IN THE days to come, we may be hearing a lot more about the question of genocide, for at least two reasons. A row has broken out between the Turkish government and Pope Francis over his use of the word “genocide” to describe the slaughter of Ottoman Armenians in 1915. Given that the holy see is an agency in global diplomacy as well as a religious body, this could be the start of an escalating public dispute between the world’s largest Christian group and one of the most important Muslim-majority nations.
Meanwhile Barack Obama has nominated as his ambassador to the United Nations a courageous scholar and journalist, Samantha Power, who has devoted much of her life to analysing and decrying the phenomenon of genocide, and to arguing that stopping it should be a higher priority in American foreign policy.
Genocide is a word whose very use has vast moral and political consequences. What exactly is it? The UN Convention on Genocide, agreed in 1948, offers a range of actions (killing, harming, imposing harsh conditions, restricting birth, forcible adoption) which are genocidal if committed with intent to “destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group.”
As an attempt to ring-fence a particular category of mass annihilation, this presents huge problems. How big a proportion of the “group” does the perpetrator have to intend destroying to merit the g-word? Is it less bad to massacre 100,000 members of a numerous group (because the group’s survival is not in question) than to take an equal toll from a small group? Is the mass murder of an economic class, like the “wealthy” peasants annihilated by Stalin, marginally more tolerable, because the group’s definition is not religious or “ethnical”?
Still, the fact is that we know genocide when we see it. I would argue, though, that there is a big difference between the enunciation of the g-word by spiritual leaders, whose authority is mainly moral, and its use by governments, especially very strong ones.
Religious leaders surely have a basic duty to grapple with the question of genocide, partly because they are seen as moral compasses by many people…but also because of the depressing fact that religion, at its darkest, has often fomented genocidal acts. It is true that in modern history, religion has inspired brave foes of totalitarianism, from the German pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer to Maria Skobtsova, a nun based in Paris who died in the gas chambers. But religious rhetoric has also provided cover for many acts of multiple slaughter. During Rwanda’s genocide, there were doubtless priests or nuns who protected the targets of mass murder; but there were also priests and nuns who participated. The Serbian warlord Arkan, one of the most ruthless characters to emerge from the post-Yugoslav wars, used to say that his only boss was the Serbian patriarch. While this loyalty was unsolicited, it was not publicly rejected either.
So, religious leaders must be concerned with genocide: not just with denouncing it, but being careful not to foment it. One does not have to be an atheist to agree with the scientist Steven Weinberg’s dictum that religion has a unique capacity to make good people do bad things.
For political leaders with the awesome responsibilities that go with wielding huge firepower and geopolitical heft, the calculus can be different. A policy whose declared principles include a huge stress on stopping genocide can have perverse effects; it can actually make genocide more likely. Such a policy signals to a local warring faction that all it needs to do, to trigger outside intervention, is provoke an act of genocidal proportions by the other side. “Get some of your people slaughtered and we will come fight your nasty little war, which otherwise wouldn’t interest us…”
Nobody is suggesting that mighty governments should not be concerned by genocide. But in a messy world, powerful governments may have to pull punches or make agonising choices between several courses of action which would all cost innocent lives. Religious leaders, on the other hand, are at their best when they speak truth to power—and that is probably a reason why they should avoid building up too much earthly power for themselves.