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Beginning in the spring of 1915, the Ottoman Empire carried out a systematic extermination of Armenian Christians who occupied territory east of present-day Turkey. Over 1.5 million men, women, and children were slaughtered during a two-year period, an event credited with coining the word genocide. To this day, the Turkish government rejects that label and has made it a crime (Article 301 of the penal code) to insult the nation by mentioning it.
In 1937 the Japanese Imperial Army captured Nanking, then the capital of the Republic of China. Over a period of six weeks, soldiers summarily killed anywhere from 40,000 to 300,000 civilians. Four years later Imperial Japan staged a successful raid on the U.S. naval base at Pearl Harbor, plunging the Pacific into war. The total number of deaths attributed to Japan between 1938 and 1945 is estimated from 3 million to 14 million, the vast majority of them civilians. Since then Japanese officials have issued statements of regret. But when schoolchildren learn about World War II, the focus is on the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
Australia was established as a penal colony in 1788. However, in a remarkably short time it overcame its seedy origins and established a forward-looking, industrious, ever-more-prosperous nation—albeit with a few stains on its national character, having to do with mistreatment of the Aborigines. In May 1998, the Australian government instituted National Sorry Day to commemorate that mistreatment, especially the policy begun in the mid-1800s of taking native children from their parents in order to teach them white culture in boarding schools.
Since the institution of National Sorry Day, Australian culture has become ‘palpably darker’ and ‘mawkish about its past.’
All three nations have had crimes to apologize for. But only one continually apologizes for something that can’t be corrected and for which no one now living bears direct responsibility. One author observes that since the institution of National Sorry Day, Australian culture has become “palpably darker, not to mention mawkish about its past.”
That’s Douglas Murray, whose recent book The Strange Death of Europe ponders the swamping of European culture by unrestrained immigration, mostly from Muslim countries. A chapter called “The Tyranny of Guilt” asks why Europe and its heirs, like Australia, Canada, and the United States, have packed into the Last Chance Saloon to drink bitter tears of remorse. It’s not that these nations haven’t committed crimes. But they seem to be trapped in a cycle of unremitting guilt that saps national vitality.
A fascinating pattern emerges: The nations most racked by guilt all share a Christian heritage, but have by and large abandoned the faith. Enough Christian conscience remains to convict them, but without Christ they have no means of restoration. Guilt becomes its own atonement, meaning it never ends until someone dies. The sacrificial victim is Europe itself, committing slow suicide by bleeding out its culture and confidence. “A country that believes it has never done any wrong is a country that could do wrong at any time,” writes Murray. “But a country that believes it has only done wrong … is likely to doubt its ability to ever do any good in the future.”
Europe gave the world the political principles of equality and individual worth, now acknowledged everywhere if only by lip service. Those political principles were faith principles first. Christianity planted them deep within the Western conscience, as even secularists are beginning to admit. But when God abandons the temple, equality and worth cease to be reasonable goals. Instead they linger on as reproaches, setting the bar impossibly high.
In Flannery O’Connor’s novella Wise Blood, a bitter and disillusioned army veteran declares himself free of guilt. He establishes a “Church of Christ without Christ,” preaching a gospel of liberation. But declarations are not reality, and he eventually blinds himself with acid in recompense. Without Christ to atone for us, we must atone for ourselves.
Europe, and the West in general, is becoming a Church of Christ without Christ, burdened with sins for which there is no remedy. The demons once cast out have returned, and “the last state of that man is worse than the first.”
This column has been corrected to note the territory of Armenian Christians in 1915 lay east of present-day Turkey.