Beware Standby Mode

Earlier this month, State of Formation and the Journal of Inter-Religious Studies graciously offered me the chance to join them in a tour of the US Holocaust Memorial Museum followed by a discussion of Holocaust education and the phenomena of collaboration and resistance, especially among people of faith.  It was, to say the least, a moving experience.  Since then, the suffering in Syria has continued; the Holocaust, the Armenian genocide, and the Rwandan genocide have all had days or periods of remembrance.

That is as far as I can easily write this post.

Asked to reflect on the atrocities committed with tacit– and sometimes explicit– support from Christian religious figures and people of faith, I have many avenues to pursue, too many for me to marshal those thoughts like a good cat-herder.  Asked to reflect on the involvement or lack thereof from bystanders to those atrocities, I keep coming full-circle to the question that was raised several times during our tour:

“How could people do that?”

My instinct is to come to the defense of those senior citizens featured in the short films on constant replay in the museum, recalling how when they were young, they informed the police of their Jewish neighbors’ whereabouts.  Or they watched with their childhood friends while armed men buried a mass grave and then looters came and sifted through the dirt for valuables.  And I think it is important to recognize that for many such people, their impetus for acting that way came from emotions very familiar to us today, like fear: fear of being hurt, fear of failing their families, fear of getting involved in big things when really they just wanted to paint still-life watercolors or devote their lives to their poetry or their research on folklore.  It is important to remember that heroes are celebrated and deserve to be emulated, but that they are heroes because they are not the norm.  But I have to halt halfway, because no matter how much I understand that some bystanders and collaborators acted out of love for their families or other such understandable forces, they still were a part of atrocities.  And despite the real power of forgiveness and reconciliation, that will never not be true.

The reason these things are important to remember, though, is because they are things that are still true.  These factors are still important in our decision-making today.  These things are important to remember because the question of how people could do that is the wrong question.  It assumes there are “people” out there, and then there is “me” and “us” over here: that we would never, could never, do “that.”

A better question is, recognizing that humans act from many of the same loves and fears the world over, how do we do that?  For Christians, who are an Easter people but are also a Maundy Thursday and Good Friday people, how and when do we say with Simon Peter, “I don’t know him!  I don’t know what you’re talking about!”  Because we do.  I do.  We look away, we change the channel, we cross to the other side of the street, we don’t get involved because we know it will break our hearts and we have to be ready to go to work in the morning to pay rent and buy groceries.  We say, “That’s his problem,” or “Those people have been fighting for centuries,” or “I couldn’t make a difference anyway.”  And yes, there is a place for self-care, but there is also a place for other-care.

I still don’t have a clear message to take from this or to offer to you.  Just– be careful of living too long on standby mode.  In the Gospel of John, Simon Peter is given what I suppose is a second chance.  “Do you love me?” Jesus asks.  “Then feed my sheep.”  Simon Peter is given a second chance which he uses for good, and I believe in a God of love and forgiveness, but Simon Peter still lived his life toting the wreckage of his first chance.  It will never have not happened.  He will never have not stood by while an innocent man he loved died by imperial torture.  How many times did he– how many times do the elderly folks in those videos– wish they had been braver and bolder and more awake?

Justice calls– divine love calls– humanity calls– your neighbor calls– his sheep call– be awake!

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2 thoughts on “Beware Standby Mode

  1. Thank you for this beautifully written call to wakefulness. There is indeed much more we need to understand about
    by-stander behavior–why and how it happens. Our family, like many, has paid a high price for speaking truth to power in the face of injustice. It is a difficult equation sometimes and I appreciate that you do not over-simplify the costs of being bolder and braver. Certainly, we need to all be more awake.

  2. Thank you, Dr. Mahaffy! It’s an honor to hear this from you. Would you be willing to share some of your family’s story with me? I am figuring things out, but still have lots to learn from others’ experiences.

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