Religious leaders wrote President Obama two weeks ago about the G-word.
The G-word is genocide.
It’s a charged word. It’s an ugly one. It’s a word that makes U.S. presidents and other international leaders squirm.
To declare genocide is to demand action – action that most governmental and nongovernmental leaders want to avoid.
Religious leaders urged the president to declare the actions of ISIS as genocide.
“We write as an informal and diverse group of non-governmental organizations and individuals who are scholars, religious leaders, and human rights advocates to express our grave concern for religious minorities, among them Yezidis, Christians and Shia Muslims, at the hands of the Islamic State. We urge you to formally declare the systematic destruction of these ancient communities a genocide,” the letter read.
Under the letterhead of the International Religious Freedom Roundtable, the signatories said, “We humbly request that your office publicly acknowledge and denounce the Islamic State’s actions as genocide, and act with all due haste to ensure that this ongoing, abominable crime is halted, prevented, and punished, and that the religious freedom and human dignity of all people currently suffering under the Islamic State are allowed to flourish.”
Baptist signatories included Tom Billings, executive director, Union Baptist Association; Tony Cartledge, professor, Campbell University Divinity School; David Crosby, pastor, First Baptist Church of New Orleans; David Hardage, executive director, Baptist General Convention of Texas; Duke McCall Jr., attorney and member, First Baptist Church of Greenville, S.C.; and Todd Still, dean, Truett Seminary.
A few weeks ago, a number of members of Congress signed on to House Concurrent Resolution 75, which said those who were targeting Christians and other ethnic and religious minorities were committing “genocide.”
Neither statements nor atrocities move presidents easily to declaring genocide.
Some will recall how President Clinton and his administration danced around the word during the atrocities in Rwanda, as Brian Kaylor, contributing editor to EthicsDaily.com, pointed out in his news analysis story.
Others will remember that earlier this year during the 100th anniversary of the 1915 Turkish massacre of 1.5 million Armenians, President Obama refused to use the word genocide.
So, what is genocide?
The word “genocide” comes from the combination of the Greek word for race or tribe, “geno,” with the Latin word for killing, “cide,” wrote Zach Dawes, managing editor of EthicsDaily.com.
The United Nations defines genocide as “any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such: killing members of the group; causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group; deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part.”
In a video interview with EthicsDaily.com, Godfrey Uzoigwe, retired professor of history from Mississippi State University, said that a key component of genocide is the act of targeting a group of people because of who they are or what they believe.
Another key is planning. Genocide is not a spontaneous, violent eruption. Genocide is plotted, planned, organized.
During our video interviews and research conversation for our forthcoming documentary on genocide in Nigeria in 1966, we have heard missionaries say that the attacks on the Igbos were planned.
They believed their homes and workplaces were identified in advance. The killings and destruction took place across the northern part of the country during a defined time period.
My mother has shared that the thugs, who were killing Igbos and looting their homes, in Jos, Nigeria, went down the next street over from our home. They did not come down our street, which including two homes of Baptist missionaries and three homes of Islamic judges. They knew no Igbos lived on our street.
Given what we know about genocide from previous atrocities and the clear definition of genocide, should Obama remain silent about ISIS. Or should he declare its action as genocide?
Obama will do what is politically expedient, not morally prudent.
Faith leaders will do what is morally prudent. That means church leaders need to step up with statements and sermons about genocide.
The more houses of faith demonstrate their concern about ISIS targeting Christians and other religious minorities, the more unlikely it is that leaders can avoid the obvious conclusion.
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: A series of articles on genocide appeared on EthicsDaily.com in April 2015 to provide resources to congregations so they could better understand and engage this issue. Video clips and production photos from EthicsDaily.com’s forthcoming documentary on genocide in Nigeria in 1966 are available here.
Robert M. Parham (1953 – 2017) was the founder and executive director of Baptist Center for Ethics from 1991 to 2017. He served as executive editor of EthicsDaily.com, BCE’s website, from its launch in 2002 until 2017.