Dehumanising: (A reflection on Auschwitz)

I’ve learned a new word this month: dehumanising.

It’s not that I didn’t know the word previously, but this month I’ve begun to learn what it means.  It has become a three dimensional reality for me, I’ve seen some of the scars of the horrors it leads to.

I was very privileged to be part of a pilgrimage to Auschwitz in January 2017.

The two concentration camps at Auschwitz and Birkenhau, have been preserved sensitively as historical sites, with some prison buildings at CampA at Auschwitz also re-ordered as a museum.  There’s no gaudy plastic or posters, there’s a simplicity and honour of the memories the place holds.  Those memories themselves are enough to impact the many visitors.  I agree with the Archbishop of Canterbury and all those who simply reflect: ‘everyone should go to Auschwitz’.

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To visit the camps, to see the very cells the prisoners were kept and killed in, the execution wall, the display of empty tins of zyklon B,P1040373.JPG and to see the crushed mesh of  glasses, and piles of unlaced shoes, stolen from their owners, is to be saturated by the memories of human cruelty to humans.  (to steal someone’s shoes or glasses is itself barbarically disempowering)
The historical evidence of that cruelty is overwhelming.  We each respond emotionally to different things, for me personally the room full of recovered human hair and the wall of photos of prisoners were two of the memories which landed the most deeply, I had to stand still just to recover my breath.

In the museum I had to choose to remember the humanity amidst the static displays, which is why the hair and the photos reached deepest for me, this was my point of contact with the humans who had been treated so cruelly.  The other place where my heart was most wrenched by the reality was in a hut in Birkenhau, when I leant on the very beds which women and children had slept in, bare boards with 8 people per bed.  I touched the very wood they had slept on.

p1040435Story after story, display after display, and photo after photo exposed the way which the SS soldiers treated the prisoners, it was a conscious effort to realise these very things happened on this very ground, in these very rooms, within living memory.  Today, the Auschwitz museum has posted photos online of survivors returning to that very place on Holocaust Memorial Day.  The scene so familiar, the same sun pushing through the mist and the same snow I walked past, I count it a privilege to be linked in this way with them.

Throughout the day, as I let myself be carried by this flood of history, and engage with the reality, my mind kept returning to the same question: ‘How?’

The museum contains powerful displays, reminders and evidence, but to be there is to engage the imagination and realise not long ago, these victims were real people. Not merely living, breathing, washing in those sinks, using those loos, and all too insufficiently eating, but talking, relating, imagining, seeking to understand, trying to survive, holding onto love.

This process of imagining the reality of what was going on, was to ask a thousand questions.

Did they wash? How did they cope with the biting cold? What did it smell like? How did they relate to one another?  My imaginings led me to consider their powerlessness, they were stripped of everything.  Their clothes, their hair, all possessions, even their gold teeth.  Victor Frankl’s stunning book ‘Man’s search for meaning’ talks of the horror of being stripped of the manuscript of the book he was writing, his life’s work.  How he had to internalise what he had written, inside him, to a place they could not steal it from.

In order to manage crowds of prisoners, they found mechanical ways to control the prisoners, enabling them to survive in order to exploit them for work, but caring not if they died, because they had thousands more to replace them.  Once their possessions, hair and futures had been stolen, they could only treat them like machines, feeding them the very minimum food as fuel, to keep them working.

The first stage of dehumanising them, was to render them powerless.  As I attempted to engage in that sense of powerlessness, I recognised that when powerless we become entirely reliant upon the mercy of others.  In the SS guards, they found no mercy.

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In this, the SS guards themselves had also surrendered part of their power.  They had to let go of their own capacity for mercy.  They had to convince themselves that these people were not people.  I am still shocked that dehumanising was powerful enough to overcome the instinct of mercy.

There are rare stories of mercy.  In the account of the Franciscan Friar Maximilian Kolbe, we hear how when 3 prisoners disappeared, the guards chose to starve 10 to death, chosen at random to be an example.  When one prisoner cried out ‘what about my wife and family?’, Kolbe offered to take his place and was duly starved for two weeks and finally murdered by lethal injection when starvation proved insufficient.  Amidst the horror and heroism of the story, I was surprised to hear of even that glimmer of mercy by the guard in responding to Kolbe’s request and granting the swap.   That small act of mercy stood out as a rare exception to the thousands of times the guards wouldn’t even listen to the pleas of their victims.

Wave after wave of evidence of merciless dehumanising.  In every photo, story and display the evidence is there that the guards ceased to see the victims as human beings, it is the only explanation I can find of how they could manage this. Part of this was that they stripped them, not just of possessions, relationships, hair and teeth, but of their names.  Survivors have shared the agony of being reduced to a number, all learning, qualifications, status and dignity, deleted, all part of the attempt to dehumanise.

To such a tiny extent I was invited to engage with the memory of horror which results from dehumanising.  I’ve come to a simple conclusion: to dehumanise is evil.

One theological reflection shared by Rev.Sam Wells on the trip was that evil is the systematic justifying of wrong actions as though they were right.  To paint thoughts or actions in conflict with God’s kingdom, as something which is morally acceptable.  By this definition, to dehumanise is evil.

Humans were created in God’s image, endowed with incredible honour by our loving God and described as ‘very good’.  Separation, rebellion and sin marred our creation and has led to untold suffering and division.  Jesus came to reunite and the New Testament passionately declares the re-establishment of dignity and honour of all people in God’s sight.  Bible passages such as Acts 2v17, Galatians 3v28, Ephesians 2v15 and Colossians 3v11 unequivocally declare God’s intention to restore humanity as equally loved.

Simple theology:  God looks on each human being as someone he has created and loves.  To dehumanise another is to disagree with God.

Facing up to the horrific results of dehumanising, raises many questions for me now.

How can we avoid even the slightest glimmer of dehumanising in the way we live?

We live in a vast complex world.  We share this planet, a gift from God, our home, with 7 billion other humans, each created and loved by God.  We can’t know everyone else, we will only relate to a minute proportion of these ‘others’ in our lifetime, global communications mean we will interact with far more than any previous generation in history.

Understandably we mentally clump and categorise others and consciously or subconsciously we use labels to categorise. This can enable cultural understanding, it can cause destruction and everything in between.  The worst categorising and labelling I have ever seen was the photos on the wall of Auschwitz.  Each prisoner was given a number and a coloured triangle to denote whether they were Polish, Russian, Romany, gay or Jewish (who were given a double triangle, the star of David).  Some triangles meant you were fed and survived, others meant you were deceptively led to the gas chambers.

Categorising and labelling is probably inevitable and so we have to be vigilant in one thing and that is to ensure labelling never leads to dehumanising.   There have been occasions in my life when God has rebuked me sternly by reminding me that my attitudes and actions impact his beloved children.  In every decision we make which impacts others, we remember that people are created and loved.   In every relationship and connection we make, we treat others as people not according to the labels we might have mentally put on them.

I went through a painful time in a close friendship.  Reconciliation was only possible when I recognised that I was relating not to my friend, but to a limited pigeon-holed version of him created in my imagination.  When we next met, I listened long enough to let him be himself and was able to demolish that false labelled version.  I realised I too have the capacity to dehumanise in almost every form of relationship and it could have been so destructive to a precious friendship.

The Holocaust arose in a political and ethical maelstrom, it developed unchallenged by a passive or petrified church.  The murder of millions of Jews was termed ‘the final solution’ by the Nazis because they had developed a mindset which justified dehumanising.

My reflection from engaging with dehumanising, is simply this.  Prize mercy.

God has given us the power to show mercy to others.  To treat them with honour, dignity and to empower them, not strip them of power.  In the kingdom of God, power is given in order to be given away, not to control, never to exploit.

That power he has given us, is called mercy, it’s a gift we’ve received and its a gift we must give to others.

[Photos supplied by Ian Dyble and others, with thanks, copyright is theirs.]

I have posted further thoughts on my trip here

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Sent as Light.

Light 1[lahyt] (n): stimulates plants, 
attracts butterflies, repels cockroaches

This weekend, into Monday, churches up and down the land will host ‘light parties’, a positive choice to give children a safe joyful place as an alternative to the surrounding darkness of Halloween.  Halloween costumes are shifting, as well as the tasteless combinations of lime green, lurid orange and black, with ‘traditional’ witches and spiders, we now see children dressing as intestine spilling mutants and worse.  In the darkness, craving for the adrenaline and drama of shock, the grotesque intensifies.  A society which considers it fun to dress 6 year olds as blood-splattered serial killers, needs to take a long hard look at itself.

This is my second blog of a series considering what it means ‘to be sent as Jesus is sent’, (see part 1 here )

Throughout his gospel John emphasises how Jesus saw his apostolic ‘sentness’ to earth as ‘bringing light into darkness’.  To be sent as Jesus is sent, is to be the light of the world.  Followers of Jesus, are sent by God to be ’light’ into our workplaces, communities, families and churches. Seeing yourself sent by God as light, is a biblical way to think about how God is sending you.

There is huge power in the simple truth that light overcomes the darkness, millions of great sermons have been preached on it, understanding light gives us limitless options to describe what it means to be ‘apostolic’.  Here I’ll restrict myself to two.

Light brings life.

‘In him was life and that life was the light of all mankind.’ (John 1v4)

Whether or not we can remember the chemical equation for photosynthesis, (I can’t), we simply need to know that light enables plants to grow.   Jesus was sent to bring life, we are sent to bring life.

How can we do that?  How can you bring life into the situations you’ll be sent to next week?

One simple way to bring life, is to celebrate and value the life that is in others.  To recognise it, comment on it, build up and not pull down.  When you see something good about someone, their contribution to this planet – tell them! Speaking it out, illuminating the life in them, will make them more alive.

jump-in-the-sunWe’ve spent a lot of time with family and friends this week, I feel more alive because they have asked great questions, stimulating conversation, showing interest in others, giving them space to talk.  Many of us come more alive, when we’re encouraged and enabled to express ourselves.  Are you giving that kindness to others, are you able to bring life by simply showing interest in others?  In reverse, have you noticed how stale a conversation becomes with those who were never parented into asking good questions, or have lost the confidence to do so?  Help them come alive too, show interest in others and open up lively conversation.

John tells us that ‘in him, was life’.  Jesus was bursting with life, he was creative, compassionate, and controversial.  Yet in personal encounters he valued others enough to ask them questions, to bring them more alive, or reveal the characteristics in them which brought control and inevitable decay.

Secondly: Light attracts butterflies and repels cockroaches.

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[©Mirai Takahashi and razordu30 on flickr.com]

John the Baptist came to bear witness to the light of Jesus. (John 1v8)

John the Baptist came to point to the light, coming into the world to help people to see.  Due to the instincts of phototaxis, some insects are attracted to light, others repelled by it.  The same pattern is highlighted in John’s gospel.  Some are attracted to Jesus, the light of the world, because his illuminates them, he prevents them from stumbling and they can see he brings new life.  He turns water into wine, heals sick bodies, multiplies food, and opens blind eyes.  He enables others to see and therefore not stumble (John 11v9)

In your apostolic calling, to those you work alongside, or stand next to at the school gate, or serve you community with, you can shine light, to help prevent them from stumbling.  They need the wisdom God has given you, we all need heavenly perspective as we scratch around in confusion and darkness.  Again and again, I stumble into human folly, again and again my closest friends shine the light of wisdom through loving questions, to help me stand.

As I read through John asking the question ‘what does it meant to be sent as Jesus is sent?’  the clearest thing I noticed was that many rejected the light.  To be sent, comes with it the possibility of being hated, just as Jesus was.

the light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light because their works were evil. For everyone who does wicked things hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his works should be exposed. (John 3v19-20)

Perhaps the greatest challenge we face is to be willing to be rejected for being sent as Jesus is sent.  We so long for the good news of the kingdom to be palatable, we so long for the church to grow, we so long to heal the pain caused by callous or hollow religion, that we filter our light to make it acceptable to darkness.  But through John, we see that to be sent as Jesus is sent, includes the courage to face rejection and persecution.

I’ve written, deleted, edited, deleted and restored the first paragraph of this blog about Halloween a number of times, concerned that by exposing the darkness of our society’s attraction to the grotesque, I could offend people, or seem ‘anti-fun’.  In the grand scheme of controversies: where Biblical Truth collides with a consumer, desire-driven culture, this is hardly a complex debate.  Yet I battled with the concern that shining light on the celebration of evil which we’ve become accustomed to, might upset others or cause a negative stir.

To celebrate witchcraft, murder, torture, fear and death is as far as we can get in contrast to the kingdom of light.  To highlight the mess and folly of a world which has turned its back on God and refuses to surrender to him, takes boldness.  I find that boldness in the model of Jesus.  And the courage I need, I find in his promise to fill us with his Holy Spirit, to enable us to be sent as he is sent.

To be sent as Jesus is sent

What does it mean to be sent as Jesus is sent?

Having risen from the dead and walked through walls to be with them, Jesus breathes the Holy Spirit into his disciples, powerfully re-creating Genesis 2.  Just before this profound action, he says to them: “As the Father sent me, so I am sending you” (John 20v21)

I was recently encouraged to read through John’s gospel asking one question, ‘What does it mean to be sent, as Jesus is sent?’.  This simple daily question opened up aspects of this very familiar gospel which I hadn’t seen or linked before, and it gave me a framework to hear God speak, bringing inspiration, understanding and a fresh challenge.

I get nervous when I hear the word ‘Apostolic’.

I know some who get nervous about this word due to past hurts from abusive controlling leaders labelling themselves ‘apostolic’.  Others speak or write of how the use of this term ‘makes me nervous’, as an introduction to critical judgement or academic point scoring, ‘nervous’ that other people have got it wrong, thinly veiled as ‘protecting the truth’.

Neither of those two describe my primary nerves about this topic, although I have some experience both with wounds and the desire to ‘be more right than others’.

Allow me a public confession, I get nervous of feeling a bit stupid and behind the learning curve, feeling like I’m joining a class halfway through the year and not yet caught up on the syllabus.  If you hang around with church leaders for any time, we’ll start talking about being ‘apostolic’, my nerves are rooted in two things.  I’m not sure I know precisely what that means and I’m aware that I’m usually making assumptions about what the person I’m listening to means by the shorthand ‘apostolic’.

‘Apostolic’ is a kingdom word, which carries resonance of hope, renewal, reform and change.  It’s a forward looking word which carries tones of pioneering visionary leadership.  It’s a biblical word, rooted in the New Testament and the culture and language of it’s time.  It’s a word used through church history, in creeds and denominational statements and the breadth of church traditions mean that it is used very differently in different contexts.

There are bold, confident leaders who use it with a definitive certainty to enforce their powerful point.  There are reflective academics who use it wrapped in nuanced disclaimers, or seeking to recover traditional uses of the word.  There are passionate visionaries who use it to authenticate a particular vision or longing.  And there are the rest of us, whose use of this word is shaped by a bit of scripture, some memory of church background, a few role models and a longing to see the church become more like the image we have of how God wants church to be.

One thing I am sure of is that to be ‘apostolic’ is to be ‘sent’.  So in my desire to understand this word, I’ve started by looking at how Jesus was sent.   In my read through of John, I noticed seven aspects of what it means for Jesus to be sent.

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Love

Timing

Kingdom

Rejection

Father

Home

This is the first of a series of blogs in which I’ll seek to explore those themes in John, in the hope to help you engage with the Bible and reflect on how God is sending you to the people you are called to bless, love and influence.

Before we unpack these aspects, consider this question:

Who are you sent to?

To follow Jesus is to be sent by the Father, that applies to all his disciples, wherever we are called.  To commute to work, or drive to the gym, (you could run or cycle there? – just saying) or turn up at the school gate, daily knowing that God has sent you, is a simple, essential shift in mindset.  When we realise that wherever we go in obedience to God’s call, we have an opportunity to bring hope, share truth, encourage and love.

Tender Shoot

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He grew up before us like a tender shoot

Like a root out of dry ground,

 

I’ve meditated on this verse from the start of Isaiah 53 a number of times.  I find the simple vulnerability of a tender shoot to describe Jesus approaching the cross as a very powerful and yet unsettling image.  The more we dig into the depths of Jesus’ amazing vulnerability the more it challenges and realigns our subtle, conscious and subconscious attempts to find power to protect ourselves.

God’s great master plan, was one man dying for the sake of the rest of us.   As Jesus spent his last week in Jerusalem, the rest of the world were totally unaware of him, In the Americas, Africa, Asia, Australia tribal people were living their lives on different continents unaware of what was happening. The Egyptians were a developed nation but waning against the might of the Roman empire and Britain was very much a primitive tribal backwater.  Yet God planted a tender shoot in Israel and he planted it into dry ground.  In worldly terms, God’s plan was high risk, tender shoots can be eaten by rabbits, squashed by something bit big feet or crowded out by other bigger plants.  But God protected his plan, he planted Jesus into the right place at the right time and then he caused the growth to happen.

And all this happened like a tender shoot bursting out of dry ground. 

We see the desert, the infertility, the difficulties the dismissal of God’s purposes.  God sees the potential, God knows that in every seed there is all the potential for a vast tree and multiple more trees.

I look at our ‘village’ and I look at the generation of young adults in the UK and I can choose to see desert, tough resistant ground.  But when I hear of stories from around the world of God at work, of renewal, of many coming to know Jesus, of God transforming communities, I’m stirred and challenged that not long ago that place was dry ground, that place could have seemed like a desert.

So I pray Isaiah 35 for where I live and for those places and people God has given me a passion for;

“The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad; the desert shall rejoice and blossom like the crocus; it shall blossom abundantly and rejoice with joy and singing. The glory of Lebanon shall be given to it, the majesty of Carmel and Sharon. They shall see the glory of the LORD, the majesty of our God. 

Strengthen the weak hands, and make firm the feeble knees. Say to those who have an anxious heart, “Be strong; fear not! Behold, your God will come with vengeance, with the recompense of God. He will come and save you.” 

Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped; then shall the lame man leap like a deer, and the tongue of the mute sing for joy. For waters break forth in the wilderness, and streams in the desert; the burning sand shall become a pool, and the thirsty ground springs of water;”

(Isaiah 35:1–7 ESV)

There is hope for wherever you live and whomever God has given you a love for, because all around us God is planting tender shoots and what seems like a desert to us, is an opportunity for him.