We Cannot Say We Did Not Know
by Craig Keener
The sage in Proverbs 24:11-12 warns us to rescue those being led away to death: "If you say, 'We did not know this' – does not he who weighs the heart perceive it? Does not he who keeps watch over your soul know it? And will he not repay all according to their deeds?"
Although most German citizens in 1944 were genuinely ignorant of what was being burned in the furnaces of extermination camps, Hitler had declared his plans for the Jewish people even before his election. And 25 years ago, when a friend of mine informed a major media correspondent about genocide in Cambodia, which he had learned about through missionary friends, the journalist insisted, "That's not going on, or we would know."
The 1993 genocide in Rwanda took the Western world by surprise, but people in Central Africa had seen it coming. Likewise, when, after the tragedy of September 11, 2001, America's attention turned briefly to Afghanistan, Americans were chided for having neglected Afghanistan once the Soviets were driven out. But our media had not told us what was happening – probably because they did not think we cared to know.
Before September 11th, I was already anxious over another jihad which had begun only a few days earlier in northern Nigeria. From 2001 to 2002 jihadists killed as many as 5,000 Nigerian civilians in Plateau State, a place where I once lived for four months. Up to 500,000 more people were temporarily displaced during that period; many homes were burned and much of the following year's harvest destroyed; the state's main economic center was also burned to the ground. Some of my colleagues informed me of pastor friends of theirs who were targeted and hacked to pieces. With very few exceptions (CHRISTIANITY TODAY being a notable one), American media offered barely a peep. Perhaps we should not be surprised: While we rightly focused on the over 3,000 people murdered by terrorists in attacks of September 11th, our media rarely comments on the fact that 10 times that many children die each day from malnutrition and preventable diseases outside the United States.
Shortly after the Rwandan genocide of 1993, armies shifted to neighboring countries, destabilizing the entire region. (As Christians, we cannot dismiss what happened there as irrelevant to us: Most of the people in that area belong to churches, many of them evangelicals.) When our media belatedly reported the death of half a million Rwandans, leaders vowed never to let it happen again, all the while ignoring that it had never stopped. The United Nations estimates that perhaps 3.5 million people have died in the Great Lakes War in Central Africa since then, especially civilian refugees dying of disease as they flee the fighting. My wife, a Congolese refugee in the forest of the smaller Congo for 18 months, could have become one of the statistics. She holds a Ph.D. from the University of Paris, but she and her family nearly died from disease and witnessed many children dying from malnutrition and hunger.
The millions of deaths were no secret (African and European media did a better job reporting them), but until Nightline aired the news a couple of years ago they barely registered in the U.S. media. Even now, we hear too little: Had 1 percent of that number died in a war in Europe or North America it would be front-page news (this was in the case with Kosovo). But to those who control what airs as "news" in the United States, apparently three million lives don't count for much if they are from Central Africa, Indonesia, or other areas not considered historically "vital" to U.S. interests.
The Bible warns against both individual and corporate sin. On the corporate level, sin and selfishness are reflected as racism and nationalism (the supremacy of my group versus others?). Shackled by such national self-interest, our nation is not likely to find the political will to work for justice without prophetic voices exposing the needs. (I am not speaking here of agendas of the left or the right. I am speaking of standing with God for justice, whether justice for unborn Americans or for hungry children in East Africa.) Many journalists would be happy to expose the needs, but at the top level our media answer to stockholders, and consumer ratings determine which networks stay in business. This can come down to us getting to hear what the media think we want to hear. Which brings us back to the question: What do we want to hear?
Do we have Christ's heart for the world? Do we want to know the needs in underreported areas? If so, by letters to the editor, letters to sponsors, and other means already available to us we need to let the media know that we do care. In the final analysis, the author of Proverbs is right: We cannot tell God that we did not know – only that we did not want to know.
Craig Keener is the author of 11 books, including The IVP Bible Background Commentary: New Testament (IVP, 1993) and The NIV Application Commentary on Revelation (Zondervan, 2000). This article appeared in the March/April 2004 issue of PRISM Magazine.