Updated: Jun 20
Lately, I have been contemplating how the current moment feels like a flashback to 1936. Germany was hosting the Olympics in Berlin, while at the same time, the Nazi government had introduced a number of laws that systematically discriminated against various undesirables (Jews, homosexuals, the mentally ill, the handicapped, Jehovah’s Witnesses, etc.). Indeed, beyond discrimination, Hitler had already established the first concentration camp at Dachau in 1933 where he was imprisoning “dissidents”. The world participated in the Olympic games, turning a blind eye to the human rights violations happening right beneath their noses.
Less than a century later, the world watches as the winter Olympics take place in China where similar human rights violations are transpiring among the Uyghur people. For those unfamiliar with the situation, the Uyghurs are a nomadic Turkic people native to China's northwestern Xinjiang region. Many Uyghurs are Muslim, a direct conflict with the ideology of the Chinese Communist Party, which officially requires its citizens to adopt atheism. The Muslim influence is due to Xinjiang sharing borders with Afghanistan, India, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Mongolia, Pakistan, Russia and Tajikistan.
This cultural divide means that the 12 million Uyghur people living in Xinjiang are not assimilating into Chinese society. Indeed, similar to Taiwan, the Uyghur’s have been through various periods of self-rule. The other major factor is that the region is full of natural resources. Xinjiang has plentiful oil reserves and the land produces the vast majority of China’s cotton. All of these factors mean the Chinese government views the Uyghurs as a threat to their stability. Their solution is to follow the playbook of the Nazi party.
Based on satellite photos and reports from Uyghurs who have escaped, it is estimated that Chinese authorities have detained more than 1 million Uyghurs as part of an effort to gain control over the region. The reasons for detention can range from wearing a headscarf or sporting a long beard to having more than two children or traveling overseas for vacation to speaking out against the Chinese government.
Those caught breaking the rules are sequestered without trial into what the government refers to as “centers and reeducation camps” for periods ranging from weeks to years. The official government stance is that these camps are vocational training centers meant to reform people with extremist tendencies. However, one official claimed that the facilities are akin to fancy boarding schools where the Uyghur people are getting a top-notch education.
The reality, based on reports of people who have been held inside of the camps, is quite different. Detainees are forced to take lessons in patriotism and the Chinese language. Some have been taught vocational-skills such as textile-making and are being forced to work at a factory as a condition of release. This is very similar to what the Nazi’s did with their dissidents at Dachau.
However, beyond the brainwashing and slave labor, there are reports of soldiers raping, torturing and even murdering those within the camps. Apparently, these are not simply the actions of a few rogue soldiers, but is encouraged by the officials responsible for the overseeing the camps. When soldiers feel emboldened to torment their captives with brutality, such actions do not happen in a vacuum.
Perhaps one of the most striking parallelisms with Nazi Germany is the way that the Chinese government has utilized propaganda to indoctrinate its population with a sense that the Chinese people/race are superior to all other people in the world. If you don’t believe me, watch the documentary American Factory about a Chinese owned company coming to America. There is a moment where you see the Chinese supervisors speaking with the Chinese workers who have relocated to Dayton, Ohio and they utilize this propaganda as a means of encouraging their workers by saying, “Remember, you are better than [the American workers].”
Similar to the German Eugenics propaganda declaring white Europeans to be the genetically superior race among all the humans of the earth, the Chinese citizens have been fed the propaganda that they are the apex species of the earth. Hence, the Uyghurs are not people who are equal to you. They are less-than-human. They are animals and deserve to be treated as such. By dehumanizing the Uyghurs, the soldiers feel justified do whatever they want without feeling as though they have transgressed any ethical or moral boundaries.
If you research this online, you will find that it is very hard to verify exactly what is happening to the Uyghurs because the Chinese government controls the flow of information and has very strict laws around what they consider appropriate speech. Again, this is very similar to the Nazi playbook. In 1934, after Hitler came to power, he passed what became known as The Editors Law. This law imposed very stringent rules on what newspapers were allowed to publish. Non-‘Aryans’ were banned from working in journalism. By preventing the government from being criticized, there are no checks and balances to governments power, allowing for atrocities like the Holocaust to proceed unabated.
Again, all of this is happening in China as a backdrop to the Olympic games and very little is being done to address it. The US government has refused to send any officials to the games as a protest against the Uyghur genocide. I certainly agree with this statement, but what does it accomplish? In reality, nothing. Therefore, the question I have been pondering is: What exactly can we do about all of this? As a Christian, what is my responsibility to the Uyghur people?
Since I’m making the comparison between 2022 and 1936, I think it might be apropos to invoke an important German figure from that period—Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Born on February 4, 1906, Dietrich Bonhoeffer was the sixth of eight children in his family. A brilliant student, Bonhoeffer received his Doctor of Theology degree from Berlin University in 1927, graduating summa cum laude, at the age of 21.
Because he was too young to be ordained as a pastor, Bonhoeffer travelled to the United States in 1930 for a teaching fellowship at New York City’s Union Theological Seminary. It was during his time at Union that Bonhoeffer formed one of the most important friendships of his life with Frank Fisher, an African American seminarian at Union who introduced Bonhoeffer to Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem.
As you might imagine, Bonhoeffer was the only white attendee of Abyssinian Baptist. He became an integral part of the church. Bonhoeffer taught Sunday school and developed a deep love for African-American spirituals. He even bought a collection of records that he took back Germany at the end of his fellowship. But perhaps the most important aspect of his time at Abyssinian Baptist is that he became aware of the social injustices experienced by minorities in the United States.
Bonhoeffer was shocked by the vicious racism that existed in America in the 1930s towards African Americans. But what disappointed him even more was the fact that white churches in America were not speaking out against these injustices. In fact, many white churches, particularly in the south, were encouraging and perpetuating racism from the pulpit. As a result, Bonhoeffer’s Christianity went through a radical transformation.
Prior to coming to America, Bonhoeffer felt Christianity was mostly an intellectual pursuit. After his time in Harlem, Bonhoeffer felt that if your Christian faith was not influencing the way you lived your life, then you had no faith at all. After returning to Germany, Bonhoeffer decided to give up his promising career in academia and was ordained as a pastor in the German Evangelical Church. When Bonhoeffer took to the pulpit, he began to preach something that nobody had heard up until that point.
He pointed to Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount and told his congregants these teachings are things that Jesus actually expects us to do. We cannot ignore them. We cannot say that they are too hard. To call ourselves Christian means that we must live out these teachings with God’s help to best of our ability. This idea that Jesus’ teachings are a call to action was tested almost immediately because at the same time that Bonhoeffer was becoming a pastor, Hitler was completing his rise to power.
On February 1, 1933, the day after Hitler was sworn in as Führer, Bonhoeffer delivered an address over the radio entitled The Younger Generation’s Altered View of the Concept of Führer. In the address, he used these words: “If the leader tries to become the idol the led are looking for–something the led always hope from their leader–then the image of the leader shifts to one of a mis-leader, then the leader is acting improperly toward the led as well as toward himself.” Then, just at the crucial moment, where Bonhoeffer was about to advise the German people that they are the check and balance to Hitler’s power, the radio broadcast was cut.
No one else in the church had the courage to stand up against Hitler. No one else was willing to risk themselves in the way Bonhoeffer was. Two months later in April, Bonhoeffer published an essay entitled: The Church and the Jewish Question. In this essay, Bonhoeffer outlined three stages of opposition against the Nazi regime:
The church is called to question state injustice.
The church has an obligation to help all victims of injustice, whether they are Christian or not.
The church might be called to “put a spoke in the wheel” to bring the machinery of injustice to a halt.
This bold rhetoric against Hitler came at great personal cost to Bonhoeffer. Most of his colleagues were silent about the activities of the Nazis and it became clear that he was an outlier. They did not believe the church was a tool to stop the injustice of the state. Bonhoeffer decided to open an underground seminary for clergy who wanted to be part of the resistance. Bonhoeffer trained these young men to inspire their congregations to help Jews and actively resist the Nazi government. The Gestapo shut down the seminary in September 1937.
After the seminary was taken out of operation, Bonhoeffer became informed about other plans that were taking place in opposition to the Nazi regime through his brother-in-law, Hans von Dohnanyi, who worked in the Justice Ministry. Bonhoeffer became part of Operation Seven, a plan to create fake papers for Jews to get them out of Germany. At the same time, Bonhoeffer became part of Operation Valkyrie, a secret group that had formed among some of the highest officials in the Nazi government to assassinate Hitler.
The plan was to sneak a briefcase bomb into a strategy meeting, detonate it and then the military would take control of the government and negotiate an armistice treaty with the Allies. The plan was executed on July 20th, 1944. Unfortunately, the bomb was pushed too far under the table and when it exploded, the heavy wooden support under the table shielded Hitler from the blast and he survived. As the conspirators in the plot were captured, eventually Bonhoeffer’s name was mentioned. Like everyone associated with Operation Valkyrie, he was sentenced to death. On April 9, 1945, Bonhoeffer was hanged with the other conspirators, including his brother-in-law.
The Cost of Discipleship
After it became known that Bonhoeffer was part of the plot to assassinate Hitler, it changed the way people understood Bonhoeffer’s teachings. Bonhoeffer had written a book called The Cost of Discipleship in which he describes the sacrifices required of us to be a disciple of Jesus. He makes an important distinction in his book between cheap grace and costly grace. Grace is the gift God gives us by offering forgiveness for our mistakes. Cheap grace is when we accept that forgiveness and move on without much thought for what it means. It has no real bearing on our lives.
On the other hand, “Costly grace,” according to Bonhoeffer “is the gospel which must be sought again and again and again…It is costly because it costs a man his life, and it is grace because it gives a man the only true life. It is costly because it condemns sin, and grace because it justifies the sinner.” In other words, when you live out the gospel, when you live out Jesus’ teachings, it forces you to be a different kind of person. It forces you to do things you wouldn’t normally do. It pushes you outside of your comfort zone.
It forces you to be brave. It forces you to speak out against injustice. It forces you to stand up for the oppressed and to serve those who cannot serve themselves. It forces you to act when your natural inclination is to sit back and do nothing. It forces you to be like Jesus. This is why Jesus tells us at the end of his Sermon on the Mount, “Everyone then who hears these words of mine and acts on them will be like a wise man who built his house on rock. The rain fell, the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on rock.” (Mt. 7:24-25)
Bonhoeffer was living in a world where the rain was falling, the floods were coming, the winds were blowing because of the evil perpetrated by the Nazi party. Everyone else around him stayed silent in the face of that evil. They would not stand up, they would not speak out because they were scared, because they hadn’t truly invested in Jesus’ teachings. They had built their house on sand. But Bonhoeffer was not scared. He knew that following Jesus’ teachings in the midst of this storm could get him killed, but he was not deterred because he had built his house on rock.
The Spoke in the Wheel
One of the common excuses for why the Germans were able to perpetrate such violence and terror was lack of knowledge. So many people claimed ignorance. I’ve watched numerous interviews with people who said, “I had no idea what was going on! Had I known, I would have done something about it.” Indeed, I know many people would like to believe that if they were alive during the 1930s and 40s, they would have done everything in their power to stop the German genocide of the Jews. Well, here we are again. Genocide is happening among the Uyghurs and ignorance is no longer an excuse.
Recall Bonhoeffer’s three stages of opposition: First, the church is called to question state injustice. Second, the church has an obligation to help all victims of injustice, whether they are Christian or not. Finally, he believed the church might be called to “put a spoke in the wheel” to bring the machinery of injustice to a halt.
Part of stage one is what we are doing here in this article. Your job is to make sure that this article is not the last you speak of it. You must tell the people in your life about the genocide of the Uyghur people. You are their mouthpiece. Without you, they don’t have a voice. Speak up among your family, within your church community and social groups. Tell whoever will listen.
The second stage, where we are called to help the victims of injustice is a bit harder because we are so far away from China, but it is still possible. Write to congress and the White House, requesting that the United States and other countries impose more sanctions on the Chinese government. Although there is already a sanction on cotton produced in Xinjiang, more sanctions would squeeze them economically, which is one of the most powerful ways to gain their attention and possibly move them to change their behavior. Some might argue there are limits to the effectiveness of sanctions because our economies are so intertwined. If China suffers economically, so will the United States. However, more targeted sanctions can do a lot of damage and could, at the very least, send a message.
The third stage is for the church put a spoke in the wheel of injustice. How can we stop the injustices being perpetrated in these camps? One way is, again, to focus on economics. As we watch the Olympics, you can boycott all the sponsors you see in the ads. You can also make choices to not buy products from China, which can be a monumental task since so many of our goods are produced in China. However, one needs to remember that nearly all of the most successful companies in China are connected to the Chinese government. Right now, China has little incentive to stop what they are doing. If enough of us stop buying certain products, the economic impact could create an incentive.
However, beyond the economic possibilities, the most important way we can intervene for the Uyghur’s from several thousand miles away is through the dissemination of prodemocratic ideals. The people of China are the ones who need to tell their own government that this treatment is wrong. They are the ones who need to protest and demand the release of the Uyghurs. Activists from within their own people need to rise up, like Bonhoeffer, and hold a moral mirror to their government, forcing them to make changes.
Obviously, this is incredibly difficult because China is a military state that controls the media and prevents the dissemination of information to the public. Yet, there are a growing swath of people in China who value freedom of speech, freedom of the press and freedom of religion. Some of this is coming through exposure to Western values via sources like movies and the internet, but these are still highly regulated. The one place where the Chinese government has trouble controlling information is underground radio.
Perhaps one of the greatest sources of democratic ideals comes from radio stations like Radio Free Asia who report on atrocities and miscarriages of justice all over the Asian continent. It goes without saying that listening to Radio Free Asia is illegal in China. Yet, their work is making its way into the country through the person-to-person sharing of podcasts and videos.
Financially supporting their reporting and networks helps them to continue coverage of situations like Uyghur genocide, as well as disseminating democratic ideals. The youth in China are particularly interested in these freedoms and the hope is that, given enough time, they will join together and form movements that will initiate reforms and change to the Chinese government so as to improve human rights.
As Christians, we are called to a life of costly grace. We must be willing to sacrifice for the needs of our brothers and sisters around the world. To sit back and do nothing is tantamount to being complicit in this genocide. Similar to the 1930s when we knew about the atrocities being unleashed on the Jewish people abroad, we have an opportunity to make our own impact on the Uyghur genocide. Martin Luther King Jr. once said, “A time comes when silence is betrayal.” I believe that time has come.
Therefore, listen to Bonhoeffer and implement the three stages of opposition: 1) Speak out about the Uyghur people by talking with your friends and sharing this article; 2) Write to your government officials, demanding economic sanctions and, as much as possible, stop buying Chinese made goods; and 3) Last, but certainly not least, support media efforts to promote democracy in China. Can you imagine how, if all of us made these small efforts, the huge change it could produce for the Uyghur people who are hoping and praying someone will hear their pleas for help? I hope you will join me in being the answer to their prayers.