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It’s a Mistake to Say History’s Evils Couldn’t Happen Here

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The Cathedral of St. John the Divine in uptown Manhattan, the fourth largest church in the world, and unfinished 120 years after its construction began in 1892, is a hodgepodge of Gothic, Romanesque, and Byzantine styles. It’s also a hodgepodge of theologies, like many Episcopalian churches, but it has groovy celebrations such as the blessings of bicycles in April, bees in June, and animals generally (from a tortoise to a yak) early in October.


The Cathedral’s most recent extravaganza was the Procession of the Ghouls that came this year on Oct. 26: Organ music accompanied a silent horror film, and “an impressive parade of ghoulish characters” created fun for all. What a blessed country America is, where some think ghouls are fun, and where we can still speak, write, and vote freely. I've seen some real ghouls abroad, and once partied domestically with those known as Communists. Younger Americans who have no firsthand experience with ghouls may folks with such experience are paranoid, but they should read Church Behind the Wire (2012) by Communist-turned-Christian Barnabas Mam, who survived killing fields that filled with blood during the 1970s after the U.S. let the Khmer Rouge take over Cambodia.

I have visited what were once the killing fields, and the torture chamber that helped to populate them: Security Prison 21, now the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum in Phnom Penh. The roosters there wake up what is once again a quiet neighborhood, but documents in the archives contain pleas from prisoners like this one: “I would be happy to grow rice with my wife and children on a collective farm. … Please save me, just let me live.” That did not happen, and his skull may have been one of those housed several miles away in a ghoulish 10-story platform holding hundreds of skulls.


It’s hard to look at those skulls and think of the bright eyes and smiles they once housed. The same failure of imagination is likely in Vilnius, where Lithuanians have turned the former Soviet KGB prison into a museum. You can walk through the torture room and into the execution chamber where those who worshiped government rather than God efficiently murdered more than 1,000 prisoners over two decades beginning in 1944: A scholarly analysis of 685 skulls buried in one mass grave showed that 492 had one bullet hole, 110 a wasteful two holes, and only 50 a profligate three to six.

Early this fall I visited that ex-prison and found it suffered from museum-itis: No matter the horror, it’s hard to feel its enormity in a well-lit space with neatly ordered exhibits, just as it’s hard to fathom raging whitewater rapids in a Six Flags ride. The hyper-Halloween experience I did have came at Patarei prison, the former KGB detention center in Tallinn, Estonia. When the prison closed, guards took off, leaving behind medical and torture equipment, wall posters and graffiti, utensils and bedding—and it’s all dark, dark, dark in cells complete with creaky doors and whistling winds through window slits on the shore of the Gulf of Finland.


God has so blessed America that we can happily relegate such terror to Asia and Europe and say it can’t happen here—but it could if churches content themselves with blessing bicycles, bees, and yaks instead of teaching about sin and what happens to societies that encourage it rather than restrain it. We need to learn about real ghouls.

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