Re-humanizing, not De-humanizing

I’m a professional Christian theologian, which means I’m always looking for ways and opportunities to articulate why Christian theology matters in our life today, and how it can facilitate position transformation in the lives of individuals and communities.  One such opportunity presented itself to me when I read through a book review article in The New Yorker [April 6th, 2015].  It discussed two different but related books on Nazi concentration camps–both their horrors, and the rationale behind “the system” [that was the title of the review].

Of the horrors, what can be said?  I have no articulate response to the description of the Kinderzimmer [“children’s room”] at Ravensbruck, “where inmates who came to the camp pregnant were forced to abandon their babies; the newborns were left to die of starvation or be eaten alive by rats.”  [This is from one of the books, Ravensbruck:  Life and Death in Hitler’s Concentration Camp for Women, by Sarah Helm.] Even though I don’t know how to respond, I firmly believe that is important to learn about and face such details, so that ignorance doesn’t become a means of passivity or denial in the face of radical evil.

In service of that purpose, the second book–KL:  A History of the Nazi Concentration Camps, by Nikolaus Wachsmann–attempts to look at these camps more systemically, trying to explain the “institutional and ideological forces” that brought these camps into being.  And, when he does that, the result is that we see something that is perhaps unique in its extremity, but not unique in terms of motivation.  In short, these are “forces that we can understand, perhaps all too well.”  All the more reason to pay attention, I say. 

The author of the review, Adam Kirsch, writes: “Indeed, it’s possible to think of the camps as what happens when you cross three disciplinary institutions that all societies possess–the prison, the army, and the factory.  Over the several phases of their existence, the Nazi camps took on the aspects of all of these, so that prisoners were treated simultaneously as inmates to be corrected, enemies to be combated, and workers to be exploited.” And then he concludes his article this way.  “The impulse to separate some groups of people from the category of the human is, however, a universal one.  The enemies we kill in war, the convicted prisoners we lock up for life, event the distant workers who manufacture our clothes and toys–how could any society function if the full humanity of all these were taken into account?  In a decent society, there are laws to resist such dehumanization, and institutional and moral forces to protest it.”  So, to be clear:  we’re not just reading about history, we’re reading about our own society.

This is where, for me, Christianity comes into play, as one of those “moral forces” that not only resists dehumanization, but promotes and celebrates “re-humanization”:  the insistence that all human beings have been created good by God, all humans have been created in the image of God, and all humans are loved passionately and unconditionally by God.  For the Christian, this means that every single human being, in every time and place, in every situation, is to be looked on as a brother or sister: one whom God adores, and one whom we are called to care for and protect.  This includes the prisoner, the terrorist, and the low-wage worker.  [And, as I sit here at my desk a little more than an hour north of Baltimore, I am reminded that this includes both Freddie Gray and those officers who have so much to answer for….]

Once you have declared someone “inhuman,” you have just given yourself and others licence to treat them as disposable, inconsequential–or even toxic and deserving of eradication.  As Kirsch says, “It is when a society decides that some people deserve to be treated this way–that it is not just inevitable but right to deprive whole categories of people of their humanity–that a crime on the scale of the K.L. becomes a possibility.”  Christian theology rules this out entirely and forcefully–and it is incumbent on both individual Christians and the church as a whole to live out this conviction, and stand against the forces that would seduce us into such dehumanization, and make hollow the post-Holocaust promise of “never again.”


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