Neighbor vs. neighbor

Who will oppose resurgent hatred in America?

Nov 19, 2018 by and

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“You can’t imagine how it is to be hated,” wrote David Koehn and Wil­liam Frantz, Mennonite pacifist conscripts at Camp Greenleaf in Georgia, during World War I. Can’t we? Compassion compels us to try. More than a century after the beleaguered young men penned their plaintive letter, followers of Christ feel a sacred duty to speak up and stand with those who become targets of hate.

In recent weeks, Americans mourned the massacre of 11 Jewish worshipers at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh. We also watched crowds at presidential rallies heap scorn on immigrants. The death of national civility, and the literal deaths of those hated for being different, boiled in the same pot of resentment. The synagogue shooter believed Jews were supporting the Central American migrant “caravan” that President Trump and others have used to stoke racist fear.

Hard as it might be for those who are privileged by race and religion to imagine being hated, the picture of hatred in America today leaves nothing to the imagination.

The memory of another dark moment in American history might stir our recognition. It was a time when Mennonites were the hated ones. One hundred years ago, young men like Koehn and Frantz endured the hatred of those who resented their refusal to join the world’s war. Particularly in the Midwest, where Mennonite immigrants still spoke German, the language of the enemy, the war brought persecution, including arson fires that destroyed church buildings.

One of the most notorious acts of violence against a Mennonite — the near lynching of John Schrag, who had refused to buy war bonds, at the hands of a Burrton, Kan., mob — occurred on Armistice Day, Nov. 11, 1918.

A century later, we cannot imagine small-town neighbors threatening the life of a white Mennonite farmer. Yet hatred thrives in America, with different targets of prejudice. Violence against religious minorities has increased as white nationalism goes mainstream and hate speech grows louder. Anti-Semitic incidents in the United States increased by 57 percent in the past year, according to the Anti-Defamation League. Hate crimes in general rose 17 percent in 2017, according to the FBI.

Right-wing extremists — haters of Jews, Muslims and nonwhite immigrants — speak and act boldly, knowing that vilifying minority groups has become commonplace and casually accepted, even at the highest level of political power.

Who will oppose the resurgent hatred? Mennonites are speaking out. After the slaughter in Pittsburgh, the Mennonite Jewish Relations Working group issued a statement denouncing “the rhetoric of hate from our political leaders” and the “movements of white supremacy and white ethnic nationalism” that draw strength from that rhetoric. The group said Mennonites need to confess and accept a share of the blame for a “combination of Christian theological arrogance with ethnic nationalism” that fuels anti-Semitism: “Mennonites have much work to do, naming and undoing our own complicity in enabling — through silence and participation — these forces of evil past and present.”

Attacks of American on American, 100 years ago and today, demonstrate the power of evil to turn neighbors into enemies. Remembering when our own people were despised may help us turn back the tide of hate.

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