Eighty years have passed.
Eight years since President Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, an order that would send to concentration camps nearly 120,000 innocent civilians out of fear and ignorance. That order would wreak havoc on the lives of those people, forcing them to lose untold millions of dollars in property and belongings while told they had to pack their lives up into one suitcase each. A lifetime in one suitcase. This was the culmination of decades of prejudice and violence against anyone of Asian descent. Alien Land Laws in California and across the country prohibited Asians from owning land. A ruling in the California Supreme Court (People v. Hall) found Chinese people could not testify against white people because they were “a race of people whom nature has marked as inferior, and who are incapable of progress or intellectual development beyond a certain point” and presented a “clear and present danger” because they might one day “see them at the polls, in the jury box, upon the bench, and in our legislative halls.” Those were racist quotes from the case used to justify setting free a murderer. The press did nothing to mitigate the hate. In fact, they stoked it with headlines shouting about a Yellow Peril and stoking the fires of hatred with claims that Asians were here to take over the minds of white people. So it came as no surprise when Congress did nothing to prevent this blatant act of racism. And while there were certainly people who stepped forward to do what’s right, the vast majority of Americans either openly supported or did nothing to stop it.
The excuse I often hear for this atrocity is that people were justifiably scared.
Without knowing if the threat was real and with actual violence against Japanese-Americans just for existing, maybe it was better to herd them off somewhere safe. But that argument has no legs to support it. Otherwise, our country would have locked up Germans and Italians also “for their safety.” This was despite absolutely no evidence that Japanese or Japanese-Americans were planning on rebelling against the government or its people. In fact two different studies came to the same conclusion, and yet the Japanese population on the mainland was herded off to camps in the most remote areas of the country under poor conditions and with no regard to their personal lives. It reminds me of a quote from Edmund Burke, “All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.”
One of the gifts we have to offer as an historically Japanese church is the gift of this memory.
We keep alive this Day of Remembrance, not to dwell on the past, but to right the wrongs in the present. We, more than most, have a responsibility to keep alive those memories as a reminder to us all not to repeat the mistakes of the past. When fear and ignorance come creeping up to our door, we need to be on alert and do what we can to fight it. The Good Samaritan is an example of how we can act. There was this guy, who was left on the side of the road, stripped naked (literally), beaten and wounded. When a priest saw the man, he purposefully went to the other side of the road and left him to die. When a Levite (also a priestly man) saw the man lying there brutally beaten, he too crossed the street and left him on the road to die. It was only the Samaritan, a man despised by both the priests and the Levites, who chose to do the right thing. Too often Christians have acted more like the priest and the Levite than the Samaritan. Which is not to say there aren’t plenty of good Christians doing good works in the world for the sake of Jesus. But it is to say that often Christians have often stood on the sidelines while bad things happened. Take for example the reading from Scripture this morning.
15 Now it was the governor’s custom at the festival to release a prisoner chosen by the crowd. 16 At that time they had a well-known prisoner whose name was Barabbas. 17 So when the crowd had gathered, Pilate asked them, “Which one do you want me to release to you: Barabbas, or Jesus who is called the Messiah?” 18 For he knew it was out of self-interest that they had handed Jesus over to him. 19 While Pilate was sitting on the judge’s seat, his wife sent him this message: “Don’t have anything to do with that innocent man, for I have suffered a great deal today in a dream because of him.” 20But the chief priests and the elders persuaded the crowd to ask for Barabbas and to have Jesus executed.
21 “Which of the two do you want me to release to you?” asked the governor. “Barabbas,” they answered.22 “What shall I do, then, with Jesus who is called the Messiah?” Pilate asked. They all answered, “Crucify him!” 23 “Why? What crime has he committed?” asked Pilate. But they shouted all the louder, “Crucify him!”
24 When Pilate saw that he was getting nowhere, but that instead an uproar was starting, he took water and washed his hands in front of the crowd. “I am innocent of this man’s blood,” he said. “It is your responsibility!” 25 All the people answered, “His blood is on us and on our children!”
26 Then he released Barabbas to them. But he had Jesus flogged, and handed him over to be crucified.– Matthew 27:15-26
Whose crime was worse?
The people who asked for Jesus’ blood or Pilate who didn’t have the courage to do what he KNEW was right? Failure to act is an act in itself. When we fail to stand up to prejudice or hatred or fear we are tacitly allowing it to happen. We are part of the problem instead of part of the solution. Complicity is as much a crime as doing the act itself. During the era after the Civil War, preachers, pastors, and other church leaders took to the pulpit to defend slavery and slave owners. They would cite the Bible as part of their defense and it took over a century for them to be silenced. When the Japanese were locked up in camps, while there were definitely some who stood up against this overt act of racism and prejudice, the church largely remained silent. Christian leaders who didn’t speak out or who justified the act were the same people who said it was a “necessary evil” like slavery in the South. We cannot be the type of people who look the other way or perpetuate hatred and prejudice in any form. In an article for America, The Jesuit Review, Meghan Clark wrote a piece focused on white Americans, but something I think is apt for ALL Americans. She wrote, “We live in a culture that idolizes personal choice. This has obstructed our ability to recognize, confront and dismantle racism. Our narrow focus on the individual has deluded us into thinking that as long as we do not personally malign, attack or discriminate against persons of color, we can claim to be non-racist. Non-racism is a supposed third option, beyond racism and anti-racism, where politeness and civility are paramount. It recognizes the evil of white supremacy but, like Pontius Pilate, washes its hands of responsibility. As such, it is a rejection of racism that is also a passive acceptance of white supremacy. It allows white Christians to acknowledge racism is a sin while continuing to reap the benefits of white supremacy. Meghan, herself Caucasian, wrote this as a call to all white Christians. But none of us, white or otherwise, can afford to simply stand by while the culture of racial hatred continues to stand.
We need to do more.
For each of us, that might be different. You don’t have to march in a protest rally to be considered “doing something.” Sometimes, it’s as simple as being kind and decent human beings when others are fueled by fear and bigotry. Sometimes, it’s as easy as inviting your neighbor over for dinner or bringing them a meal in a time of need. Sometimes, it’s donating to a worthy cause that helps those in need. There are as many different ways to show support as there are people. You just need to find the ways you feel can do the most good. But we have to do something. We have to stand up and denounce racism. We cannot afford to sit idly by, hoping someone else will do it. Dr. King wrote about this in his famous Letter from a Birmingham Jail. He wrote, “We will have to repent in this generation not merely for the hateful words and actions of the bad people but for the appalling silence of the good people. Human progress never rolls in on wheels of inevitability; it comes through the tireless efforts of men willing to be co workers with God, and without this hard work, time itself becomes an ally of the forces of social stagnation. We must use time creatively, in the knowledge that the time is always ripe to do right.”
Just last weekend, another form of hatred reared its ugly head – antisemitism.
Hundreds of plastic bags filled with rice and antisemitic messages were strewn randomly around Berkeley, claiming Jewish people were to blame for COVID. Even though there has been no link to COVID and Judaism this small group of hatemongers have decided to put the blame for our current pandemic squarely on one people. I guess they are conveniently forgetting about the hundreds of thousands of Christians who have rejected the vaccine, claiming God will protect them. Or the pastors in their pulpits claiming you lack faith if you get the vaccine. Instead, they place the blame on the Jewish community. It makes no sense whatsoever, but then again, racism and prejudice never do. As members of a community that understands this kind of irrational hatred, we have to first be inoculated against it by keeping an open mind and remembering the lessons of the past. Then we have to find ways to stand in support of those being persecuted. I hope in these times we remember the words of Edmund Burke, “All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.” We cannot afford to be complicit when injustice happens around us or we might very well be the evil we hope to root out.