The other conference committee members were Dr. George Karnezis, Mr. David McGuire, Dr. William Nauman, and Dr. Roger Smitter.  Alice Stonebreaker (Arts & Letters), and Lina Ariffin and Jerrie Lea Hopf (Graduate Programs) were also of great assistance to me.

♦  Go to my personal history of significant persons and conferences I helped bring to North Central College.

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Over 100 hard, athletic jumps in a little over 5 minutes, an average of about 1 every 3 seconds—though 90% of them are packed into the last 3 minutes of David Parson’s dance piece “Caught.”  That’s probably one reason Nora Fitzgerald, writing for the Washington Post on November 1, 2013, describes the dancer as “a little on edge.”

“One man stands on the stage, in the spotlight, alone and perhaps a little on edge. His dance begins slowly, with single bold movements and a few quirky gestures.

“Suddenly, he takes flight. The audience, thrilled, alternately gasps and cheers as he walks, floats and dances on air. He doesn’t land until the dance ends. Choreographed by David Parsons in 1982, ‘Caught’ was a modern dance sensation so buoyantly accessible that men who don’t like dance much recommended the piece to other men who like dance even less.”

The VIDEO below show about 3 minutes of “Caught,” one of modern dance’s most spectacular, crowd-pleasing pieces.  But videos of “Caught” barely capture the experience.  “I’m proud to say,” Parsons himself has said, “you have to see ‘Caught’ live.’  Seeing things live.  The phrase resonates powerfully as we hope we’re coming close to the end of our pandemic.  We hope.  A little like the dancer, we’ve felt suspended, everything up in the air.

It’s not quite true, though, that the dancer in “Caught” doesn’t land til the dance ends.  Here’s part of Eileen Sondak’s LA Times review, written nearly a quarter century earlier (November 1989), when David Parsons himself was dancing his own creation.

“Sunday night in San Diego, under blinking strobe lights that created a marvelous illusion of flight, Parsons awed the crowd in ‘Caught,’ his most-celebrated solo. The whistles and screams of approval began as soon as the dancer took flight on this exciting airborne romp across the Mandeville Auditorium stage.

“Parsons came down to earth regularly during the course of the dance, but you couldn’t prove it by what you saw on stage. Every time the lights flashed on to capture the nimble dancer in action, he was hurtling through space in gravity-defying, mid-air maneuvers.”

I’d say, in fact, that those moments when we see the dancer firmly set down on earth, breathing hard but standing still, are the most thrilling moments of “Caught,” the ooh’s and aah’s of the audience turning into the most thunderous applause.

  For more on the arts, including dance, go to the ARTS Main Page

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How Good of a Democracy Are We Anyway?

This post presents highlights from The Economist Intelligence Unit’s (EUI) Democracy Index 2020, its 13th annual index which began in 2006 and surveys the health of democracy around world.

The Index classifies countries into four categories: Full Democracies, Flawed Democracies, Hybrid Regimes, and Authoritarian Regimes, and ranks them from #1 (the first country in the Full Democracy category) to #167 (the last country in the Authoritarian category).

Before diving in for more background and detail, I’ll cut to the chase and say the U.S. isn’t at the top of the list when it comes to healthy democracies.  It isn’t even in the Full Democracy category.  It’s the second country in the Flawed Democracy category and comes in at #25 overall.  You can see the whole Index 2020 HERE, including the rankings chart on pages 8 to 13.  By the way, Norway ranks #1 with an overall Democracy Score of 9.81 out of 10.  North Korean, at #167, is dead last with a 1.08 score.  The U.S. score is 7.92.

Hey, I’m just reporting.  And let’s can the “America, Love it of leave it” attitude.  It’s always good to take as objective a look at yourself as possible.  Americans are heavily inclined to think of themselves as the greatest, and this perspective is so strong it’s a doctrine with a name: American Exceptionalism.  And we are exceptional and the greatest in many positive respects, but not all.  Which is why, for example, we incarcerate more people than anyone in the world, why racism—a problem in many countries, of course—remains so stubbornly entrenched here, and why with less than 5% of the world’s population, the U.S. has accounted for more than 20% of global deaths during this pandemic.  No one’s saying they don’t love America, just that we can do better.  Part of doing better is putting that exceptionalism attitude in its place.  When you think you’re pretty close to perfect, that lessens the drive to fix things that need fixing.  Looking seriously at the 2020 Index might be a good form of tough love.

The Economist is a weekly newspaper head-quartered in London and printed in magazine format.  It began in 1843 and styles itself as “a global thought leader but [not] part of the establishment.” It’s audience (in the millions) “is guided by our objectivity and insight on issues as wide-ranging as cryptocurrencies to gay marriage,” it says of itself.  And, indeed, most, if not all, organizations tracking media bias rate The Economist very high in unbiased, factual reporting.  The Economist Intelligence Unit (The EIU), which produces the Democracy Index report, is the research and analysis division of The Economist Group, the sister company to The Economist. Created in 1946, it has over 70 years’ experience helping businesses, financial firms and governments understand how the world is changing and how that creates opportunities to be seized and risks to be managed.

The Democracy Index focuses on five categories: electoral process and pluralism, the functioning of government, political participation, political culture, and civil liberties. Based on its scores on a range of indicators within these categories, each country is then itself classified as one of four types mentioned above: Full, Flawed, Hybrid, or Authoritarian. A large, 18-page Appendix details the definitions, the resources, and the methodology the EIU uses to arrive at its rankings. The main focus of the 2020 report is the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on democracy and freedom around the world, as well as the state of U.S. democracy after a tumultuous year dominated by the pandemic, the Black Lives Matter movement, and a hotly contested presidential election deeply.

Among the report’s highlight findings are that:

  There’s been a shift eastward, towards Asia, in the global balance of power
  U.S. democracy continues to be under pressure from rising polarization and declining social cohesion
  The biggest democracy winner is Taiwan
  Mali and Togo are the biggest losers in a dire year for African democracy
  Western Europe loses two “full democracies” (France and Portugal)
  Democratic backsliding continues under the cover of Covid-19 in Eastern Europe and Latin America
   The Middle East and North Africa retain the lowest democracy index score, while North America (in large part because of Canada) retain the highest score.

On the Covid-19 pandemic, the focus of the 2020 Index, there was deep criticism of its handling and “big downgrades of Index scores for civil liberties and functioning of government.”  One key paragraph was this:  “Was there another way? There was no obvious alternative to the social distancing, quarantining and lockdown policies pursued by governments and, in itself, this did not signal a turn towards authoritarianism in the world’s democracies. However, governments’ approach to the management of the pandemic did reveal a dismissive attitude towards the idea of popular participation and engagement with the single most important issue of the day. Even though they were pressed for time while tackling an urgent public health catastrophe, governments could have treated the public like grown-ups and asked for their consent and involvement in combating the coronavirus epidemic.”

Of the U.S. in particular, though race and the Black Lives Matter movement gained early mention, there was little more devoted directly to these, a disappointing omission in my view. The focus, instead, was on our country’s tremendous polarization.  Has race, a perennial U.S. sore point, exacerbated our polarization, or is it bringing a strange and surprising kind of unity?  Certainly, the rise of white supremacists groups would indicate a further shredding of our social fabric, yet there is significant social backlash against such groups, especially after the January 6th storming of the U.S. Capitol, and more and more people seem to want to face racism, white privilege, and systemic racism in a more serious way than perhaps any other time in U.S. history.  Still, it’s understandable that our spectacular polarization should garner the Index’s most aggressive statements.  For example:  “Despite…positive developments, the US’s overall performance is held back by a number of weaknesses, including extremely low levels of trust in institutions and political parties; deep dysfunction in the functioning of government; increasing threats to freedom of expression; and a degree of societal polarisation that makes consensus on any issue almost impossible to achieve….While pluralism and competing alternatives are essential for a functioning democracy, differences of opinion in the US have hardened into political sectarianism and institutional gridlock. This trend has long compromised the functioning of government, and the US score for this category fell to a new low of 6.79 in 2020.

“More worrying, public trust in the democratic process was dealt a further blow in 2020 by the refusal of the outgoing president to accept the election result. Mr Trump and his allies continued to allege voter fraud long after the election was over, without producing reasonable evidence to substantiate their claims and in the face of court rulings finding against them. Through his unfounded allegations and intemperate language, Mr Trump called into question the reliability of the democratic process and further undermined public faith in democracy.”

  A link to the Democracy Index 2019 is in my article “Voter Suppression 21st Century Style.”

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The Cost of Racism: 16 Trillion Dollars

And that’s just over the last 20 years, and “just” when it comes to discrimination and inequities concerning Black Americans.  According to a new report from Citi Corp’s GPS group (Global Perspectives and Solutions), nearly sixteen TRILLION dollars have been lost. You can read the full report HERE.

Titled “Closing the Racial Inequality Gaps: The Economic Cost of Black Inequality in the U.S.,” the report begins by quoting one of the most famous passages from MLK, Jr.’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail:”  “We are all caught in an inescapable net of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”  And, really, it’s not all that indirect.

The report focuses on four areas, three of which I’ve written about on this site.  (1) The Racial Wealth Gap:  The overall wealth gap has grown to absolutely astonishing proportions since 1965, but the racial wealth gap is even worse.  Closing that gap could have added $2.7 trillion in income, or .2% to our GDP per year.

(2) Home Ownership:  Improve access to housing credit and 770,000 Black-owned homes might have been added since 2000, a gain of $218 billion in sales and expenditures.  Lack of home ownership is the single greatest driver of the racial wealth gap.  (3) Education:  Facilitating access to higher education could have added $90 to $113 billion to lifetime incomes.  Instead inequities in education are still rampant across the nation.  And (4) Fair and Equitable Lending to Black Entrepreneurs:  This could have generated $13 trillion, plus created 6.1 million jobs per years. ***

Sixteen trillion is nearly 75% of the U.S.’s 2019 GDP, but even the four areas above comprising the report’s core don’t tell the whole story of loss.  The report touches on policing, imprisonment, healthcare, and more, and even includes an overview of the Civil Rights Movement as a way to add context and to search for causes of the racial crises which continue to plague us.  Mental and physical sickness, lives traumatized, lives lost—add these as the direct result of unequal policing, unfair imprisonment, and health care inequities and the price soars well, well past $16 trillion dollars.  There’s also much more to pile on, like Voter Suppression, which also costs us a lot.

It’s good to have all these inequities quantified, with dollar signs attached to many of them.  The Clinton campaign coined the phrase “It’s the economic, stupid!” and we seem to listen more when it comes to pocket-book metrics.  But, of course, many don’t experience these inequities, and many don’t believe they exist.  We’re still a nation divided, largely unaware of each other’s experience of life, which is one reason the report concludes that bias and systemic racism have blocked substantial improvement over not just the past 20 years, but over the 158 years since the Emancipation Proclamation, and the centuries more since the first African slave landed on American soil.

In his TED Talk “How Racism Makes Us Sick,” public health sociologist Dr. David R. Williams explains a metric that can help us gauge and understand how racism affects the daily health and shortens the lives of so many people of color.  It’s an ultimately uplifting talk, full of “we-can-do-it” optimism, but I believe there’s also an ominous undertone.  If we don’t overcome bias and systemic racism—and we haven’t been doing a great job of it so far—then racism won’t continue to make just Blacks and other people of color sick.  It will continue to make our entire people, and our nation’s morals and body politic sick, too.  And it will continue to rob us of so many life-affirming, life-enriching friendships we could be having across racial and ethnic lines.  Sixteen trillion dollars doesn’t begin to convey the magnitude of such loss.


*** I have written a lot about the first three partly because our family foundation, Emmanuel House—now The Neighbor Project—focuses on home ownership, the single greatest driver of the racial wealth gap.  The stability created by home ownership boosts high school graduation rates by 25%, and college graduation rates by 116%.  The best introduction to The Neighbor Project’s work and vision is executive director Rick Guzman’s talk “Every Person’s God Given Ability to Contribute,” in which he, too, uses the MLK, Jr. passage that begins the Citi Corp report.  But home ownership is all over this site, even including a review of the Christmas classic It’s A Wonderful Life, or a profile of Lorraine Hansberry, who wrote A Raisin in the Sun.  In his talk Rick Guzman also mentions the opening of the Financial Empowerment Center, a joint venture of The Neighbor Project and the City of Aurora, Illinois, which we hope will make inroads into more fair and equitable lending as well.

  Go to the TEACHING DIVERSITY page.

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Every Person’s God-Given Ability to Contribute

Rick Guzman is The Neighbor Project’s Executive Director, and so important was his talk during The Neighbor Project’s 2020 virtual gala that I have posted a VIDEO of it below all by itself for anyone who did not watch the whole 45-minute gala (which you can still watch HERE), or even the 19-minute Gala Highlights I recently did for this site.

His talk highlighted The Neighbor Project’s impressive growth since early 2018, when Emmanuel House merged with The Joseph Corporation to create The Neighbor Project, and casted a vision for its expanding service to financially vulnerable families and individuals for the rest of 2020, then 2021 and beyond.

He casted this vision in the larger context of loving our neighbors enough to invest in them, saying, “We have to believe in our neighbors enough to invest in them, invest in others the way we would want to be invested in…[so] we can keep working to break down the barriers to home ownership, which are the single largest driver of this nation’s wealth gap.”  That wealth gap is unbelievably enormous (see my article “Graphic Inequality”) and even larger is the Racial Wealth Gap.

He set all this in the largest context of all by quoting from Martin Luther King, Jr.’s famous “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.”  “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere,” King wrote.  “We are all caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny.  Whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly.”

This talk is an example of what we need more of in this time of protest and soul-searching.  It ties practical action into a deep vision of our mutuality, and vice versa:  it ties that deep vision to practical steps that make that vision a reality in our everyday lives.  And more, it’s also a question of Who Leads?—a question playing out in the protests and other anti-racists actions across our nation today.   Writing in 1970, Robert Greenleaf, who started the field of Servant Leadership, said,  “…the next 30 years will be marked as the period when the dark skinned and…the alienated of the world assert their claims…” and were not “led by a privileged elite…It may be that the best that some of today’s privileged can do is to stand aside and serve by helping when asked and as instructed.”  Guzman expresses his belief that, “If we enlist and empower and engage financially vulnerable populations with opportunities…these otherwise vulnerable populations can quickly become contributing members and leaders for our communities.”  That’s an expanded version of a core belief he’s expressed many times: “Every person has a God-given ability to contribute.”

♦  Go to The Neighbor Project’s website to donate and get involved, and to “Emmanuel House Becomes The Neighbor Project” for a bit of history.

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