Tomorrow is December 21st, the darkest day of the year; and, for many students and teachers around the world, this dark day coincides with the early jubilant days of Christmas vacation. This juxtaposition may seem odd or even Scrooge-like. However, as I explained to my students last week, the intentional pairing of the darkness of our current unit of study, genocide, with Christmas may have much to offer courses with a social conscience focus.
In Humanities I in Action last week, our study of genocide brought our first semester work nearly to completion. The first half of the course assumes that in order to improve the world ‘out there’, we need to consider the human problem within. As Soltzhenitzyn writes,
If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?
The Humanities I in Action curriculum forces us to consider our own potential culpability in crimes that we find abhorrent, and this reflection weighs upon us the burden of our collective failings. The darkness of the human heart disturbs our inner equilibrium.
Despite this sense of unease, the overwhelmingly positive student response to our inclusion of this unit in the course has encouraged us to enhance our collection of relevant resources on genocide. Using Gregory Stanton’s “Eight Stages of Genocide” (2010) as a guide, this year we began our study by watching CNN’s “Scream Bloody Murder”. Following this overview of the history of genocide, we used Rwanda as a case study, watching the movie “Shooting Dogs” to understand the limitations and failings of the United Nations in its peacekeeping role. To supplement the film, we used an interview with Romeo Dallaire (Fleischer, 2005), the U.N. force commander of UNAMIR (United Nations Assistance Mission for Rwanda); notes from Samantha Power’s (2002) A Problem from Hell; and a brief chapter written by British journalist Linda Melvern (2004), all of which point to the international community’s role in allowing the genocide to occur.
We also read A Long Way Gone by Ishmael Beah (2007) to understand the experiences of an adolescent war victim-cum-child soldier (even if Sierra Leone’s civil war is not considered a genocide). This book helped us consider how child soldiers can be treated for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. Since our class has numerous service experiences with refugees and orphans during the year, we also discussed George Bonanno’s (2009) recent research on bereavement. In addition, we also read excerpts from Immaculee’s Ilibagiza’s Left to Tell: Discovering God in the Rwandan Holocaust (2006) to consider how victims may draw upon spiritual resources to help them forgive their perpetrators.
In the final part of the unit we are now studying the country of Sudan. Using the documentaries “The Devil Came on Horseback” and “On Our Watch”, students will consider how the first genocide of the 21st century occurred. Living in Hong Kong, we will pay particular attention to the debate about China’s role in Sudan. In addition, this year we are focusing on the January 9th, 2011 referendum about southern Sudanese independence, helping students understand why Hilary Clinton calls the current situation a “ticking time bomb.” We will learn more about this critical moment in Sudan’s history as it emerges during the first week back to school. My colleague, Mike Kersten, made a Prezi presentation to help students understand the current situation in Sudan.
Genocide and Christmas
Having once again embarked on this unit this year in the weeks before Christmas, I was quite conscious of the battle within students between hope and hopelessness, which is perhaps the biggest question that students face in Humanities I in Action. With this question in mind, I decided last week to address the apparent incongruity between studying genocide and celebrating Christmas. I explained to them that Christmas’ central historical figure, Jesus, was born into an empire known for its brutality. Matthew’s account details the “slaughter of the innocents” in which Herod sought to eliminate all male babies who might be potential rivals. Borrowing Crossan’s (2007) concepts of “peace through victory” and “peace through justice”, I explained that the gospel of the Pax Romana was achieved through bloodshed, while the “Great Divine Clean-up” initiated by Jesus centered on distributive, rather than retributive, justice. Crossan explains that the coming great reversal was best characterized by the Jubilee rules of forgiving debts, freeing slaves, and re-distributing land. The radical claim of “peace and good will” in this context, which we easily forget in our festive singing of Christmas carols, is better understood against the backdrop of military occupation and the threat of national extinction.
Mike Kersten went beyond my brief remarks and developed a lesson from these ideas. He ritualized the semester’s study by having each student write down the darkest moment in the first semester of the course as well as a specific point of hope. Sitting in a circle, Mike had each student solemnly read their moment of despair, progressively dimming the lights and closing the curtains until the class sat in near darkness. Then each student shared their moment of hope – and he slowly returned the classroom to light.
Importance of Genocide in the Curriculum
When students were asked during my doctoral research (Schmidt, 2009) what they most remembered from the Humanities I in Action curriculum, the most common reference to in-class materials was the genocide unit. Here are two typical student comments:
It’s always like the Holocaust and so just think, oh, yeah, the Holocaust – that was like sixty years ago, but I never really thought about it as an ongoing current event . . . and I had never even heard of Darfur. It was really an eye-opener that it’s not exactly something just in the past, but it’s also part of my world today.
The only reason why [genocide] sticks to us so much is because . . . it makes us realize what humans are capable of – like how evil we can be. That’s just really what’s overwhelming, you know, people just like you and me can be like manipulated to do things like [that].
While many students feel varying degrees of hopelessness, studying genocide also seems at the same time to suspend their self-focus, allows them to feel the pain of others, and encourages them to search for ways to act. In one of my senior classes several years ago I asked students why they didn’t seem to be overly discouraged by the depressing nature of the material on genocide. One young woman raised her hand and replied, “Those depressing things unite us as a class and bring hope out of us.” It seems that the collective grappling with suffering yields a sense of unity and even hope through the class community that develops.
With only a few hours before the winter solstice and Christmas nearly upon us, I would like to close this entry by remembering that the threat of genocide still looms large in many places in our world. According to Gregory Stanton’s “Genocide Watch” website, the following countries (as of May 2010) are at stage 7 of genocide, which means that massacres are occurring: Congo, Sudan, Somalia, Afghanistan, Pakistan, North Korea, Burma, and Ethiopia. In addition, the following countries at stage 6 have certain groups within their borders at risk of massacres: Nigeria, China, Yemen, Columbia, Equatorial Guinea, Uganda, and the Central African Republic. Recent headlines in Ivory Coast, which was at stage 5 in May, warn of impending violence. Following a disputed election in Ivory Coast, both sides are arming themselves in a situation that could easily descend into civil war.
Bearing witness to the fear of millions, these shocking lists call upon us to act for peace against the forces of darkness. As many around the world celebrate the birth of him who Christians call the “Prince of Peace,” educators should remind students that “peace through victory” remains the norm of many regimes, while “peace through justice” requires the slow, introspective, sacrificial, and non-violent steps towards healing by ordinary members of society in every country of the world. May studying genocide at Christmas remind us of the necessity to continue the long journey of peace through justice for all.
Beah, I. (2007). A long way gone. New York: Farrar, Straus, & Giroux
Bonnano, G. (2009). The other side of sadness: What the new science of bereavement tells us about life after loss. New York: Basic Books.
Cross, J.D. (2007). God and empire: Jesus against Rome, then and now. NewYork: HarperOne.
Ilibagiza, I. (2006). Left to tell: Discovering God in the Rwandan holocaust.Carlsbad, California: Hay House.
Melvern, L.R. (2004), The security council: Behind the scenes in the Rwandan genocide. In A. Jones (Ed.), Genocide, war crimes and the West, history and complicity (pp. 260-263). New York: Zed.
Powers, S. (2002). A problem from hell: America and the age of genocide. New York: HarpersCollins.
Schmidt, M.E. (2009). Teaching for social conscience in Hong Kong secondary schools. Unpublished doctoral dissertation, University of Western Australia, Perth, Australia.
Stanton, G. “Genocide watch: The international campaign to end genocide.”Retrieved on December 20, 2010 at
Feature image link: http://www.trust.org/spotlight/Genocide-and-justice-Rwanda-20-years-on/