Yesterday I introduced Amy Laura Hall’s essay on how some churches actively participated in the eugenics movement before World War II. It is bad enough when churches and their leaders are silent about evil practices, but promoting eugenics takes the church, and thus the name of Jesus, to sickening depths.
And it begs the question: why? How could this happen?
In a word: pride.
Hall goes straight at it, on page 80 of Theology, Disability and the New Genetics:
Through the formation of the AES (American Eugenics Society), eugenics leaders signaled that it would not be sufficient merely to keep careful measurements and records of the unfit and the fit, the impure and the pure, through the ERO (Eugenics Record Office). They needed to capture the imagination of the citizenry. Religion was perhaps the closest root to the ground, and the AES found there clergy eager to prove that they were on the modernist side of the modernist/fundamentalist rift. . .
The sociologist, the psychologist, the anthropologist and the social worker were on the ascendancy, and mainline pastors throughout America were determined not to seem obsolete or, even worse, backward. . .
Faced with the challenge of remaining relevant and seeming well-educated in a modern world, many mainline Protestant clergy serving parishes and academe, in cities and in the country, did nothing less than capitulate.
This evil would spread to those most likely to think of themselves as wise, with one significant flaw:
The Protestants most accustomed to their role as well-educated citizens had the fewest theological resources to resist the message of eugenics. (emphasis mine) The oldest and unquestionably American of the Protestant churches were the first to jump on the eugenics bandwagon. (Swinton and Brock, p. 81)
To be sure, there were those who were standing against this tide. Hall quotes John Ryan, Professor of Political Science and Moral Theology at the Catholic University of America in an article he wrote in 1928:
The practical argument against this theory (eugenics as purifying and good for America) is that once society decides that the weak may rightfully be left to perish, it will extend the principle to all of the so-called inferior classes, so that in the end the ‘welfare of society’ will come to mean the welfare of a few supermen, namely those who have been powerful enough to get themselves accepted at their own valuation. (Swinton and Brock, pp. 83-84)
Hall concludes this about Ryan and two clergy who supported eugenics, Dr. Karl Reiland of St. George’s Protestant Episcopal Church and Dr. Harry Ward, Professor of Christian Ethics at Union Theological Seminary:
Faced with the temptation of siding with the worthy against the unworthy, the other two clergy (Reiland and Ward) had succumbed. Sacrifice your faith, Ryan warned, and tomorrow you may find yourself counted among the weak. (Swinton and Brock, p. 84)
Amen, Dr. Ryan!
None of this would even be worth discussing if the Bible didn’t have clear things to say about how we are to think about ourselves and those who are considered the least or the weakest.
Only God is strong. By comparison, we are all weak:
For the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men. 1 Corinthians 1:25
God chooses the weak and calls them indispensible:
But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God. 1 Corinthians 1:27-29
The parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable. . . 1 Corinthians 12:22b
God is holy, and many people will not recognize who he really is, to their destruction. Walk with God rather than people:
For the Lord spoke thus to me with his strong hand upon me, and warned me not to walk in the way of this people, saying: “Do not call conspiracy all that this people calls conspiracy, and do not fear what they fear, nor be in dread. But the Lord of hosts, him you shall honor as holy. Let him be your fear, and let him be your dread. And he will become a sanctuary and a stone of offense and a rock of stumbling to both houses of Israel, a trap and a snare to the inhabitants of Jerusalem. And many shall stumble on it. They shall fall and be broken; they shall be snared and taken.” Isaiah 8:11-15
Yet, intelligent people could read this Bible and conclude that “A social ethic based on the principles of Jesus no less than requires the elimination of the weak” (Swinton and Brock, p. 83). Disagree with the Bible, determine that eugenics is a proper movement – certainly evil, and some people were coming to that conclusion. But to make Jesus into a supporter of eugenics? That sort of darkness is hard to imagine.
So, let us be people who are equipped and who have the greatest theological resources to resist evil when it comes. Another form of that eugenic evil has persisted, and there are church leaders today who are foolishly thinking that loyalty with the world is of greater value than siding with those who God loves: the weak and the vulnerable.
I will explore that tomorrow.