A poignant passage in Immaculée Ilibagiza’s book Left to Tell recounts how her father, a proud and prominent Tutsi in their village, resisted leaving Rwanda in the spring of 1994, shortly before the genocide. The signs of brewing violence were becoming increasingly obvious, but Ilibagiza’s father was determined to be a sign of hope for his Tutsi community. He remained almost incomprehensibly optimistic, refusing to believe that the worst could happen. So, his family forfeited chances at making an escape, rejecting the last getaway plan the very night before their own village was attacked.
Then suddenly, it was too late. The killing sprees began like rain out of gathered clouds, and Ilibagiza’s mother, father, and two brothers lost their lives almost immediately. Ilibagiza herself survived only by miraculous luck, spending three terror-filled months crammed into a small hidden bathroom with several other women.
When I first read Left to Tell, the attitude of Illibigaza’s father struck me as incredibly naive. Even though he paid the ultimate price for his quixotic hope in human goodness, I felt a certain anger at him for being so stubbornly blind as to throw his whole family into the path of machetes. How could he have been so foolish?
But as I continued reading about the Rwandan genocide, I discovered a rather surprising thing: The story of Ilibagiza’s father was not unusual. In the face of oncoming danger, many people seem remarkably resistant to the suggestion that very terrible things can happen.
For instance, one author writes:
One reason the death toll was so high was that many people in the villages simply refused to believe that such a thing was really happening. There had been massacres before, but never anything like this…. Many people heard it on the radio and simply did not believe it.
The RPF radio station, Muhabura, was also broadcasting at this time, telling the people about the genocide. The station told them that all Tutsis were being executed, and they needed to flee for their lives. But still people stayed.
Later I discovered that during the Second World War, many Jews also resisted leaving for safety when they still had the opportunity. Very often, eyewitnesses who escaped from concentration camps were not believed, and some were even reported to German soldiers. As the Holocaust Encyclopedia states:
[T]he Nazi regime benefited from the unwillingness of the average human being to grasp the dimensions of these crimes. Leaders of Jewish resistance organizations, for example, tried to warn ghetto residents of the German intentions, but even those who heard about the killing centers did not necessarily believe what they had heard. ‘Common sense could not understand that it was possible to exterminate tens and hundreds of thousands of Jews,’ Yitzhak Zuckerman, a leader of the Jewish resistance in Warsaw, observed.
One survivor’s account reminisced about how inside Auschwitz, many prisoners refused to believe that people were being incinerated in the gas ovens. Despite all of the clear signs, including the acrid smell that filled their daily air, prisoners remained convinced of alternate explanations for what was happening. Even there, on the doorstep of hell, a certain strange blindness shielded many people from understanding, or admitting, the full terrible reality.
This blindness, which seems to be a universal feature of human psychology, is helpful when it protects us from despair and insanity in the face of insurmountable odds. But it may also prevent us at times from making life-saving choices. If we refuse to recognize or acknowledge the severity of the danger before us, then we are not likely to get out of its path.
The Signs of the Times
I am not trying to suggest that our contemporary cultural revolution will open the door to a genocide or any kind of physical violence. Not at all.
But a genuine persecution of Christians does appear to be on the horizon. Anti-Christian sentiment has been growing exponentially in recent years. Losing jobs, losing standing in society, losing tax breaks for Christian businesses, fines for businesses and individuals, even some arrests…all those things are already starting to happen. Christians and conservatives of all stripes are being pushed out of the public square, silenced and openly discriminated against, as described by Princeton Professor Robert George in his famous 2014 speech:
To be a witness to the Gospel today is to make oneself a marked man or woman. It is to expose oneself to scorn and reproach. To unashamedly proclaim the Gospel in its fullness is to place in jeopardy one’s security, one’s personal aspirations and ambitions, the peace and tranquility one enjoys, one’s standing in polite society. One may in consequence of one’s public witness be discriminated against and denied educational opportunities and the prestigious credentials they may offer; one may lose valuable opportunities for employment and professional advancement; one may be excluded from worldly recognition and honors of various sorts; one’s witness may even cost one treasured friendships. It may produce familial discord and even alienation from family members. Yes, there are costs of discipleship—heavy costs.
In a nutshell, Christians who reject same-sex marriage are being turned into the equivalent of Old South racists. And everyone knows that “bigots” ought to be spat upon.
So vilified by their society, Christians can expect no mercy.
And so, it should worry us that just as liberals are increasingly making use of the words “racists” and “bigots” when talking about Christians who do not accept same-sex marriage, so are conservatives increasingly making comparisons between the triumph of today’s gender ideology and the rise of Nazi Germany.
Our future may not be like Nazi Germany. Or like Communism, or like Jacobin France. Our future oppressive regime will probably have a new face…but an old body. Dictatorships have come and gone throughout history, and each remake of that same old song is also a bit different from all the rest.
One thing is always sure: no dictatorship is a pleasant cup of tea for dissenters.
Girding Our Loins
However you choose to prepare, I suggest three points to remember:
1. Don’t expect anyone else to have the “aha moment.”
Many people will mysteriously continue to “see no evil, hear no evil” even if things get really bad. They won’t lift a finger to stop a dictatorship from settling in. Ever. In fact, they will probably cheer for the dictatorship as it comes.
Even among those who recognize problems with the current culture, hope and optimism will continue to burn brightly. As long as the tornado has reached only the neighbour’s house, they will cling to the belief that their own houses will be spared.
Chalk it up to human nature: a whole cocktail of psychological tendencies accounts for this behavior, including the herd instinct (urge to conformity), fear of negative consequences for rejecting the required mantras, and the unwillingness and perhaps inability to come to terms with very difficult situations which are out of our control (easier to pretend they don’t exist). Many of these tendencies are unconscious instinct-based behaviors. If people are confronted about them, they may not even be aware of them!
2. If you want to leave, it’s okay.
Don’t feel pressured to stay in a situation that is going from bad to worse. Courage and Christianity do not require you to be a sitting duck… and history may vindicate you as one of the few who did the smart thing. Just as before World War II, there were Jews who packed their bags and got out of Germany, and even out of Europe, when things already smelled bad but before the War started. Good for them!
Should you choose to accept it, your challenge will be finding some place to flee to. There are not many safe, pleasant, civilized places left in the world that have not been affected by the cultural philosophy and obsessions of the Western world.
Reminds me a bit of the true story of the Lykov family, who were found in the Russian taiga after forty years of wandering about in the wilderness, having originally escaped from the Bolskeviks in 1937. Living with the wolves and bears in a rough-hewn log cabin, they managed to skip right over World War II and a huge chunk of Soviet Communism.
Effective, but not a very tempting solution.
3. Connect with like-minded people.
One good strategy here is the “Benedict Option” advanced by Rod Dreher, who describes it this way:
The ‘Benedict Option’ refers to Christians in the contemporary West who cease to identify the continuation of civility and moral community with the maintenance of American empire, and who therefore are keen to construct local forms of community as loci of Christian resistance against what the empire represents.
Dreher is very adamant that the “Ben Op” is not a way of isolating ourselves from the world, it’s just a way of strengthening each other in the midst of the world. This makes a lot of sense. People need community, and this option provides a built-in support network. It can be carried out in the middle of a city, not just on some Amish-like compound. An intentional community can be created anywhere.
Also seek out role models from similar historical times, for encouragement and wisdom. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, G.K. Chesterton, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, Martin Luther King Jr., Mahatma Gandhi, and others.
Finally, be aware that as things get worse, you will inevitably become more isolated. Many people on your side will fall away and cave in to the pressures of society. It is already happening—think Michael Coren, David Blankenhorn, and others. Keep up your resolve and courage even as things get tougher.
And to be totally honest: Be prepared to suffer for your beliefs; however, always remember why you are being targeted: It is an honor to suffer for the truth. “Be not afraid.”
This is a long-haul flight.