WASHINGTON -- I recall sitting at a Kigali restaurant with a Tutsi woman who described the death of her younger sister, a university student, during the Rwandan genocide. The girl had been given up for murder by one of her own teachers, who was a nun. The survivor across from me, previously a Catholic, had never attended church again. In the sacrifice of the Mass, she could only see the sacrifice of her sister.
Many items on the list of horribles laid at the door of religion are libels or exaggerations. But this charge -- the indifference or complicity of many Christians during the great genocides of modern history -- is one of the genuine scandals.
In Hitler's Germany, Christians responded to mass murder with general acquiescence and only isolated defiance. Protestants earned the most shame. In the Evangelical Lutheran Church elections of 1932, so-called "German Christians" won two-thirds of the vote -- and later praised the fight "against the political and spiritual influence of the Jewish race." Catholic leaders were less overt in their anti-Semitism, but hardly heroic in their resistance -- usually accommodating rather than confronting the Nazi regime. "Charity is well and good," said one Vatican official at the time, "but the greatest charity is not to make problems for the church."
During the Rwandan genocide, writes Timothy Longman, "Numerous priests, pastors, nuns, brothers, catechists and Catholic and Protestant lay leaders supported, participated in, or helped to organize the killings." Two Benedictine nuns collaborated with Hutu militias in the murder of 7,000 people just outside their convent grounds. A priest participated in the burning and bulldozing of a church with 2,000 men, women and children inside.
It is very difficult to understand how those who worship a man on a cross could help to drive the bloody nails themselves. But the record is clear: When religion is infected by racism, ideology or extreme nationalism, it can become a carrier of hatred instead of conscience. And when churches are concerned mainly for their institutional self-preservation, they often end up neck-deep in compromise or paralyzed by cowardice.