The Church Needs a New Confession: Pathetic-ness as Moral Failing

Fear and hatred.

A group of well-meaning Christian students asked their mostly non-religious friends: “What is the first thing you think of when you hear the word ‘Christian’?” The answer: “Fear and hatred.” The non-religious friends did not hate Christians, but many of them did assume that Christians demand a litmus test of political, moral, and social beliefs and practices to reveal who deserves God’s love. These Christians’ non-religious friends view such a test as a gateway to bigotry. For their part, the Christians found that they, too, shared some of the same concerns about Christian litmus tests and bigotry. Their friends’ beliefs also raised another question for the Christian college students: what is the church doing that paints Christians as fearful and hateful? Perhaps, if they discovered the answer to this question, then they should apologize for 2,000 years of wrongs done by the church.

So, this group of mostly Protestant students decided to spend a year asking this question about millennia of church failures, a program that they jokingly called the “Mea Culpa campaign.” Their operation included a film series, focusing on “current church failures.” Fundamentalism topped their list of church failings, followed by anti-Semitism, racism and homophobia.

The campaign featured films for each topic, followed by an open-ended discussion, not contrived or controlled. The Christian college students were not interested in changing their friends’ minds. Rather, they wanted to give their non-religious friends a forum in which to express why they view Christians in such a negative light. And I, their college chaplain, watched as the conversation unfolded.

The students chose several films including Jesus Camp. One film they chose was Amen, which focused on a German SS officer and a Catholic priest, both of whom attempted to expose secret concentration camps to the Vatican. The Vatican, however, refused to speak out. The Protestant Christian students reacted with shock, horror, and grief to a part of church history of which most of them had never heard before that night. Also present at the film screening of Amen was a member of the newly formed Hillel chapter and members of the Catholic Newman club. These students nodded sadly at the Protestant students’ reaction, for they were aware of this particular church failure. “We had always blamed the Nazis,” said one Protestant, “but we did not understand the role the church played, or refused to play.”

The Jewish student talked a lot about how the Holocaust affected her family. At first, the others listened, and then the discussion went off on several tangents. The meeting ended on a positive note of shared horror and new friendships. At the end of the evening, I thought the viewing of Amen and the discussion was a success. But then, I realized that this film’s focus on genocide made it too easy to agree with the church’s failure. Clearly, the murder of six million people is wrong, whether the players were passive observers or active participants.

Overt evil is easy to discuss. It’s banal evil that is hard to acknowledge. And you can’t confess to a sin until that sin has been acknowledged. Churches spent the rest of the twentieth century acknowledging the sins of genocide. However, in her writings, Hannah Arendt, who witnessed the trials against the Nazis, wrote about how the Nazi war criminals resisted acknowledging that their boring, nine-to-five office jobs of record keeping or laboratory work on the use of chemicals in the gas chambers had actually been evil. In her book, Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil, Arendt chronicles the wartime activities and trial of German Nazi leader Adolf Eichmann, who claimed that he was only doing his bureaucratic job as a transportation logician. But his “job” led to the death of millions in the Shoah. Likewise, in a scene from the movie, Amen, the German SS officer explained the ratio between the amounts of chemicals needed and how the right combination of chemicals would quickly kill a certain number of people. In making this explanation, the SS officer was doing his job. However, the precision and efficiency required by his task masked the reality of how the ratio of chemicals he calculated meant the physical death of millions and the moral death of twentieth-century Christianity. While we know that gassing millions is wrong, the horrors of the genocide and the road to hell are often masked by dull organizational details like chemical ratios, and by the seemingly good intentions of clergy who look the other way to avoid the cargo trains and the stench from the gas chambers.

When I reflect on the sins of the church in events like the Shoah, sometimes I think we should apologize, not for being evil, but for being pathetically inert. The church leaders (not all, of course, but many) acted as if all were well while evil lurked beneath the surface of banal actions, like those of Nazi Christians. The church claims to represent love, but sometimes it does something in the name of love that seems evil (like baptizing slaves before they are sold). Even in the church’s exercise of evil, though, its greatest sin often occurs when it is simply being pathetic, being passive and complacent, unwilling to take action beyond a quiet moan.

The pathetic villains of the church are often not cast as passionate people with a cause. As in the case of Amen, Christian villains folded their hands, bowed gracefully, and looked in the other direction. Who would love the pathetic church member? Give us the passion-filled, albeit evil, witches of old! The recent success of the Broadway musical, Wicked, shows that society still loves the epic villains, like the wicked witch of the west, Drusilla, or Boris and Natasha. The obviously evil character is not pathetic—only passionate and misguided. The evil villain puts his or her entire heart and being into a cause, even if people get hurt in the process.

The pathetic villain, by contrast, follows orders, keeps the accounting straight, and does so with very little thought or passion. The evil villain accomplishes something intentionally. The pathetic villain accomplishes nothing on purpose. Perhaps by accident, the pathetic villain does some damage, like blowing the seeds off a dandelion, only to find, like in Dr. Seuss’ Horton Hears a Who!, that a civilization could be destroyed by a simple puff. Except for his or her cause, the evil villain almost looks like a brave soul. The pathetic villain is ultimately a coward.

This cowardice of the church was explored in the third installment of the “Mea Culpa campaign,” an independent documentary, Traces of the Trade. It looked at how one family received its wealth and privilege from the nineteenth-century North-American slave trade. The lucrative slave trade strategy of rum traded for slaves who were used to harvest sugar to make molasses used to make rum to be traded for slaves was skilled and successful commerce in its era. The banal, but carefully executed trade of rum, slaves, and molasses, however, also led to the torture of millions of human beings, and undermined the long-term economic advancement of generations of African American families.

In the documentary, family members of the slave trader were horrified and heartbroken over the revelation of the sources of their family’s wealth. Many attempted to rectify the wrong of slavery through social action or consciousness-raising activities. While I admire them for this, I still have to get up every morning and sort through how much of this legacy of slavery still affects my family and me. I think of how many of my family members are still in poverty, even though they may have attended college. The dandelion seeds have been blow away, and generations of slavery cannot be undone, especially if present action is still undertaken with pathetic cowardice. At best, I have always viewed civil-rights advances, not so much as overcoming one of history’s greatest evils, but more as stripping away the illusion of white superiority from the emperor’s back and declaring him to be a naked, pathetic fool.

Although the family profiled in Traces of the Trade tried to discuss reparations, or compensation for slavery to the descendants of African American slaves, the old conversation faltered in the face of a staggeringly long legacy. In the film, the family members asked the lone African American who was in their midst, about her feelings. She was actually one of the filmmakers, and had not planned on appearing in the film. When the white family members asked her what she thought about racism, she said that she saw that many of her friends, including members of this privileged family, were good people. But many whites, she said, were cowards for not wanting to address the issue of racism.

While the film is less than two years old, the filmmaker’s thoughts about cowardice bear a striking similarity to US attorney general Eric Holder’s recent comments. “Though this nation has proudly thought of itself as an ethnic melting pot, in things racial we have always been and continue to be, in too many ways, essentially a nation of cowards,” Holder said. “We, average Americans, simply do not talk enough with each other about things racial.” His accusation seemed to have cleverly and thankfully stopped the old conversation on race, a conversation that has decayed from a struggle for gains in civil rights to the pathetic, self-congratulatory exercise it has been for the past twenty years. The old conversation on race has become an exercise in back-slapping, high-fiving, cheers against the racist white man and applause at liberal whites helping poor little brown children. We are in a new era; where majority culture advocates realize that justice must be more than just humanitarian aid. Perhaps Holder’s comment will move us away from the conversation on programs that put bandages on racism to a new dialogue about making real gains against racism in this twenty-first-century multicultural milieu.

I have spent years in discussions among Christians about the failures of the church to speak out against racism. Often, the participants in these conversations are well meaning. OK, now we all agree, racism is wrong, the emperor is naked. After that admission, however, nothing seems to change. I suspect this inertia is due to the fact that it’s more comfortable to call racism an overt evil; then, overt actions and overt villains can be blamed, but most of us never have to face the relationship between the minutiae of our daily lives and racism. Perhaps we will actually start rectifying the damage of racism if we address it as a banal or pathetic evil.

We all know evil when we see it, but pathetic-ness masquerades so well as quality, excellence, piety and holiness. Too often, some well-meaning person approaches us with a plan or a cause, and we even though we smell the scent of banality, we are convinced that the intent of the project is what makes it good. This allows us to ignore the damage that these pathetic actions cause to others. If racism is really going to be conquered, it will take more than a mantra of “we will overcome.” Perhaps we need a new mantra, something like “I will be transformed.”

To this end, the church will need a new confession. The church needs not to confess our sins as if we were as evil as Hitler, but to admit that our sins are as banal and cowardly as Eichmann’s. We should admit that, in our cowardice, we pass laws so that we can avoid the real change that should come to our hearts. We need to confess that all we do when we change laws in order to legislate being nice to everyone. Our conversations must pass beyond a mere gaping at racism’s damage. But before this happens, our nation’s collective heart needs to ache for the damage done by racism. Otherwise, we are doomed to do more damage while hiding behind the good liberal shield of acknowledging racism only when it is overt.

For the solution to racism, anti-Semitism, and all of the church’s failures is rooted in embracing the part of the Christian message that claims that love transforms the heart and makes it able to love one’s neighbor, family member, and enemy with the same passion. For if the church had been doing this, it would have avoided committing most of its sins over the past two millennia. And until the hearts of Christians are transformed through the process of confessing to racism, anti-Semitism, homophobia, or whatever “ism” that is fueled by the passive sins of omission, all the church will ever be is a bunch of cowards. Until people’s hearts are transformed through the process of confessing and acknowledging racism, nothing will change.

3 Responses to The Church Needs a New Confession: Pathetic-ness as Moral Failing

  1. avatar JohnzoBonzo says:

    All this is a pointless exercise and rationalization. There is a big lie at the heart of your religion, that you can understand God’s mind, and that your books and texts are revelations from God. And no matter how you try to jump around and redefine things, you are lying to yourself at the core, and therefore will not be able to tell anyone else the truth. And the lie in your life will always lead back to the same ugly things that religion always leads to.

    Oh, you’re not Muslims? Well, that changes everything.

  2. avatar Harper Ergo says:

    So my question for the earlier comment poster, why did you focus on the piece of the article that deals with the Holocaust in Europe (which, by the way, millions of Catholics and Lutherans did let happen; and you can’t prove that Christianity motivated the soldiers of other European nations who fought against Germany, just that a handful of Christians felt motivated by Christianity to save some people sometimes, and I am pretty sure the author was clear about that)? It seems you missed the whole point, that often Christians are too spineless to take a real stand against racism today, too cowardly to use Holder’s description. Apologies are no substitute for genuine self-reflexive action. Inert disapproval is not the same thing as taking a real moral stand, however much postmodern church-goers seem to think it is. So, if that is the point of the article, then yes, the actions taken by many in WWII suggest a significant spine, but why did they take those actions? Christian-motivated defense of innocent victims? Or self-preservation and loyalty to the nation-state?

  3. avatar Joe Maine-iac says:

    So… let’s get this straight.
    Atheist left-wing lunatic fascist movement murders six million Jews and millions of other assorted people.
    The Pope (in other words, one guy in Italy) hears about it but keeps his mouth shut.
    Strongest, most religious, Christian nation on Earth sacrifices half a million of its sons to put an end to the madness.

    And your take on this is that this is the great moral failing of Christianity? I think Christians come out of it looking pretty good, actually, and atheistic Europeans not so much.

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