Not adding to infamy

Next Friday recalls “a date which will live in infamy,” the day that the Japanese Empire attacked the United States at Pearl Harbor. St. John Paul II in 1989 wrote a letter on the 50th anniversary of the beginning of World War II (which had begun in 1939, with the invasion of Poland). He began, “‘You have laid me in the depths of the tomb, in places that are dark, in the depths’ (Ps 88 [87] :7). How many times this cry of suffering arose from the hearts of millions of men and women who, from 1 September 1939 to the end of the summer of 1945, were confronted with one of the most destructive and inhuman tragedies of our history!”

After listing the initial conquests of the Axis powers during the first years of the war, the pope wrote, “Furthermore, like a fire spreading destruction in its wake, the war and the human tragedies that accompanied it inexorably and rapidly expanded beyond the borders of the ‘old continent’ and became a ‘world’ war. On one front, Germany and Italy carried the fighting beyond the Balkans and into North Africa; on another, the Reich suddenly invaded Russia. Finally, by destroying Pearl Harbor the Japanese brought the United States of America into the war on the side of England. This was the situation at the end of 1941.”

He then outlined how the Allies eventually “succeeded in crushing Germany at the cost of fierce fighting, which from Egypt to Moscow inflicted unspeakable suffering upon millions of defenseless civilians. On 8 May 1945 Germany offered her unconditional surrender.” The war in the Pacific continued. “In order to hasten the end, two atomic bombs were dropped on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki at the beginning of August 1945. Following that appalling event, Japan in turn capitulated.

A date is infamous due to the evil committed on it. St. John Paul said that “it is our duty before God to remember these tragic events in order to honor the dead and to share in the sorrow of all those whom this outbreak of cruelty wounded in body and soul, while at the same time forgiving the offenses that were committed.” The last phrase is often forgotten by us humans, but that forgiveness is something which Jesus demands of us if we are to receive His pardon. Even non-believers can see the benefit of forgiving one’s enemies (see the friendships between former enemies, such as the United States with Germany and Japan).

Looking to the future, the Polish pontiff wrote, “we have the duty to learn from the past so that never again will there arise a set of factors capable of triggering a similar conflagration.” A large part of why there was a World War II was due to “the contempt in which man was held.” Since human dignity was so easily disregarded, it was easy for governments and their citizens to brutalize other people.

After listing the cruelty which many Gentiles suffered during the war, the pope who lived through this in Poland wrote, “Among all these anti-human measures, however, there is one which will forever remain a shame for humanity: the planned barbarism which was unleashed against the Jewish people. As the object of the ‘final solution,’ devised by an erroneous ideology, the Jews were subjected to deprivations and brutalities that are almost indescribable. Persecuted at first through measures designed to harass and discriminate, they were ultimately to die by the millions in extermination camps. The images of the Warsaw ghetto under siege, as well as what we have come to learn about the camps at Auschwitz, Maidanek and Treblinka, surpass in horror anything that can be humanly imagined. One must also remember that this murderous madness was directed against many other groups whose crime was to be ‘different’ or to have rebelled against the tyranny of the occupier.”

What St. John Paul wrote in 1989 sadly has resonance in 2018. “I issue an appeal to all people, inviting them to overcome their prejudices and to combat every form of racism by agreeing to recognize the fundamental dignity and the goodness that dwell within every human being, and to be ever more conscious that they belong to a single human family, willed and gathered together by God. I wish to repeat here in the strongest possible way that hostility and hatred against Judaism are in complete contradiction to the Christian vision of human dignity.”

How did the world end up in such an evil state? The answer is important for us to know, so that we can avoid living (and dying) through this all over again. St. John Paul recalled how Pope Pius XI, in 1937, warned, “He who takes race, or the people or the state, or the form of government, the bearers of the power of the state, or other fundamental elements of human society  and makes them the ultimate norm of all, even of religious values, and deifies them with an idolatrous worship, perverts and falsifies the order of things created and commanded by God.” Folks on the right and the left can be tempted to do this (as they did so in the 1930s in Germany, Russia and other lands). After quoting his predecessor, the saint added, “Nazi paganism and Marxist dogma are both basically totalitarian ideologies, and tend to become substitute religions. Long before 1939, there appeared within certain sectors of European culture a desire to erase God and His image from man’s horizon. It began by indoctrinating children along these lines, from their earliest years.”

We need to respect everyone. “There can be no peace if the rights of all peoples — particularly the most vulnerable — are not respected!” And yet many on the left and right have groups of people (normally vulnerable ones) whose lives they don’t think need to be respected. 

Besides honoring the dignity of other people, we also need to learn how to disagree in a respectful way, the pope wrote in 1989 (when things actually were getting better in that regard, unlike now). He said that it is “inevitable” that people will not always have the same opinions, but “whenever different conceptions of society meet, adults must give an example of respect for others, always being able to recognize the part of the truth which the other person possesses. [W]e must continually learn anew to accept one another, as individuals, as ethnic groups and as countries, with all our differing cultures, beliefs and social systems.”

May we do so, so that we do not add to the infamy of some date in the future. 

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