Category Archives: Religion & Culture

Interfaith Resistance Against Nazis & Serbians Must Inform Justice Campaigns Today

I spent last weekend at the Pax Christi USA conference, reflecting on peacemaking and nonviolence for a few days – and there will be plenty to post in coming days. For now, I wanted to share two amazing stories – connected acts of nonviolent resistance given their religious tinge.

The first piece is from Waging Nonviolence, which if you don’t already read is a necessary resource for imagining a new world through peaceful means. The article shares methods of resistance by Europeans under Nazi occupation. A few highlights of the interfaith actions:

“Direct intervention and non-cooperation in Bulgaria helped to save their country’s 48,000 Jews…leaders of the Orthodox Church refused to comply with the deportation orders, staging sit-ins in the king’s chambers and even threatening to lie across railroad tracks to prevent Jews from being transported. This pressure eventually encouraged the Bulgarian parliament to stand up to the Nazis and rescind the deportation orders, saving most of the country’s Jewish population…

“Meanwhile, the inhabitants of Le Chambon-sur-Lignon, a Protestant village in southern France, were motivated by their religious convictions to help thousands of refugees escape Nazi persecution by hiding them in private homes as well as Catholic convents and monasteries.”

Aside from the absolute effectiveness of nonviolent resistance against (even) the Nazis, who are often quoted as the reason we would need war as the only solution to mass atrocities such as theirs, there are lessons for interfaith relations today. In essence, in war time, the division existing between Christians and Jews or between denominations of Christianity melted away. Orthodox Christians literally offered their lives to resist Jewish oppression, and Catholic institutions afforded a welcome that broke the strictness of monastic life.

Decades later, the Jewish community in Serbia reacted similarly when an existential threat was posed to their neighbors. The piece is about when it is ethical or proper to withhold a news story for the good of those involved, but within that argument is this story:

“The other story kept was how the synagogue in Sarajevo certified many non-Jews as Jews in order to let them pass through the lines – above ground — out of the city.  As the rabbi told me and others with a smile when we in the news finally did that story, it was the only time he can recall when Jews were not blamed for a war and that they were given passage without harm…As the animosity among the Serbs, Croats, and the Bosnian intensified, Jews were left in a unique position. Independent from each of the warring factions — they were even offered an opportunity to leave Sarajevo at the beginning of the siege of the city — the Jewish community had access to food, medical supplies and other goods during the war that were unavailable to the rest of the population

“A look at the numbers of Jews in Sarajevo before the war – compared to the number of ‘Jews’ who left the city – is a staggering difference. The ruse was clever and effectively.”

Common humanity united Europeans in resistance during both these trying periods. Though anti-Jewish sentiments are prevalent in Christian history including World War II that is not the sole narrative for people of faith. Faced with the ability to leave a war zone, the Bosnian Jewish community remained in solidarity and in active resistance. These communities did not weaken their faith by aiding others, even welcoming them in as honorary Jews or Catholics, and they did not act in spite of faith. Beautiful resistance that was powerful and life-giving was because of strengthened faith among communities!

At times, interfaith work currently seems impossible on matters of justice – like immigration or gun safety laws – because of theological and institutional difference. What if we imagined our common goals of justice, equality, and peace were so very necessary, though not comparable to combating genocide, we could put aside religious differences (though cognizant of them and in dialogue separately!)  for the good of common struggles? These two articles prove it is possible, and even desirable given their positive outcomes.



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An Apology on Behalf of My Fellow Christians

The myth of Christian persecution in America is dangerous, and it is leading to reverse oppression by a faith I love that is not just, moral, or democratic. In South Carolina a high school valedictorian ‘stunned’ the audience by ripping up approved remarks and reciting the ‘Our Father’ after speaking extemporaneously about his Christian faith. His example is merely the latest problem.

This newly-minted graduate will now go into a pluralistic world championed by the Christian Right for his  stunt, and affirmed in the corrupted notion that Christian dominance is acceptable in American society. The article in The Washington Times reports applause broke out when this young graduate began praying as a protest against the school district’s removal of prayer from graduation ceremonies. Ignorant of civics it seems, this valedictorian’s parting intellectual act was to obliterate the separation of Church and State instituted by the framers of our nation for the explicit protection of religion.

An apology is owed to the public, especially those students, family, and friends celebrating graduation at (the ironically named) Liberty High School. It is owed to everyone because unhinging the wall of separation harms each American resident, not exclusively those who are not Christian.  The legal issue, however, is not what I take issue with most – for the case could be made he spoke under the 1st Amendment or that his prayer was not government sanctioned. I leave that for the lawyers.

The underlying reason for an apology is this valedictorian’s actions were immoral, and created an injustice against his community. The Christian response is to ask forgiveness and seek healing when you cause rupture. Assuredly, this student must apologize to non-Christian and non-theist communities who should not be subjected to Christian prayer at secular, governmental events. Christians, including myself, are also owed an apology for this young man’s pretense that he acts in our name or that his actions are Christian in the least.

Since Vatican II, Catholics defend religious liberty as a right accorded to each person regardless of how they exercise it.  I recognize that this student, being in South Carolina and speaking in the language he did, is most likely not Catholic – and many evangelical Christians possess a different take on religious liberty. I speak from the Catholic position because it is what I believe to be Truth.

For centuries, the Church enacted the morally bankrupt and ineffective practices of forced conversion and “Christendom,” and while I was not alive then it appears obligation and not liberation was the primary motivator in faith. Not exactly desirable for a growing and dynamic faith community.

Pacem in terris from Pope John XXIII (expanded upon in Vatican II and all of which drew off the once-silenced John Courtney Murray, SJ) reversed how society should treat religion:

“14. Also among man’s rights is that of being able to worship God in accordance with the right dictates of his own conscience, and to profess his religion both in private and in public.”

Now, Catholics were to respect the right of each and every person to live out their religion, or not, according to conscience. This meant that theocracy was not desired nor should Christians  hijack public forums to make their views heard disrespectfully any more.

Enacting God’s will into law is a desired goal through the legislative process, but always balanced by a respect for the individual’s conscience – to paraphrase Peter Maurin (and add some), we seek a society where it is easier to be good and yet one that respects our free will to act according to conscience. It is a challenge we may never get right, but we cannot excuse ourselves from engaging this tension.

Growing the Christian community through our witnesses of faith and love should also be a priority in the life of each person who professes Christ, but never through oppression or disrespect. Obviously, the call to evangelize and make disciples of all nations remains – and it is one I hope to write more about from a progressive Catholic angle.

This valedictorian’s remarks, his prayer – none of these are respectful civic engagement or Christian proselytizing, and nothing he spoke was said out of love. I readily confess the Catholic faith, the one expressed by Christ through the Spirit, and I wish to draw all into it – but never by imposition of my will, only through invitation that is freely accepted. For the many times Christians impose, rather than invite we must ask the apology of all those around us.



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