A man ran into our seventh-grade classroom before the weekly spelling test. He was an older man. He was glistening with sweat, wide-eyed, disheveled, frightened. He pled for protection. A classmate would later recall that he said to our teacher, “Please, ma, I don’t want to die.”
He was an Igbo, a member of an ethnic group whose homeland was called the Eastern Region of Nigeria.
Our teacher at the interdenominational mission boarding school in Jos, Nigeria, Ms. Wagner, an Assemblies of God missionary, quickly escorted him from the room.
Little did we know, however, that this unnamed Igbo was a forerunner, a messenger, about what was unfolding in Jos and across northern Nigeria.
The genocide had started.
Members of the Hausa ethnic group had launched a planned massacre of Igbos. Some 30,000 Igbos would die over the course of a few days, including the man in our classroom. He was clubbed down the next morning by a mob.
I’ve wanted to tell the story of what happened in Nigeria for 50 years without really knowing the story.
For the past six months, we’ve been digging into the remarkable story of what missionaries did to save lives. Frankly, I’ve been amazed at how many initiatives were taken.
Missionaries are speaking forthrightly for the first time in five decades – almost every day we are obtaining new information, new stories, for our documentary.
Documentary research has included watching numerous documentaries about genocide in Darfur, Rwanda, Turkey and Namibia.
None of these is more striking and sweeping than Daniel Goldhagen’s “Worse Than War,” which aired several years ago on PBS. You can watch it on YouTube.
He explored what happened in Rwanda with interviews of perpetrators of the killings. He examined the ethnic cleansing in Bosnia, where Christian Orthodox Serbs had rape camps.
He looked at the Turkish government’s killing of a million Armenians – and the American government’s failure to address the atrocity for almost 100 years. He confronted the former president of Guatemala who sought to eliminate Mayans.
After decades of studying genocide, Goldhagen contended that myths cloud our perceptions about genocide.
“People need to understand that nothing is inevitable about genocide. It boils down to a series of choices. Leaders chose to initiate the killing. Ordinary people make a conscience choice to participate. And those with the power to prevent or stop it, choose to do nothing,” he said.
“There is a misconception that genocide erupts spontaneously out of deep-seated passions or ethnic conflicts. But there is nothing spontaneous about genocide,” said Goldhagen, noting the Nazis planned extermination of Jews.
In a withering critique of governments and the United Nations, which issue bold declarations after genocides, he declared, “‘Never again’ is a hollow phrase.”
One of the reasons global leaders continue to utter “never again” is that they are slow to act in the face of evidence and sometimes fail to punish perpetrators.
The failure to punish perpetrators encourages future genocides. Genocidal leaders know with what they can get away.
Goldhagen said, “A few political leaders start genocide. A few political leaders can stop them.”
What if he is right? What if a few people can stop genocide?
What if the church decided to become a “watchman on the gate”? The church is a global network with boots on the ground almost everywhere. Perhaps the church could be the first fire alarm.
Then, the church would need to press slow-moving governments and nongovernmental organizations to move swiftly to intervene.
Getting the faith community to think about genocide isn’t some armchair theological activity. It’s a call for faith in action.
Fifty years ago, a diverse – unprepared – group of missionaries put their faith in action to save lives. They intervened. They spoke with government leaders. They took bodies to the morgue. They bandaged wounds, comforted the afflicted. They smuggled Igbos to safety.
By focusing on genocide this month, EthicsDaily.com hopes to encourage more conversation in churches about genocide.
We want to remind our readers that goodwill Baptists and other Christians have a heritage of addressing genocide and ought to place the issue on the churches’ moral agenda.
Robert Parham is executive editor of EthicsDaily.com and executive director of its parent organization, the Baptist Center for Ethics. Follow him on Twitter at RobertParham1 and friend him on Facebook.
Editor’s note: This is the first article of a series focused on genocide. Part two, looking at the origins of Genocide Awareness Month and providing educational resources, is available here.