The Freedom to Be Prophetic: Lessons from the Japanese Internment

When our past includes pain, injustice, and shame, it is natural to want to put it behind us, to ignore it and move on. I was struck by this at a presentation on the Japanese Internment by Maryknoll Sister Joanne Doi, who studied the subject, and whose parents were interned. I was also struck through her presentation that, by embracing painful history and acknowledging it, we find liberation - for ourselves, and also for those suffering both in the present and in the future.

Sr. Joanne began her presentation by recounting how her parents used to speak about "camp," recalling memories such as playing cards. She, like many Japanese-Americans of her generation, grew up believing that these stories revolved around some sort of summer camp. Sr. Doi's presentation revolved largely around a film, "Pilgrimage," which detailed how that same generation came of age in the political turmoil of the 1960's and discovered a history that included the imprisonment of their innocent parents and grandparents for no other reason than their national identity. They began an annual pilgrimage to the site of an internment camp, Manzanar, in California.

I was struck by accounts of how learning and embracing this history actually freed people to discover their own identity, and to embrace causes of justice and peace. The pilgrimage to Manzanar now includes people of many ethnic heritages and faiths, and was a particular draw for people of Arab descent and Muslim faith following the attacks of September 11th. The film recounted how many in the Japanese-American community spoke out in solidarity with these communities following the attacks.

I can't help but wonder how our response to Arab- and Muslim-Americans might have been different had this history been ignored, and also how we are challenged to see the more subtle ways that the tendencies that led to the internment still play out today - tendencies of fear that lead to oppression, violence, and hatred. I can't help but wonder how ignoring other shameful aspects of our history - the overthrow of democratically elected governments, the exploitation of the poor, racial bigotry - prevents us from answering the call to be prophets in our own time.

I am struck by the words of Dom Helder Camara, former Archbishop of Recife, Brazil: “I think the word ‘prophet’ is used in an overspecialized sense, as though the Lord charged only a small number of people with the responsibility of being one. But all of us as members of the Church have a prophetic mission. The whole Church is called to be prophetic; that is to say, to proclaim the word of the Lord and also lend the Lord’s voice to those who have no voice, to do exactly what Christ himself declared his own personal mission to be – ‘to bring good news to the poor, to open their eyes and set them free.’”

There is liberation in embracing the prophetic, even if that requires us to embrace things that we would rather bury deep in our consciousness.