The promise of the United Nations and its remarkable Universal Declaration of Human Rights cannot be denied.
For all of the rhetorical excesses and political gridlock that seem to stand in the way of the aspirations to a world at peace and in collaboration, there really is no other locus in which even an occasional consensus of the world’s nations takes place.
How tragic, then, is it that one of the examples of that agreement is the International Day Commemorating the Victims of Acts of Violence Based on Religion or Belief?
It is right and proper that the community of nations should pause to reflect on the souls lost or damaged because they sought to exercise the freedom of conscience guaranteed by Article 18 of the aforementioned Declaration: “Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.”
What is wrong and improper is that the community of signatories – which is to say, almost every nation in the world – should need to formalize such a day to call attention to violations of this basic right.
I suspect that there is not a faith community, ethnic group or country that cannot point to a cohort of their beloved members who suffered injury at the hands of those who took exception to their beliefs.
My own people – the Jews – have days set aside on our liturgical calendar to remember the catastrophes visited on us by those for whom mere persecution was insufficient.
The oldest of those days is the ninth of the summer month of Av, more than 2,500 years ago. According to the Book of Lamentations, the city (holy Jerusalem), once so full of people, had become like a widow.
The most poignant of those days, The Day of Holocaust and Resistance in the spring, commemorates the murder of six million men, women and children for the crime of being born as Jews.
But there is no need to reach back even 75 years to find these occasions to recall and pour out our grief; in the span of recent years came incidents in Pittsburgh and Paris and too many other places.
The value of such remembrances is not to nurture the grudge against the perpetrators. Nor, quite frankly, is it to point a finger at those who did nothing to stop the acts of violence committed in their midst and in their names.
Human inclination is such that even the gentlest among us need no reminder to resent. I must admit to skepticism of people who offer unsolicited forgiveness to those who have rained down blows on the innocent. And tears flow naturally when sacred memory is rekindled.
The “victims of acts of violence based on religion or belief” have left behind families, friends and just plain community members who will say a prayer, erect a memorial, name a child in the hopes of restoring a scintilla of what was forcibly taken away.
The value of this “international day” is to warn us off of being culpable.
The power of a thought, an idea or a belief is undeniable. Abraham’s notion of one God, Jesus’s offer of redemption, the Buddha’s mindful enlightenment, each and all changed the world. Even the much-maligned Madalyn Murray O’Hair sounded a clarion note of doubt (or certainty, depending on your perspective!) that resonates in American society today.
Each of us who remains unpersuaded of the strength of our own thoughts, ideas and beliefs to meet the challenge of dissent has the potential to become the victimizer – or at least to stand by while others do what we think about privately.
My inclination here is to rely on the wisdom of Martin Niemoller who, looking back at Germany’s violence based on religion or belief, declared the famous, “First they came for the Socialists…” confession.
Cautionary though it may seem, Niemoller understood he was too late.
I prefer to quote my long-time friend George Pera, a Presbyterian minister and true lover of humanity. He once said to me, “I try to visit the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum once a year or so. I want to be reminded of what I am capable of.”
The International Day Commemorating the Victims of Acts of Violence Based on Religion or Belief is not so much to remember the injured and dead or to add infamy to the perpetrators.
It is for me and for you to look at each other in the actual or symbolic General Assembly and remind ourselves that what we have all suffered we should not inflict on others.
“Never again” is not a slogan of revenge. It is a cautionary tale to the self.
Editor’s note: This article is part of a series this week for the International Day Commemorating the Victims of Acts of Violence Based on Religion or Belief. Each article expresses only the opinion and perspective of the author and not any other columnist in the series. The other articles are:
Religious Minorities’ Plight Too Often Overlooked | Shane McNary
Remembering the Realities of Faith Freedom for All | Jaziah Masters
To Be Anti-Zionist Is Not to Be Anti-Jewish | Vinoth Ramachandra
More than Words, Observances Must Accompany Declarations | Imad Enchassi
Seeking Light Streams Amid Genocide’s Darkness | Scott Stearman
President of Interfaith Alliance and a Conservative rabbi. He is currently serving on Good Faith Media’s strategic advisory board.