Given such racist events in the U.S. in recent months as the violent protests in Charlottesville, Va., it's worth taking a look at the roots of bigotry and at the worst-case examples of results of such racial, ethnic and religious prejudice.
One way to do that is to drop back a few days and look at the conviction of Ratko Mladić (pictured here), the Serbian leader who, it is now legally clear, led the genocide against Bosnian Muslims more than two decades ago. Which, of course, is quite different in scale from what happened in Virginia, though the roots of both events have some similarities.
David Rohde, the author of The New Yorker piece to which I just linked you, covered the war in Bosnia and, in the article, sought to explain why Mladić committed his crimes, which involved overseeing the systematic murder of thousands of Bosnian Muslim boys and men. To many people who watched what happened at the time, the reasons for this violence were mysterious.
Rohde wrote that "Carl Bildt, a European Union and U.N. peace envoy who had met with Mladić during the conflict and demanded that he protect the Srebrenica prisoners, told me that Mladić’s decision (to order genocide) still haunted him. While prosecutors were able to get some Serb officials to testify against Mladić, the thinking of the General when he ordered the killings remains unclear.
“'Why? That’s still somewhat of mystery,' Bildt told me by e-mail. 'Perhaps they simply got overwhelmed by the logistics of handling thousands of prisoners,' or 'anger/revenge/hatred easily took them into what for the moment might have looked like the easiest way of handling the situation.' He added, 'Perhaps. But I’m still struggling.'”
But Rohde has an explanation, and I think he's on target. He writes this:
"It seems then that Mladić was driven by simple bigotry. In the ruling, the judges also cited a Dutch peacekeeper’s testimony that the General warned him of the dangers of living with Muslims and members of other races. 'Mladić, commenting on the dark skin-colour of one of the DutchBat officers, told the witness that multi-ethnic societies were a problem for the Netherlands and that in ten years time he would be in the Netherlands, with his soldiers to protect the Dutch from Muslims and other races.'
"Mladić was wrong. Today, he is in a Dutch jail cell, where he is likely to die. Yet the prejudice-laced historical narratives that he used to justify his crimes persist." (On that point, see this piece.)
Whether it's Mladić's prejudice against people of dark skin and of the Muslim religion or it's the white supremacist narrative that many of the Charlottesville protesters have adopted as gospel, it's all bigotry rooted in a failure to understand that race is a shifting political construct, not a biological reality. The truth is that humans share DNA that is more than 99 percent exactly the same no matter what "race" or ethnicity we claim.
My own pastor made that very point last Sunday in this terrific sermon.
The contention that somehow "white" people (and I was reared to believe that I'm white) are superior to others is one of the grand lies of humanity, but far from the only one. And yet in many ways it forms an often-unspoken but strong foundation of our culture. At its worst, it leads to violence and death, as it did in Charlottesville. A similarly misguided bigotry rooted in a bad story led to genocide in Bosnia as well as in Darfur, Rwanda and Europe, the latter at the bloodied hands of the Nazis and their sympathizers.
There are healing stories we can tell about our common humanity. And those are the ones that we must tell whenever we see bigotry show its putrid face.
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WAS THIS REALLY CHRIST'S TOMB?
New evidence suggests that the tomb in which tradition says Jesus was buried in what is now the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem may be old enough to be his real (temporary) tomb, though that's not yet a certainty. Isn't it fascinating how often humans demand physical proof of spiritual stories?
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THE BOOK CORNER
Unafraid: Moving Beyond Fear-Based Faith, by Benjamin L. Corey. Here, thank goodness, is another example of a Christian who has struggled with the idea of a God interested mostly in retributive justice. What the author finds, after a considerable struggle with fear, is a God mostly interested in restorative justice through love, forgiveness and compassion. "For all the unintended consequences of some expressions of the Christian religion," he writes, "I think fear is the most devastating -- because fear has a way of permeating all areas of our lives." In the process of discovering that he didn't have to give up Christianity, Corey had to come to terms with what he no longer believed and to find something believable to take its place. That process, he writes, did not lead to a loss of faith but, rather, a birth of faith. The world seems crowded with people who have rejected a certain approach to faith because it has locked them down in a fear that has paralyzed them. Fear need not be so powerful. When it is, you know something is theologically amiss. Faith that is not both liberating and challenging is not healthy. This book offers a compelling account of someone who discovered all that and eventually found a faith that could sustain him without scaring the hell out of him.