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’.


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.


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


How can we respond?

Early on Sunday morning, I sensed the Holy Spirit tell me to lay down the sermon I had written and instead preach on how we can make a positive, biblical response to the rapid movement of people displaced form Syria and Iraq through the brutality and evil violence destroying the place they have called home.

Having read the parable of the Good Samaritan, here’s a blog version.

  1. Wake up!

The scale.

The reality of this migration has been going on for months, the growing camps of refugees in Calais has been the summer’s news story and the hideous challenge faced by the global community by the violent aggression of militant groups in the middle East is an ongoing issue.  But the issue has captured our attention and the attention of the world’s media this week.  We need to wake up to this.

On the way back from church, my 11yr old son who had heard my sermon asked me some great questions, including how ‘big’ this thing is.  My reflection is that this is probably the largest scale historical event in my lifetime, alongside the collapse of communism and the invention of the internet, [Pushing the 2005 Ashes series into 4th place!]

Taking a step back and looking at people and land, rather than ethnicity and nationality,  this is the largest displacement of people in Europe since the Second World War.  This will mix people from different cultural backgrounds to an unprecedented level.  We need to wake up to this change.

the bigger picture – 

The sermon I was due to give this morning was on Ephesians 1, landing on verse 10. God’s eternal plan to bring all things in heaven and on earth under the Lordship of Jesus.

I don’t know what your attitude or belief is with regard to end time prophesies and the direction of human history.   My reflection is that many of my generation in the church in the UK have disconnected the now of our experience from the direction of all history.  We’ve experienced too many bogus, outrageous, unfulfilled prophecies and predictions about the end of the world and what will happen and perhaps become cynical or disconnected.   The internet has meant that every President, Pope or Pop-Star has probably been denounced as the anti-Christ by someone and this whole subject feels overwhelmingly complicated, we feel allergic to talk of millennia, beasts and world systems.   We are both a rationalist generation and yet intuitively feel apocalyptic fatigue.  We tread carefully about pinning events in our time, with the bigger purposes of God, because we’ve seen others try that and then look very silly a few years later.

The danger of this cynicism is that our bigger view of where things are going, rarely informs our day-to-day life.  That makes it hard to reconcile the images in our newspapers or Facebook feeds now – with the bigger picture of all things, of eternal purposes.

Across Europe,  Muslims, fleeing hideous violence and destruction are finding a mixture of grace or defensiveness from historically Christian nations.  That will shape human history.

As this happens, churches – across Europe are showing love, welcome, service, compassion to Muslims.  Old wounds, perceptions and prejudices are being reinforced or broken down.

You probably won’t hear it on the news – but many are encountering Jesus through this. – Coming to know the living Saviour, when his followers show love, generosity and compassion.

2. Assess our attitudes. 

I have had to reflect a lot this week on my personal response to this.  I was asked to speak on Radio FiveLive on Thursday morning about the petition to the government and my immediate response was fear.  Complexity paralysis: the fear of saying the wrong thing, of expressing a view on a complicated matter and then being shot down for it.
Then I stepped back and looked again, as a disciple of Jesus this isn’t very complicated!  The Bible is clear that we are to show mercy and generosity to those who are vulnerable or poor, regardless of ethnic or religious labels.  Jesus beautifully and powerfully communicates that in the parable of the good Samaritan.  The complexity isn’t whether we should act, it’s how we prioritise our actions.

In the parable, the Priest is going to Jerusalem, perhaps for his once in a year opportunity to serve at the temple.  This was his big gig, the event he’d been preparing for and looking forward to.  If the victim by the road was dead and he touched him, he’d become unclean and be unable to fulfil his dreams and calling.  We are all busy, we lead hectic lives, we are at full capacity, Jesus points straight at that and challenges our priorities.

This summer, I heard someone teach on this passage (I think Karl Martin at NewWine), saying that the Levite was perhaps in eye-sight of the Priest and had seen him not act.  He feared that if he did, he’d be criticised for doing so.  He was paralysed by the fear of getting it wrong, he let that shout louder than his call to show compassion and generosity.

This situation forces us to ask how we can respond with compassion and sacrifice.  What would we be willing to give up to help? – how can we individually help? – What do we have available? What if 100 refugee families were located into our community, what could we do as a church? – what would we need to stop doing? We need to be ready to assess our attitudes and priorities, not just see this as a someone else’s problem.

3. Challenge bad attitudes.

It’s cheap and easy to judge & attack David Cameron and our government from afar with the limited knowledge we have of the complexities and range of opinions they’re processing.  Criticism doesn’t help those who are desperate to find home, food and shelter and a place of peace.  Write positively to your MP, expressing kingdom values, encourage them that as one of their constituents you care.  (include your home address so that they know you live in their catchment area)  I wrote to mine this week and immediately got a positive constructive response.  The more voices of compassion and generosity they hear, the louder they can amplify them in Westminster.  Negative judgement and criticism of our politicians only complicated and paralyses them in making the big decisions they need to make. They need our prayers and our views, rather than our judgement.

The real influence we can have is with our neighbours and workplaces.  What are people saying? – is there a defensive, selfish, critical attitude amongst those you spend your time with, which you can challenge?

We will each spend this week in different contexts, there will be different agendas or agreed values in your workplaces, groups of friends, clubs, local neighbourhood.

Be bold and courageous in being compassionate and positive. – challenge small minded selfishness and promote a movement of grace and generosity.

  • Don’t judge or slam people down – but ask provocative questions, draw out prejudice and lack of grace and help them to see it.
  • Complexity – there are lots of debates, arguments, criticism and ‘knowing best’ – that’s not kingdom – its destructive and obstructive. – If people are anxious about taking positive action, because they fear criticism or having motives or strategy challenged – then they’ll second guess and hold back.  Sadly, it seems for every positive statement about welcome, grace, generosity and compassion – someone will pipe up with a negative, a counter argument. – This isn’t the time to argue, it’s the time to love.  We have no right to an opinion, if we’re not willing to personally make some sacrifice to help the vulnerable.
  • Think about what you read and what perspective it gives.  Discern whether it is fuelling your prejudice or inspiring kingdom compassion.  There are newspapers which generally criticise, take a nationalistic attitude, stir or sensationalise a situation and feed thoughts that aren’t rooted in God’s love and grace. – Don’t read those papers and certainly don’t buy them!

4. What’s in your hand?

What have you got to give?

I am excited that there are multiple ways we can all do something.  Don’t be overwhelmed by choice, don’t compare, just act.

If you want to give money, then there are many great charities who will steward it wisely.  Personally we’re giving to Tearfund, because I love their approach of empowering and resourcing local churches in the places where there are most refugees.


There are many who are going to the refugee camps, taking essentials, warm clothes, shelter, bedding, food. For example CalAid – a new response charity – taking essential items from North West and volunteering to help. []

And then a great way to help children engage is Project Paddington – sending teddies to displaced children with messages of love and compassion.  This is a great thing to do as a family, or better still encourage your local school to get involved in. Find them on facebook, or email: to register interest.

Many new, compassionate initiatives are starting up and have been swamped, which is fantastic! Help them and be patient as they work tirelessly to find ways to respond fast and help those in need.

5. PRAY.

The one thing we can all do is to pray and this makes a huge difference in the heavenly realms.   Prayer is part of your relationship with God, express to Him what’s on your heart.  If a suggested structure helps you, here’s a little list.

  • Pray for those displaced. – Safety in travel and unity in the camps.  Food and essentials – particularly as weather turns.
  • Pray for children & the most vulnerable. – Major migration also creates dangers of human trafficking and exploitation. – Pray for protection.
  • Pray for government and those making decisions. – careful diplomacy and working together in Europe. – Wisdom, freedom from the fear of criticism (they’ll be attacked whatever they decide – but God put them in place of leadership, so ask Him to bless them)
  • Pray for churches & charities who are serving those displaced. – resources, unity, power off the Holy Spirit.
  • Continue to pray against the spiritual forces of violence which influence the Islamic fundamentalists in Syrian and Iraq.  Pray for God’s victory over the evil which is causing this.