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Bernd Wuestneck/AFP/Getty Images

People light candles at the site of a former synagogue in Schwerin, Germany, to mark the 80th anniversary of Kristallnacht. (Bernd Wuestneck/AFP/Getty Images)

Responsible for each other

Redefining white guilt and white privilege

A while ago, while working on a story about the rise of anti-Semitism in the United States, I met up with Rabbi Noah Farkas at Valley Beth Shalom, a Conservative synagogue in Los Angeles. There in his office, Farkas told me a story that I cannot ever forget.  

A little context: I had asked Farkas about his then-recent trip to Berlin to give a presentation on anti-Semitism. I told him I had visited a concentration camp in Munich a year ago, and that I was impressed to see how seriously the German schools taught students about their ugly history. This conversation came in the midst of Farkas expressing his anger and disappointment at our own U.S. government—both the White House and Congress, both our left-wing and the right-wing leaders—for condoning anti-Semitic rhetoric. That’s a big contrast to Germany, a country so horrified by its past that it has an entire department dedicated to fighting anti-Semitism. 

Then Farkas paused. There’s a catch to Germany’s hyper-sensitivity toward Jews and anti-Semitism, he said: “There’s this secondary level of anti-Semitism existing in Germany that’s riddled with guilt.” This subtle form of anti-Semitism is one where Jews have become so precious as mandated by state law that it’s ironically creating negative sentiments among Germans who feel like they’ve got to bear a national, ethnic stink forever because of Jews. Meanwhile, Jews remains a tiny minority in Germany—out of about 83 million people in Germany, only about 116,000 are Jewish, or about 0.14 percent of the population. 

“A Jew has become a unicorn,” Farkas said: “It’s a precious animal, very rarely ever seen. The narrative is that because we killed the Jews off, we have to take care of them when we see them.”

The problem with that narrative is that Jews are now perpetual victims, nor are they seen as fellow Germans. They’re some rare breed that don’t belong in Germany but must be handled gingerly and fearfully as one would treat a unicorn. Obviously, that doesn’t make anyone feel good—and signs of resentment and pushback are already brewing in Eastern Europe among people who want to tear off the guilt imposed on them since birth and freely declare themselves proud nationalists without public censure. 

Such is the limit of a government trying to wring certain social and racial attitudes out of a society through punitive laws and censorship: Sometimes, they backfire. 

During his trip to Berlin, Farkas also visited Dresden, a city that at its height in the early 1900s had 6,000 Jews but now has about 700. There, Farkas met with a group of high school students, many of whom had never met a Jew. Farkas told them that though not every German person actively participated in the Holocaust, for the Nazis to have even pulled off the magnitude of decimating 6 million Jews, there had to be millions of German at the time who were at least vaguely aware of what was happening but turned a blind eye. 

Later, a high school girl aged 16 went up to Farkas and told her she was working on a project researching the story of a Jewish family who had lived in the house she now lives in. That previous family, of course, had to leave that house because of the Holocaust. Some in the family survived, some didn’t. She came to him with tense shoulders and an expression wrecked with guilt. 

Farkas saw the burden she had shouldered and told her, “I don’t want you to feel guilty. I don’t want you to be born into the world feeling guilty for what your great-grandparents did. But I do want you to feel responsible for the living, breathing Jewish minority communities who are around you.” 

When the girl heard that, she visibly relaxed. Guilt, she could do nothing about except feel awful about herself and the past. But responsibility for those already around her? That seemed something she could uphold with integrity and dignity. 

That’s the difference between feeing guilty and being responsible, Farkas said. Constantly being made to feel guilty only perpetuates hate. Who wants to be born into the world guilty for the sins of our fathers? Eventually, someone will revolt and burn that guilt with the flames of hate. 

But we are born responsible, Farkas said: “That responsibility is just part of the fact that we’re created in the image of God, that we’re all created in the image of God, and so we’re all responsible for each other.” And that responsibility is greater when you know you have certain privileges and resources that others don’t have. 

I thought of this conversation often, particularly as I wrestle with issues of race. What Farkas said about guilt perpetuating hate makes sense in light of the rise of white supremacism and the legions of young, disgruntled white men arguing that they’re now the least privileged and most despised group in the country. I also heard echoes of that during my interviews with former white supremacists

I also saw how this guilt played out in another way. I’ve met white people who carry around with them “white guilt” like a chain around their neck and constantly lament their white privilege in some sort of twisted self-flagellation that really only serves to announce to the world how woke they are. That’s just annoying and patronizing. 

I even recently read a tweet by an actress that said: “I’m sorry I was born white and privileged. It disgusts me. And I feel so much shame.” Now that’s just ridiculous and purposeless. One black friend once told me, “I wish those people would just go and enjoy their lives rather than wring their hands moaning about their whiteness.”

The term “white privilege” triggers a lot of controversy, but I don’t think it should: It’s not meant to invoke guilt, but to remind someone that they may have certain advantages that others don’t have. Some of those advantages fall in racial lines, but we’re all born with certain undeserved privileges, or blessings—be it being born into a healthy two-parent family, or being raised in a good neighborhood with good schools, or being able to drive or shop without inciting suspicion, or enjoying citizenship in a free, prosperous country.

Being “responsible” means being aware of the resources and means we have, and using them for the good and empowering of others. That’s not just some social concept—that’s wholly Biblical: Freely we have received; so freely do we give. 

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Kin Cheung/AP

Medical staff at a hospital in Hong Kong stage a protest of police brutality against pro-democracy demonstrators. (Kin Cheung/AP)

Propaganda vs. the people

China is using state-run media and other tools to shape views on the Hong Kong protests

As reported in China Snapshot for the past few months, the protests in Hong Kong have arisen out of the concerns of residents: The protesters oppose Beijing’s encroachment on Hong Kong autonomy, want their local government to listen to public opinion, and wish to freely elect their leaders.

Yet on the mainland, the Chinese government has spun a different narrative with the help of state-controlled media, censors, and internet trolls. As the narrative goes, a small group of radical protesters, backed by the United States and other foreign governments, is wreaking havoc in the city and urging for an independent Hong Kong. The government has described the demonstrators’ recent airport protests as “near-terrorist acts.”

How does a country change the narrative and distort what is happening on the ground? 

First, China’s so-called Great Firewall blocks online reports from foreign media. It blocks Chinese access to social media used internationally, and blocks any posts supportive of Hong Kong. Initially, Chinese media didn’t report on the Hong Kong protests, even as 2 million people peacefully took to the streets. 

As protesters grew increasingly restless, citing unmet demands and excessive use of force by Hong Kong police, they began making more aggressive moves: They broke into and vandalized Hong Kong’s Legislative Council Complex, splashed ink on the Chinese emblem, threw the Chinese flag into the harbor, and in one case even threw gasoline bombs at the police. Chinese media quickly seized the opportunity to broadcast images of protesters disrespecting the government. 

What the Chinese media left out: Police firing tear gas into a subway station. Peaceful protesters singing hymns. Pro-Beijing mobs attacking protesters. Police in riot gear chasing and beating protesters with batons. Undercover police slamming unarmed protesters to the ground, resulting in a pool of blood on the sidewalk. 

Most notably, these media don’t explain why Hong Kong residents are protesting. For patriotic Chinese citizens who can access only Chinese news sources, the police look like heroes fighting a deranged group of China-hating separatists. 

Second, the media has fueled conspiracy theories. Last week, pro-Beijing newspaper Ta Kung Pao published photos of pro-democracy activists Joshua Wong and Nathan Law meeting with U.S. diplomat Julie Eadeh. The newspaper also printed the names of Eadeh’s husband and young children. China’s official state broadcaster, CCTV, claimed Eadeh was an American “black hand” influencing the Hong Kong protests. 

“I don’t think that leaking an American diplomat’s private information, pictures, names of their children—I don’t think that that’s a formal protest,” State Department spokeswoman Morgan Ortagus responded. “That is what a thuggish regime would do. That’s not how a responsible nation would behave.” She went on to say that it was normal for diplomats to meet with protesters and opposition parties in other countries. 

Third: all-out lies. On Sunday, the most violent day of protests thus far, a police officer shot a beanbag round at protesters, blinding a woman in her right eye. The woman was providing first aid to the protesters. Yet CCTV said fellow protesters injured her. On the CCTV website, a reporter claimed to have captured a photo of the woman counting money and claimed she was responsible for paying protesters to join the demonstration. 

The same day, the China Daily posted on Chinese social media a video of a protester with an airsoft gun and claimed it was an M320 grenade launcher used by the United States Army, reported The New York Times. In response to the Chinese media’s coverage, Chinese netizens are calling for their government to take stronger action against Hong Kong.

At times, the protesters’ own actions feed into the narrative Beijing is promoting. This week, protesters held sit-ins at the Hong Kong International Airport, causing airlines to cancel hundreds of flights. While the demonstration remained peaceful on Monday, it took a violent turn on Tuesday night as the massive group of protesters surrounded a man they accused of being an undercover cop. They tied his wrists together with plastic zip ties and kicked and punched him until he fainted. 

When medics and police tried to get the injured man into an ambulance, protesters blocked their way. Police in riot gear arrived on the scene, rushing protesters and pushing them to the ground and beating them. At one point, a police officer pulled out a gun after a protester began beating him with the officer’s baton. 

Protesters also surrounded a man who was wearing a yellow press vest and taking close-up photos of protesters. When protesters asked him to show his press pass, he refused and tried to leave, according to Hong Kong Free Press. Suspicious that he was a spy faking as a journalist, protesters tied his hands and feet and beat him. He was later also taken away by ambulance.

The man turned out to be Fu Guohao, a journalist for Global Times, a state-run nationalist tabloid. A clip of Fu yelling “I support Hong Kong police, you can hit me now,” went viral on WeChat, making him a hero in China. The overseas edition of the People’s Daily on Wednesday printed a front-page commentary stating, “Using the sword of the law to stop violence and restore order is overwhelmingly the most important and urgent task for Hong Kong!”

In the United States, Rep. Jim McGovern, D-Mass., the chairman of the Congressional-Executive Commission on China, has said he would introduce legislation to stop the sale of munitions and crowd control equipment to the Hong Kong police. The police have used at least 1,800 canisters of tear gas since the protests began.

“I am appalled and outraged by Hong Kong police and their escalating violence and brutality towards peaceful protesters and journalists,” tweeted McGovern. “I also call on the Trump administration to stop sending mixed signals on Hong Kong. Instead, they should suspend transfers of police and crowd control equipment to Hong Kong police. America must be on the side of those peacefully protesting for democracy and the rule of law.”

Luxury apology tour

Chinese netizens are successfully pressuring luxury apparel brands like Versace, Coach, and Givenchy to apologize after the companies listed Hong Kong as a separate country from China on their T-shirts.

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Josh Bachman/Las Cruces Sun-News via AP

Bobbie Hutson, a volunteer at El Calvario United Methodist Church, sets up cots for asylum-seekers in Las Cruces, N.M. (Josh Bachman/Las Cruces Sun-News via AP)

Jesus at the border

The Savior’s love for a widow in the Bible reminded me of the Christian compassion I saw in El Paso

Two weeks before the shooting happened in El Paso, Texas, I was in that city reporting on what local churches in border communities are doing to help one of the most politicized groups in our country today.

El Paso has attracted a lot of media attention lately, not just because its high number of apprehensions of asylum-seekers at the border, but because of reports of inhumane conditions at its Border Patrol stations. The pictures of hundreds of migrants cramped in cages, the reports of underfed, neglected children in filthy, overcrowded cells—all these stories have horrified most Americans, though I’ve also heard some people comment that if conditions in the United States are so bad, these people should just “go back to their countries.” 

So when I flew to Texas in July, I was ready to see something more hopeful. I wanted to see local churches doing something different regarding this controversial, emotionally charged issue.

What I saw were members of the community giving so much that they filled storage rooms and lobbies with mountains of boxes stuffed with diapers, snacks, underwear, socks, and more. One volunteer told me a church filled his truck with so many donations that things were falling out as he drove off. That says a lot, because I know that most people in this community are not financially well off.

I saw a tiny, Spanish-speaking church of only 12 members open its doors to 40 asylum-seekers twice a week. The congregants use every inch of space for the effort, even turning the pastor’s office into a processing room. They’re now planning to do this ministry full time as one of the church’s core missions. Staff members from the nonprofit Save the Children came to visit the church, and one told me, “This church is unbelievably generous. I’ve been to a lot of places of charity, and this place has been the most incredible—and that’s coming from us, a secular organization.” 

I met many individuals who had been working tirelessly for years before this issue became national daily news: There’s Sami Dipasquale of Abara, who after 15 years of serving youths and families in downtown El Paso, saw the pressing challenges at the border. For years, he’s been helping connect churches on both sides of the border and guiding interested parties to the border to learn the realities on the ground. 

There’s 21-year-old Gustavo de los Rios, who drives back and forth between El Paso and Ciudad Juárez about three times a week, carrying loads of donations to church shelters in Juárez that don’t have enough resources to help all the migrants in their neighborhood. The day I met him, he was off to Juárez again to help deliver air conditioners to church shelters that have been suffering in the unbearable summer heat. 

There’s Joseph Gainor, the refugee ministry coordinator of an Anglican church in downtown El Paso, who says through his volunteer work he learned “first of all, that God is good, and God always provides.” 

It’s not just material goods or money that He provides, but servant-hearted people—individuals who feel moved to help by cooking, filling out paperwork, playing with the kids, picking up the migrants and sending them off at the bus station or airport. Women in their 80s would show up to pick up all the dirty laundry and bring in fresh sheets the next day. When medical supplies ran out, volunteers dashed to the nearest pharmacy and purchased things out of their own pockets. 

As a Christian journalist, I try to look for Scripture passages that provide a framework to my reporting. Going into the El Paso trip, I thought I already had the guiding Bible verses down—there’s Deuteronomy 10:19, Leviticus 19:34, Jeremiah 7:5-7, Ezekiel 47:22—solid words commanding us to welcome the immigrant. 

But I’ll be honest: Although these verses stirred a sense of moral imperative in me, they didn’t quite strike deep into my heart. I received these Scriptures with an intellectual understanding, a fear of God, and frankly, a sense of pressure: I shall love the alien as myself; I’ll be cursed if I withhold justice from the foreigner; I must not oppress the alien. ... They are a lot of commanding, authoritative, imperative verbs. 

Then last Sunday, a day after the El Paso shooting, my church studied Luke 7:11-17. 

Here’s the passage:

Soon afterward [Jesus] went to a town called Nain, and his disciples and a great crowd went with him. As he drew near to the gate of the town, behold, a man who had died was being carried out, the only son of his mother, and she was a widow, and a considerable crowd from the town was with her. And when the Lord saw her, he had compassion on her and said to her, “Do not weep.” Then he came up and touched the bier, and the bearers stood still. And he said, “Young man, I say to you, arise.” And the dead man sat up and began to speak, and Jesus gave him to his mother. Fear seized them all, and they glorified God, saying, “A great prophet has arisen among us!” and “God has visited his people!” And this report about him spread through the whole of Judea and all the surrounding country.

This familiar story doesn’t directly reference immigrants and refugees, but it still struck me afresh in light of all that had occurred in the past two weeks—seeing Christians serve the stranger with sacrificial generosity, and then hearing the news on the horrible mass murder in El Paso, a deliberate, violent statement against immigration and brown people. 

This story isn’t just about the miracle of Jesus raising the dead. It’s about that woman—a widow who, after all the public wailing and mourning of the funeral, will mostly likely be forgotten because she probably isn’t the only widow in town. She is a nobody—she has no advocate, no power, no voice, no valuable contribution to society in the eyes of her neighbors. Jesus didn’t just perform that miracle to show everyone that He is God. He did it to display to everyone His amazing love. Those who only marveled at the dead rising would be missing the deep implications of what actually happened. 

You see, Jesus saw that widow among the crowd. Out of all the people gathered around Him and thronging the streets of the town of Nain, he noticed her. He saw the suffering of someone who’d lost her status and protection and security. He saw her loneliness, her fears, the reality of her circumstances—and He had compassion on her. Then He did a strange thing: He told the widow not to weep, even though He knew she had every reason to do so. But He knew something she didn’t: There will be a time when her tears are wiped away and there is no more death or mourning or pain, because He has come to dwell among men.

Throughout my reporting at the border, volunteers told me the same thing over and over: They said they’re simply being “the hands and feet of Jesus.” That phrase is so familiar to me that I had lost grip of its meaning—until I wondered what He would do at the border if He saw everything that’s happening to the asylum-seekers. 

Today, we are the body of Christ, and we’re receiving a group of people who, like the widow of Nain, have lost their status and protection and security. They have no power or voice and are considered too poor and too uneducated to bring any real value to our society. They are, for political, economic, and social reasons, often despised and mischaracterized. As secular as our nation has become, Americans still look to churches for examples of hope and compassion. And they should, because we worship the only Lord and Savior who walked the earth and offered compassion to the despised, the poor, and the oppressed, from wealthy tax collectors to banished lepers.

That’s why what I saw churches doing at the border was nothing short of a miracle: They weren’t serving just because the Bible commanded it—they did it because they were first touched by the love and compassion of Jesus Christ. It’s not an act of obligation, but an act inspired, motivated, and sustained by an undeserved, God-given love.

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