A Further Perspective

Murderous Regimes and the Churches

Turning a blind eye to the savagery of our times.

By 3.18.14

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This stunning recent graphic offers victim numbers on modern history’s greatest mass murderers. Each blood drop represents one million killed. China’s Mao Zedong ranks “first” with 78 million, followed by the Soviet Union’s Joseph Stalin with 23 million and Nazi Adolf Hitler 17 million.

“These cold-blooded dictators do not care for the value of life as much as they do achieving their selfish motives of domination, power, and immortality,” the grim graphic aptly summarizes.

Interestingly, Belgium’s notorious King Leopold is fourth with 15 million who died in the Belgian Congo under his brutal colonial exploitation. Then there’s Japanese World War II militarist Tojo with 5 million, and Turkey’s WWI chief Enver Pasha with 2.5 million and Cambodia’s Communist despot Pol Pot with 1.7 million. North Korea’s founding tyrant Kim Il Sung is next with 1.6 million, then Ethiopia’s Mengistu with 1.5 million. Nigerian dictator Yakobo Bowon (1966-1975) is the final listed villain with 1.1 million.

Hitler’s monstrosities are often cited and portrayed in popular history and culture, including countless films and television dramas, but not so much the others. How many movies about Stalin’s crimes or Mao’s? The Killings Fields, a 1984 film, portrayed Pol Pot’s crimes, but blamed the U.S., of course. Armenian Americans periodically demand recognition of Turkey’s WWI genocide against their people. Mao is still honored as the founding father by the current regime in China. One of these monsters, Mengistu, is still alive, living quietly in Zimbabwe. An Ethiopian acquaintance of mine, upon meeting my Zimbabwean friend, quickly commented, “Oh, the Devil lives in your country.”

What did America’s churches and religious leaders say about modern history’s most murderous tyrannies? Typically, not much. In the 1930s, the Mainline Protestant churches mostly focused on opposing war. Many did eventually criticize Nazism, but often late in the game, and not fully realizing its cosmic evil. Mostly they were silent about Stalin’s Russia, and many church officials visited the Soviet Union in the 1930s, during the worst of Stalin’s genocidal collectivization, and gleefully thought it represented the progressive future.

There were initial church concerns about the Communist conquest in China in 1949 because of the large U.S. missionary presence in China. But by the 1960s, some avant-garde Protestant mission elites were celebrating Mao’s liberating rule even as his horrific Cultural Revolution was murderously underway. In 1978, a few years after Mao’s death, a National Council of Churches’ official hailed China’s Communists for seeking a “modicum of justice.”

Mainline church elites supported U.S. resistance to North Korea’s invasion of the South in 1950. But by the 1970s and 1980s church elites focused instead on accommodating North Korea, with church delegations visiting Pyongyang and finding no religious persecution, typically visiting Kim Il Sung’s puppet churches without noticing the Stepford Wives-style worshippers. Even the great Billy Graham, in the 1990s, visited these puppet churches uncritically, although his purpose was commendably to share the Gospel.

When Pol Pot was exterminating hundreds of thousands in newly Communist Cambodia, U.S. churches were almost all silent. Finally several years later in 1978 the National Council of Churches condemned Cambodia’s “regimentation” but naturally faulted the U.S. role in the Vietnam War. About the same time, Mengistu’s Marxist regime in Ethiopia was killing hundreds of thousands, initially through its “Red Terror,” then mostly through government orchestrated famine, prompting a Church World Service official to blame U.S. “racism.”

In the 19th century, some U.S. churches, especially Presbyterians, thanks to a missionary presence in the Congo, did alert the world to Belgium’s horrific crimes there. And in the 1920s, southern Methodism did condemn Turkish atrocities against the Armenians. Otherwise, the religious record on concern about mass murder by totalitarian tyrannies is pretty grim.

By contrast, during the 1980s, an endless cavalcade of church officials and activists routinely sought arrest outside South Africa’s embassy to protest Apartheid, which of course was in fact wicked and deserved denunciation. But Apartheid across 40 years did not murder as many as died in a typical day under Mengistu in Ethiopia, whose embassy was not that far away. To my recollection, indignant church officials did not protest much less seek arrest outside his embassy.

Catholic leaders in the U.S. were never as negligent on human rights as the Mainline Protestants, and until the 1960s the U.S. Catholic bishops were outspokenly anti-Communist. By the 1970s and 1980s they were tamer, focusing on disarmament and détente.

Evangelicals, to the extent they commented on international human rights across the decades, were typically strong on critique of Communist regimes. It was to a receptive National Association of Evangelicals that Ronald Reagan gave his famous “evil empire” speech about the Soviet Union. But the latest generation of culturally sensitive hipster Evangelicals more often than not carefully avoids potentially controversial criticism of overseas Islamist or Communist tyrannies, instead hoping to find soothing common ground. When the next great mass murderer takes power, they cannot be expected to speak resolutely, if at all. Instead, they will send delegations for dialogue and tea.

The only regime in the world currently that arouses persistent, sustained critique by U.S. church groups, including a growing segment of left-leaning Evangelicals, is democratic Israel. U.S. Evangelicals just completed a “Christ at the Checkpoint” conference on the West Bank last week, a now annual event, focusing on Israel’s crimes against the Palestinians. More anti-Israel verbiage is exhaled at this event than any church criticism was ever deployed against most of the last century’s great mass murderers.

Sudan’s Islamist Omar al-Bashir is likely the closest the world has today to a tyrannical mass murderer on a vast scale, with victims in the hundreds of thousands. Yet most religious voices are silent. During the last decade, much religious activism on Sudan’s Darfur region often condemned the Bush Administration, while barely mentioning Bashir.

Why the churchly silence against regimes of mass murder? Shouldn’t moral and spiritual leaders, especially politically outspoken ones, lead in identifying and rebutting great evil? One reason may be the inability of most Americans to comprehend such sweeping horrors. Americans could understand Apartheid because of U.S. segregation. And maybe Americans identify with Palestinian inconveniences at an Israeli military checkpoint because Americans despise highway delays. But Americans simply have no historical corollary to systematically killing millions, Howard Zinn-style claims of “genocide” against the Indians notwithstanding.

God willing, the 21st century will not replicate the last century’s unparalleled and often unchallenged mass murders by genocidal tyrants. But should another Hitler-Stalin-Mao-Pol Pot-Mengistu arise, may religious leaders discerningly summon the courage to speak. 

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About the Author

Mark Tooley is president of the Institute on Religion and Democracy in Washington, D.C. and author of Methodism and Politics in the Twentieth CenturyYou can follow him on Twitter @markdtooley.