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Lumen Scholar researches role of Christians in the Holocaust

Recent Elon University graduate Sarah Holland's study of Christian complicity in the evils of Nazi Germany shed light on the way people of faith can be led astray by leaders who exploit religious beliefs at the expense of marginalized populations.

Sarah Holland '14 with her Lumen Prize mentor, Jeffrey C. Pugh, the Maude Sharpe Powell Professor of Religious Studies at Elon University

To Holocaust researchers, it’s an unspoken truth that many people don’t want to acknowledge: The rise of Nazi Germany and the systematic slaughter of 6 million people would not have been possible without the support of German Christians.

It wasn’t just a few Christians who condoned discrimination and violence that terrorized the European Jews for much of the early 20th century. On the contrary. As Sarah Holland ‘14 will tell you, millions of people who professed to follow Christ looked the other way as Nazis harassed, deported, confined and killed innocent men, women and children.

The recent Elon graduate couldn’t understand how such evil flourished in Germany, and with assistance from a top university award to support undergraduate research, she started searching for answers that may soon be shared with a national audience.

Holland has worked over the past two years with Professor Jeffrey C. Pugh in the Department of Religious Studies to examine the cultural and religious factors that led to Christian complicity in the Holocaust. Her findings are the last to be featured this year in a series of E-net profiles on Lumen Scholars in the Class of 2014.

Holland's undergraduate research helped her secure an internship last summer with the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum’s research department. As part of her duties, she wrote a half dozen case studies of German rescuers who risked their lives to protect persecuted Jews. The internship in turn shaped her approach to her final year of studies at Elon University.

Together with Pugh, Holland is now focused on developing a broader curriculum specific to Christian complicity in the Holocaust. The duo are in the early stages of their work and are not sure what shape the effort will take, though it's a topic dear to both scholars. “Ordinary Christians don’t know what role their religion had in legitimizing the Holocaust,” Holland said. “How do you have one religion that creates such different types of people, such different types of social agents?”

Anti-Semitism existed across much of Europe but found its strongest roots in Germany, Holland explains. Martin Luther, a German theologian whose “Ninety-Five Theses” in 1517 were largely responsible for the Protestant Reformation, was both a cultural and religious hero to Germans. His influence held sway over German identity, and Luther himself despised Jews, writing a scathing essay late in life that fueled anti-Semitism long before Hitler’s rise to power.

That anti-Semitism festered for centuries, and by the 1920s, after many of them had risen to positions of prominence in government, medicine, law and education following World War I, Jews became the scapegoats for deteriorating social and economic conditions. Hitler quickly took advantage of a national and religious dogma among many anti-Semitic Christians who believed church and state should act as one.

At the same time, technology and modernity made it possible to systematically remove, deport and, eventually, kill large numbers of people. Culturally, most German Christians weren’t active participants in the Holocaust, but they were apathetic about Jewish treatment.

“Christians were finding places in their scriptures that completely legitimized what the Nazis were trying to do,” Holland said.

Not everyone, of course. As she reviewed existing literature and scoured historical records as part of her museum internship, Holland found themes that emerged to explain why some Christians stood their ground and defended Jews, putting their own lives at risk in the process.

“The main difference is that pro-Nazis had cultural and religious identities more deeply intertwined, and that mutually reinforced one another,” she said. “You were Christian because you were German and German because you were Christian. With resistors, and I include Christian rescuers, for those who risked their lives to save Jews, their religion acted as a tool to critique the national culture.”

Lest there be any misunderstanding, she said, it’s a topic that remains relevant today as religion continues to be cited as justification for global discrimination and violence. Muslim extremists in the Middle East and Africa use Islam as a call to arms. Look no further than Boko Haram’s recent kidnappings of Nigerian schoolgirls and al-Qaeda’s enduring threat to Western interests.

In some places, religion and the Bible are used to disparage homosexuality. Calling any particular country a “Christian nation” is yet another signal of the very same social forces at work that led Hitler to power.

But religion is malleable, Holland said, bringing hope to the idea that attitudes rooted in faith can ultimately change. “Religion does not just magically appear. It is not inherent in society. We create it,” she explained. “Sacred texts are things humans write, and out of these things come liturgy and traditions.”

The Lumen Prize, awarded for the first time in 2008, provides selected students with a $15,000 scholarship to support and celebrate their academic and creative achievements. Lumen Scholars work closely with faculty mentors to pursue and complete their projects.

Efforts include course work, study abroad, research both on campus and abroad during the regular academic year and summers, internships locally and abroad, program development and creative productions and performances. The prize funded Holland’s travel last spring to Berlin, where she saw firsthand many of the locations she had researched. The visit strengthened her ability to read German for understanding documents that shed light on her scholarship.

“Sarah is exactly the kind of motivated student that faculty love to work with, because she does research for the love of the subject,” Pugh said. “Learning a more nuanced account of Christian responsibility for the Holocaust helped her see that sometimes things rest hidden from us because they are too difficult for many people to face. The problem is that until the truth is told we can't truly heal our memories or our past. I think the insight she's received about the ways in which unspoken assumptions guide us will enable her to see clearly ways to help the communities where she will live."

Holland’s relationship to Elon University runs deeper than the bonds she has forged with her professors. Her sister, Ashley, graduated in 2012 with a degree in elementary education. Both her parents are Elon alumni. And Holland’s love for her alma mater glowed bright last fall when she joined two classmates in a public response to hateful images scribbled on the whiteboard belonging to students in a residence hall.

In a letter to The Pendulum student newspaper, the trio called on students to make their voices heard when they witness acts of discrimination. The letter cited Desmond Tutu’s remarks on remaining “neutral” in the face of oppression and how such neutrality de facto sides with the oppressor.

Holland’s interest in religious studies was inspired in part by a critical examination of her own beliefs. Though her father is a music minister in a Methodist church, Holland grew up asking questions about Christianity and whether “Jesus was God.” The answers she received didn’t satisfy a budding scholar whose Lumen Prize research served as her Elon College Fellows thesis.  

“‘You just have to have faith.’ That wasn’t enough,” Holland said. “Religious studies was asking deeper questions that provided me with more satisfying answers than simply by asking insiders of the religion.”

Her mentor credits the Lumen Prize with helping Holland emerge as a campus leader. “Sarah really is a diligent, brilliant thinker, who is never afraid to ask the questions most people won't,” Pugh said. “She is one of the reasons that teaching at Elon is deeply enriching both for the student and the professor.”

Holland moves this summer to Washington, D.C., where she is seeking positions at nonprofit organizations focused on social justice.

Eric Townsend,
5/29/2014 9:00 AM