Today President Biden may cause a ripple in history that could create international problems in an area with which our country already has strained relations. It will only be a one-word change, but it will reflect a choice of words that has stood for over a century and represented a degree of barbarity that almost defies belief. The word is “genocide,” coined in 1941 by Raphael Lemkin.1 In 1947, the United Nations defined genocide and brought it into the world’s eye as a crime unparalleled in gravity. Still, it has been around for time immemorial.
There are synonyms for actions similar to genocide, namely: purges, ethnic or racial cleansing, revolution, and Holocaust; all of them involve picking out a specific group and determining to wipe them out to create a more homogenous, cohesive group alike in beliefs, thinking, and purpose. Many people can still remember the genocides, ethnic cleansing, and purges not all that long ago: Rwanda (1994), Germany (1939-45), Uganda (1969-79), and Afghanistan (1986-2001)2, to name a few. We remember the Holocaust because we see images and hear stories from survivors of the concentration camps. Sadly the number of these survivors decreases each year. Unless we take care to remember history, it will be, for the most part, forgotten – like Rwanda, Uganda, Afghanistan, China, Japan, Cambodia, and Bosnia-Herzegovina.
The Bible is not innocent when it comes to violence and, indeed, genocide. One passage often quoted as proving God was harsh and promoted genocide is found in Deuteronomy 20, which gave the rules for warfare, including v. 16-17, “But as for the towns of these peoples that the Lord your God is giving you as an inheritance, you must not let anything that breathes remain alive. You shall annihilate them—the Hittites and the Amorites, the Canaanites and the Perizzites, the Hivites and the Jebusites—just as the Lord your God has commanded.” Perhaps there is a reason for this command attributed to God; who can know?
Joshua chapter 11 tells of Joshua’s attack on the massed Northern Kings and his subsequent pursuit and total victory over them. Again, he did this was for the same purpose described in Deuteronomy, only his was a longer campaign. Still, Joshua followed what he believed to be God’s instructions. In the name of God.
We often ponder stories in the Bible telling of cruelty, rape, murder, betrayal, and mass killing. How did such stories appear in this book we are asked to revere and study? What are we supposed to learn from them when we also read that we are not to kill, steal, etc.? We often get confused when we hear Jesus commanding us to love one another, forgive, and care for others, regardless of whether they are religiously or ethnically our brothers and sisters, do we not?
Would God approve of genocide, such as we read about in the history books and the newspapers? Often, it seems, the events are caused by differences in beliefs similar to those differences between the Israelites and the pagans. The root cause is often intruders want the settled land that the victims already occupy. Religious differences then become the reason (or excuse) for the mass executions. It is hard to reconcile that the God we are taught to love, respect, and honor might approve of such actions. Yet, it seems as though God commanded the Israelites to do just that to clear the land for God’s people.
Perhaps it might help to consider events such as the Armenian genocide to put things in perspective. We often have a hard time looking at the mass killings on our streets, stores, churches, and neighborhoods, even if the number of casualties is almost insignificant when compared to the millions in World Wars I and II and the various mass executions like the Holocaust and the purges of Russia and Bosnia-Herzegovina. Why is it so easy to look past genocides and yet seem to care so much about random victims of gunfire? Will gun ownership cut down on the possibility of more mass shootings? Will God reward those who carry guns for “self-protection” and which may kill an innocent person in a rush to kill the perpetrator of a crime or an intruder in the gun owner’s home? Where does forgiveness come into this scenario? Where is God?
Maybe we should look at the price of human life, which God gave to each of us, with the only cost being that God wanted us to love and obey God. How do we reach any type of agreement with others so that we all can live in peace and harmony? Why does it seem we aren’t even willing to try?
May God’s mercy be upon all those who have been victims of genocide, mass murder, hatred, fear, or greed. May we learn to be peacemakers rather than fear-mongers, and shepherds rather than threats to other children of God. May we remember the past so that we will not repeat it.
1 The History Place ™, genocide in the 20th century. Accessed 4/22/2021.
2 Mt Holyoke – 20th Century Genocides and Mass Atrocities, Accessed 4/22/2021.
Image: The Eternal Flame – Armenian Genocide Memorial, Yerevan, Armenia, on Armenian Genocide Remembrance Day, 2014. Photo by Serouj Ourishian. Found at Wikimedia Commons.
Linda Ryan is a co-mentor for an Education for Ministry group, an avid reader, lover of Baroque and Renaissance music, and retired. She keeps the blog Jericho’s Daughter. She lives with her three cats near Phoenix, Arizona.