In the beginning chapters of Genesis, we are confronted with the first murder in humanity’s history.
Cain, the firstborn son of Adam and Eve, kills his younger brother Abel in jealousy and rage. When God asks Cain where his brother is, Cain heartlessly responds, “I don’t know. Am I my brother’s keeper?”
This week, we take time to remember and lament a civil liberties failure in our American history seventy-eight years ago. On February 19, 1942, President Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, a policy which resulted in nearly 120,000 innocent Japanese-American citizens, immigrants, and nationals being forced out of their homes, businesses, and neighborhoods, to instead live in camps with prison-like conditions.
Across the West Coast, families and individuals were given only seven days to report to their camp. They were ordered to bring only what they could carry—for some, that was their baby or child, for others, a few items of clothing, bedding, and cookware.
In Monrovia, California, ten minutes from where I live, Japanese Americans were sent to the Santa Anita race track, where distressed children, parents, individuals, and families were boarded in horse stalls–places still freshly pungent with horse manure, mud, dirt, and filth. These “assembly centers” were a grim foreshadowing of the dehumanizing camp conditions that were to come for Japanese Americans.
Over the course of World War II, between 1942 and 1945, every person was tagged with an ID number and sent to one of ten concentration camps across the nation: Manzanar, Topaz, Colorado River (Poston), Gila River, Granada (Amache), Heart Mountain, Jermone, Minidoka, Rohwer, and Tule Lake. Families who lived apart from one another or did not have the means for communication were separated; others did not know if they would ever see their aunties, uncles, mothers, fathers, grandparents, brothers, sisters, or children ever again.
To “Protect” Americans
Several months ago, my colleagues and I visited Manzanar, the first concentration camp that would eventually become a blueprint for others. We saw firsthand the conditions that Japanese Americans had to survive in—living spaces unsuitable for families, especially in extreme weather conditions; communal latrines; a small “mess hall” meant to feed thousands in rotation, and no set-aside space for play or activity. Five hundred military-style units (barracks) held 10,000 people, each unit housing eight individuals in a constraining 20-by-25 foot room. On top of this, the camp was guarded by military police and surrounded by barbed wire. During our visit, we met with E.O. 9066 freedom fighters Bill Watanabe, Joy Okazaki, and Miya Iwataki, who shared firsthand accounts of the harrowing camp conditions meant to strip Japanese Americans of their human dignity, supposedly done to “protect Americans” from Japanese spies.
In their presentation, the E.O. 9066 freedom fighters shared that the FBI and Department of Justice maintained that there was no legitimate security threat by Japanese Americans, however, those in positions of power and public authority pushed to maintain these camps without due process. An L.A. Times quote from February 2, 1942, stated, “The viper is nonetheless a viper wherever the egg is hatched—so a Japanese-American, born of Japanese parents grows up to be a Japanese, not an American.” These widespread narratives stemming from racial prejudice perpetuated the dehumanization of innocent Japanese Americans through government-sanctioned oppression.
Bryan Stevenson often says in his work with the Equal Justice Initiative, “To overcome racial inequality, we must confront our history.” As we revisit the pain of what our Japanese American brothers and sisters endured, we must face our history. In order to heal as a nation, we must be willing to own our history of racial prejudice. To overcome racial inequality, we must confront our history. Click To Tweet
Remembrance as Resistance
This week, we confront our history by honoring the stories of our Japanese-American brothers and sisters. We confront our history by speaking truth to power, declaring that Jesus’ way is always the way of liberation, equity, and love. We confront our history by reclaiming the dignity and worth of every single person made in the image of God. We confront our history through remembrance as an act of resistance. We confront our history through the prophetic act of lament. We confront our history by calling upon God’s justice and mercy to fill the earth. We repent, we confess, we listen intently to God’s response to Cain’s query, “Am I my brother’s keeper?”
God calls out to each of us as he did to Cain: “Listen! Your brother’s blood cries out to me from the ground…” As people of God, do we hear the blood of our sisters and brothers crying out to God? Do we hear the despair, isolation, terror, fear, and oppression of our marginalized sisters and brothers crying out to us from the ground?
Seventy-eight years later, we look at the landscape of our current government’s policies targeting indigenous, black, and brown communities. We hear rhetoric embedded with fear, hate, and manipulation being used as weapons to marginalize and divide. We see children separated from their families at the border, the oppression of immigrants of color, and the displacement of refugees… a strikingly similar pattern of dehumanization based on racial preference is showing itself. Are we, like Cain, turning away, asking, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” or are we leaning into God’s voice calling out to each of us, “Listen! Your brother’s blood cries out to me from the ground!” This week, we remember the stories of oppression and resilience our Japanese brothers and sisters endured through Executive Order 9066. But may we do more than just remember. Click To Tweet
This week, we remember the stories of oppression and resilience our Japanese brothers and sisters endured through Executive Order 9066. But may we do more than just remember. As fellow brothers and sisters made in the image of God, may we actively reclaim our call to embody justice and compassion in the way of the cross and resolve to dismantle systems of racial injustice and oppression, so ensuring that this horrific history is never repeated again. Amen.