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Jim Waller

Failing to Meet Christ's Highest Ideals? Psychology professor asks tough questions about the institutional church's response to genocide
Edited by Julie Riddle, '92


Jim Waller believes the institutional Christian church has shirked its responsibility in confronting genocidal violence. In his current research, Waller, professor of psychology and the college's Edward B. Lindaman Chair, is exploring two things: how religion, which has wielded such a tremendously civilizing effect on human society, can shape a culture in which genocide may occur, and how the church responds to such a culture both during and after genocidal violence. Waller hopes his research will help spur the institutional Christian church to begin redeeming itself – and the world – by becoming involved in post-genocidal reconciliation.

Waller is serving his final year as the Lindaman Chair, an endowed chair with a four-year term for senior Whitworth faculty engaged in significant academic initiatives. In March, he received a First Voice Humanitarian Award from the Chicago Center for Urban Life & Culture. Waller collaborates with the center on his groundbreaking Prejudice Across America off-campus study program. Also in March, Oxford University Press released the revised and updated second edition of Waller's book Becoming Evil: How Ordinary People Commit Genocide and Mass Killing (first published in 2002), which is used by universities worldwide in courses on Holocaust and genocide studies.

In the following Q&A, Waller discusses his findings on the institutional church and genocide, and talks about his newest Whitworth study program, Religion, Peace and Conflict in Northern Ireland.

Q. (Whitworth Today) According to your research, the general rule of recent history is that religious institutions have been silent, even complicit, in the face of genocidal violence. Your analysis of the Holocaust, the Rwandan genocide, and ethnic cleansing in Bosnia-Herzegovina suggests there are three stages of institutional Christian response to genocide. What are they?
A. (Waller) First, pre-genocidal responses include fusing religious belief systems with ethnic, national and political identities. The church loses its critical role as a voice of the voiceless when it becomes married to other social identities that offer the church privilege among power holders and mobilize the church to preserve, rather than challenge, the status quo.

Second, genocidal responses include sins of omission (silence and denial) and sins of commission (accommodation and active participation in killings). In Rwanda, for instance, many of the worst massacres occurred in churches and mission compounds where Tutsis sought refuge.

Finally, post-genocidal responses include emphasizing the church's persecution and resistance, which is often marked by the church appropriating the victim groups' suffering and glorifying individual heroes and martyrs. In addition, we see the church issuing official declarations of contrition that avoid acknowledging institutional guilt.

Q. Who is an example of a Christian individual that the church has singled out for his or her heroic actions?
A. One of the clearest examples is Corrie ten Boom. What many Christians throughout the world know of the Holocaust is what they know through her story. As recounted in her bestselling book The Hiding Place, ten Boom and her family of devout Protestant Christians offered their home as a hiding place for fugitives hunted by the Nazis. At issue is the way in which Christian institutions have appropriated the suffering of the victim groups (specifically Jews) as their own, and singled out ten Boom as a Christian heroine. It's a misdirection of attention, away from the complicity of the dominant social structure of an institution (the church) and toward exceptional actions of individuals. The representation of the Holocaust as an event of Christian suffering to generations of Christian readers is problematic – particularly to Jews. This explains in part why ten Boom's story is so little known among American Jews and why it has been virtually ignored by the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum.

Q. How have your colleagues in academia responded to your research?
A. Within academic circles, criticisms of the institutional church, especially during the Holocaust, are widespread. What I hope is unique about my work is the comparative analysis of responses from the institutional church across three case studies of genocidal violence. I think patterns of behavior tell us a lot about how behaviors are made and, in this case, about how they can be unmade. Only with that understanding can we begin to redeem the role of the institutional church in the lives of states and international affairs.

Q. What results do you hope to see from your research on genocide and the Christian church?
A. I want my research to challenge the institutional Christian church with the same challenges that I, as an individual Christian, must respond to daily, however poorly I do so: to be more inclusive rather than exclusive; to love rather than judge; to be active in the face of injustice rather than passive; to resist evil rather than be complicit; to bring together rather than to divide; to speak truth to power rather than to be silent; and to heal rather than to hurt.

Q. In January 2006 you launched a new Jan Term study program, Religion, Peace and Conflict in Northern Ireland. What is the focus of the program?
A. The program is built on the recognition that the real "museum" of The Troubles in Northern Ireland is the people themselves – people who lived through those times, who lost loved ones, who killed (often in the name of religion). We spend as much time as possible with these people, and with peacemakers who are trying to take the next step in reuniting a country ripped apart by sectarian violence. In addition to seeing how religion can divide, I want my students to see the potential of religion to reunite, to be inclusive rather than exclusive, to sustain life rather than to trivialize it. I want students to recognize the abuses of religion, when it is wielded without grace, as well as the promise of religion, when it is lived with humility.

Celeste Brown

Q. What is one of the notable books you've read in the last year?
A. I've been enjoying re-reading Taylor Branch's three-volume history of the Civil Rights Movement, America in the King Years, which will be essential to some of the curricular revisions I have in mind for the next few years in Core 350. I can think of no clearer way to illustrate to our students the capacity of ordinary individuals to challenge institutions to make extraordinary changes in society than through the stories of the incredible men and women who took their citizenship seriously and made the Civil Rights Movement a reality. To me, their story may be the greatest one of all in American history.

Whitworth Today