In his classic book Night, the late Boston University professor Elie Wiesel described how the first warnings of what became the Holocaust found their way into his family’s village of Sighet, Transylvania, in 1942.
The messenger was an “outsider” called Moche the Beadle, “the poor barefoot of Sighet.” Wiesel, then in his teens, studied Torah at the town’s Hasidic synagogue, and Moche the Beadle taught him the Zohar, cabbalistic books that provide “the secrets of Jewish mysticism.”
Then came the day when Moche the Beadle, and other “foreigners” in Sighet, were arrested, “crammed into cattle trains by the Hungarian police.” The action, Wiesel recalled, was “soon forgotten,” until the day when Moche the Beadle reappeared in the village, a changed man with no “joy in his eyes.” Refusing to sing or even discuss God or cabbala, he spoke only of what he witnessed when the train unloaded its passengers in the Polish forest of Galicia, where men, women, children were summarily executed. Shot in the leg, Moche the Beadle faked death and escaped to tell the tale.
“You don’t understand,” he said, “You can’t understand. I have been saved miraculously. I managed to get back here. … I wanted to come back to Sighet to tell you the story of my death. So that you could prepare yourselves while there is still time. … I wanted to come back and to warn you. And see how it is, no one will listen to me.” And they didn’t.
Time passed. Wiesel detailed the slow but inescapable events culminating on the day in 1944 when “we marched to the station, where a convoy of cattle wagons was waiting. The Hungarian police made us get in — 80 people to each car. … A prolonged whistle split the air. The wheels began to grind. We were on our way.” The train stopped at Auschwitz.
As videos from the attack on the U.S. Capitol are now etched in our collective and individual memories, I can’t get Moche the Beadle out of my head. Yes, I know, National Socialist atrocities in 1940s Europe are not yet comparable to the 21st century land of the free and home of QAnon. I know such historical connections are fraught with peril. Yet I cannot forget the photo of the Capitol insurrectionist clad in a sweatshirt that read: “Camp Auschwitz.”
“I cannot forget the photo of the Capitol insurrectionist clad in a sweatshirt that read: ‘Camp Auschwitz.’”
Still, I ask: In recent years, months, weeks, days, what violence-ridden Moche-the-Beadle-moments have appeared amidst us, warnings ignored or ridiculed, “while there is still time”?
- 2015: A young white supremacist shoots nine persons at a prayer meeting in Mother Emanuel AME Church, Charleston, S.C.
- 2017: A “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Va., complete with torch-bearing crowds chanting, “Jews will not replace us.”
- 2018: Seventeen people shot dead at Stoneman Douglas High School, Parkland, Fla.
- 2020: African Americans George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery and others essentially “executed” by police or by “citizen’s arrest.”
- 2021: Capitol insurrectionists chanting, “Hang Mike Pence,” and “Where is Nancy?” House Representatives demanding to tote guns into the chamber. Some “People’s Representatives” denying that shootings at the Parkland High School ever occurred. (Remember Holocaust deniers?)
Those events and their poignant warnings were summed up in a Jan. 31 Washington Post op-ed titled “Guns are white supremacy’s deadliest weapon. We must disarm hate,” written by Sharon Risher. It begins:
“The defining photograph (see above) of the attempted insurrection on Jan. 6 was that of a man strolling through the broken halls of our national Capitol, amid the smashed windows and assorted rubble of the failed coup, proudly brandishing a Confederate flag on his shoulder and hoping to overturn an election decided largely by Black voters. It’s an image that tells the story not only of Jan. 6 or of the Trump presidency, but also of all the steps that led to that moment — the whole history of hate in America captured in one frame.”
Risher, an ordained gospel minister, continues: “For me, the echoes of that picture reverberated back nearly six years, to the day my mom — Ethel Lee Lance — was shot and killed while praying in Charleston’s Mother Emanuel Church along with eight other Black Americans, including two of my cousins and one of my close childhood friends. In the months leading up to that tragic day, my mom’s killer posed for pictures with the Confederate flag, sometimes even slinging it over his shoulder just like that insurrectionist in the Capitol did.”
Her call to “disarm hate” is a challenge (and warning) to American churches, particularly when it appears that all too many American Christians remain co-opted by destructive movements, QAnon being a religio-cultural case in point.
“We’ve been warned again and again. What now?”
Among multiple national atrocities, and as Black History Month 2021 begins, what if the murders at Mother Emanuel Church represent a collective Moche-the-Beadle-event for American churches? We’ve been warned again and again. What now?
Let’s start by confessing that the public witness of Christianity in church and culture is being torn apart by the participation of Christians in many of these conspiracy-fed, violence-based, anti-gospel movements.
Perhaps one immediate response involves addressing the frightening QAnon/Christianity duality, yes, in our churches. In an Aug. 17, 2020, Religion News Service essay, reporter Katelyn Beaty warned that QAnon is “on the rise” in certain Christian communities, “taking on the power of a new religion that’s dividing churches and hurting Christian witness.” She noted that many pastors she interviewed wanted anonymity when discussing their congregants’ connections to the movement.
In an Aug. 26, 2020, Christianity Today article titled “QAnon Is A Wolf in Wolf’s Clothing,” Bonnie Kristian defines QAnon as “a conspiracy theory that claims that a secret cabal in government, the media and other influential institutions is engaged in child sex trafficking, cannibalism of a sort, and the usual conspiracist bugbear of world domination and human sacrifice.” She adds that “these strategies to infiltrate more normal parts of the internet are working, especially in evangelical and fundamentalist Christian contexts.”
“The church’s sustaining witness is at stake here and now.”
In a post-insurrection commentary, also in Christianity Today, evangelical leaders Ed Setzer and Andrew MacDonald call churches to action, writing that Christians “can pretend that conspiracy theories were never really a threat to their congregation and simply move on unchanged. Or we can ridicule the foolishness of those in our congregations who were deceived by conspiracy, driving them out of the church and perhaps into the arms of whatever movement steps into the vacuum of QAnon. Or, we can engage our people refocusing their attention back to the gospel and learn how we need to disciple better.”
This is a difficult time for churches, no doubt about it. Yet amid congregational distancing, pandemic-related ministries, financial stress and the complexity of caring, our polarized, violent, conspiracy-obsessed society must be confronted, not only legally, democratically and politically, but also with a gospel that brings good news to the poor, release for prisoners, recovery of sight internal and external, and by which captives are set free.
Fact is, the church’s sustaining witness is at stake here and now. We’d best heed the warnings and renew that witness, “while there is still time.”
Bill Leonard is founding dean and the James and Marilyn Dunn professor of Baptist studies and church history emeritus at Wake Forest University School of Divinity in Winston-Salem, N.C. He is the author or editor of 25 books. A native Texan, he lives in Winston-Salem with his wife, Candyce, and their daughter, Stephanie.
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