One hundred years ago this year, during the winter of 1917, the French freighter Mont Blanc, laden with picric acid and TNT destined for the European war effort, headed into the great harbor of Halifax to join a convoy bound for Bordeaux. A Norwegian ship, the Imo, was leaving Halifax at the same time, destined for New York. Its mission was to bring food and supplies back to the people in German-occupied Belgium and northern France.
Because of miscommunication the Mont Blanc and the Imo collided leading to a massive explosion that killed 2,000 people and sent smoke more than two miles high. This was the largest man-made explosion on Earth until that time.
The small German population of Nova Scotia came under attack as the slogan “Place the Blame” stirred the people with vengeance. Because who else could be responsible for the calamity besides the Kaiser? And weren’t all Germans, therefore, collectively culpable? At first, reports emerged of rampaging crowds stoning neighbors with German-sounding names. But less than a week after the explosion, before the fires were even put out or all the bodies recovered, let alone buried, the Canadian military ordered the arrest of every German citizen.
Collective guilt is all too common throughout history, regardless of whether punishment is meted out because of political, economic or religious differences. The Jews, cruelly oppressed by Pharaoh; the Christians, persecuted by Nero; non-Catholics on the Iberian Peninsula, tortured by inquisitors; and the reverse: Catholics, tormented by Oliver Cromwell. The consequences of collective blame and punishment — people leaving their homes in mass in search of freedom and safety — are also familiar. We see them today as people flee Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria, and as refugees flood into Europe or knock at America’s door. Can looking back inform our present?
Throughout the millennia societies have been frightened by people that are of a different culture, language and especially by religious differences, often leading to wars between religions. In the 15th century, Andalucía and 800-year-old Muslim-majority civilization on the Iberian Peninsula fell to Catholic invaders from the north. Jewish and Muslim converts to Catholicism were brought before a tribunal of inquisitors bent on flushing out religious heretics and purifying the peninsula. Their torture tactics are legendary.
In 1492, King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella enacted a decree ordering the “Jews and Jewesses of our kingdoms to depart and never to return or come back to them or to any of them.” Men and women whose ancestors had lived there for hundreds of years were given three months “to dispose of themselves, and their possessions, and their estates,” and to leave with royal safeguard. About 165,000 people immigrated to Europe and North Africa. Some 20,000 of them died as they searched for new homelands.
In more recent times, the restoration of the State of Israel resulted in the expulsion of Jews from many Arabic-speaking, Muslim-majority nations.
When a society is frightened by real or imagined terror it looks to find a scapegoat and assign blame. The blame is often allotted to one collective group or subset of society as the scapegoat.
Germany and Europe are currently dealing with this in regard to the massive migration of Muslims into the EU. America is currently dealing with this issue with regard to Muslims from countries that sponsor terrorist organizations and Hispanics from Latin America. It is also angry with faceless elites who they believe have robbed them of their greatness and the economic stability.
The Germans of Halifax were slowly exonerated after the captain of the Mont Blanc was arrested and charged with manslaughter (the charges against him were later dropped for lack of evidence.) But trauma within their community remained. In addition to experiencing the fires, tsunami and deaths that followed the Mont Blanc explosion, the trust of neighbors had been breached.
The Bible predicts that collective blame will continue and will strengthen until Sabbatarians will become so intense that they will eventually face death at the hands of angry mobs. Their execution will be supported by a dictatorial decree and other oppressive measures that will force them to migrate to the smaller towns and remote places of the earth to hide from their persecutors and tormenters.
America’s founders maintained an ethical sensibility made manifest in the Bill of Rights. The founders, with Bibles and Korans in their libraries, were cognizant of the religious persecutions of the past — including instances of religious tyranny in pre-colonial and colonial times. They chose to guard citizens’ right to worship in different ways by preventing the “misconstruction or abuse” of congressional powers.
These founders came up with language that would clearly protect freedom of religious expression and worship. “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging freedom of speech or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”
The U.S. Constitution is the oldest still in use. Its checks and balances have safeguarded representative republicanism for nearly 230 years. The establishment and exercise clauses keep a wall of sanctity between religion and state. But it may see its mettle tested in the coming years, particularly if the question of registering people according to their religion is pursued.
Similar to the forced diaspora of Jews from the newly Catholic Spain, the fate of Nova Scotia’s innocent Germans, and the Muslim victims of the Islamic State, the Bible predicts that the United States will again sanction collective punishment, once the establishment and free exercise clauses are gutted (which has begun during the Obama administration). It will proscribe such retribution on religious terms. Once demonized sufficiently, it will be an easy step to begin to persecute the collective group.
Though religious affiliation is really nobody’s business, someday, it will become vitally important to a new regime that will overthrow the existing order and because of fear, will enact oppressive measures for some religious beliefs and practices that oppose the prevailing religious ideology.
“The heavenly sentinels, faithful to their trust, continue their watch. Though a general decree has fixed the time when commandment keepers may be put to death, their enemies will in some cases anticipate the decree, and before the time specified, will endeavor to take their lives. But none can pass the mighty guardians stationed about every faithful soul. Some are assailed in their flight from the cities and villages; but the swords raised against them break and fall powerless as a straw. Others are defended by angels in the form of men of war.” The Great Controversy, page 631.
This briefing is an adaptation from the source article and comes to a different conclusion.