During seminary, I studied genocide with Dr. Elie Wiesel.
For three fall semesters I had a seat around a large oak table in a classroom on Commonwealth Avenue in Boston. Wiesel, a Nobel Prize winner, humanitarian and concentration camp survivor, lived in New York City but traveled to Boston once a week to teach the interdisciplinary graduate seminar. Would-be students had to write an essay to win a place in the course.
I’d spent part of the summer of 1997 in Travnik, Bosnia, as a United Methodist Church volunteer living with a Muslim family, playing with children who had survived war and ethnic cleansing. The ceasefire was months old and tenuous in some places. The facade of almost every building was scarred from shelling. We were warned to never step on grass because buried landmines had not been cleared.
They trained us so we’d be ready to listen should children wish to share parts of their story. I prepared for weeks of unmitigated agony. I understood my small role was to bear witness to horror and trauma.
What I discovered was the astonishing beauty and reliance of the human spirit, the zeal for life contained in people rebuilding their community with hope and mercy.
I expected the pain, what I didn’t expect was the joy. And I discovered that the faith that got me to Bosnia wasn’t sufficient anymore once I got home. I needed new ways to worship and pray and think, I needed God-talk that encompassed the reality of brutal civil war. I needed a deeper, richer faith that didn’t require pretending genocide wasn’t real and on-going or closing my eyes to systemic injustice. Any hope I preached in Jesus had to have continuity with the lived experience of my friends in Bosnia.
After all he had survived, I knew that Dr. Wiesel was a person of deep living faith. I wrote about my struggle to integrate those profoundly sacred, life changing, faith-shattering disorienting weeks in Bosnia and I asked him to be my teacher.
He taught us the literature of genocide — the Tutsi genocide in Rwanda in the 1990s, the Armenian genocide in the 1890s, the Nanjing massacre and genocide of the Sino-Japanese war in the 1930s. We studied the literature of the Jewish pogroms and Stalin’s gulags. We centered the voices of victims and survivors. I had no idea the world was so soaked in the blood of the powerless.
Again and again, we returned to the same questions. How do these atrocities keep happening? How are they justified? How are they carried out? How do perpetrators lose their humanity? What does humanity require of us in an age of genocide?
Here is what he taught me: All suffering is sacred. We should never compare and rank suffering as if some massacres are worse and some are justified. And again and again he told us you must always, always speak out. You can never keep silent.
In these weeks, I close my eyes and I see him standing there at the head of the table. He never raised his voice. He spoke slowly and deliberate, scanning the room and making eye contact with us all. I can hear him saying, you must always speak out. Even when there are no words, you must always speak out. I won’t presume to imagine what Dr. Wiesel would say about the war in Israel Palestine. But I believe I honor his legacy when I speak out.
The horror of the Oct. 7 terrorist attacks is unmeasurable, the sabbath peace and rest shattered by massacre. More than 1,400 civilians murdered, whole families slaughtered, teenagers gunned down as they danced under the moon in the desert. The dead can never be forgotten. More than 200 were taken hostage, and they must be restored to their communities.
The Palestinian people of Gaza are currently experiencing brutal collective punishment. The borders are closed, there is no place to escape. Nowhere is safe. In the first six days of the war, Israel dropped more than 6,000 bombs and the pace has only intensified. The Gaza health ministry reports that more than 8,000 citizens have been killed, more than 3,000 of them children. There is almost no food, not enough clean water, and extreme shortages of medical supplies. The Israeli government has cut off power and fuel supplies and shut down internet and communication capabilities.
We cannot make peace through war. We cannot heal a massacre with more massacres. The death of the innocents is not avenged by the death of the innocents. Israelis and Palestinians have a right to exist as neighbors in peace and mutual flourishing. We cannot be silent. We must speak out. There must be a ceasefire now in Gaza. Then we begin to build peace.
Kate Murphy is pastor at The Grove Presbyterian Church in Charlotte.