This is the third in a short series on dehumanization and compassion.
One of the lessons Christian students of World War 2 must learn is the evil result of dehumanization and the healing power of compassion. This is not just an academic subject. In today’s polarized world it is easy to begin to think of others as enemies, to demonize, objectivize and dehumanized them. From the Islamic terrorist to the opposing politician, we begin to think of our opponents as the embodiment of evil. And in some cases the evil is real, and needs to be addressed. But people are human, and to make them less, to make them simply cogs in an evil machine that must be destroyed is to step on the path that leads ultimately to cruelty and atrocity.
So how are Christians to respond to this? Compassion. As a Greek word this has always been kind of fun: splanchnizomai literally means to have the bowels move or yearn – to have a gut wrenching concern. This is why it is sometimes translated ‘to be moved with compassion.’ The word is used by Jesus of both of the Samaritan who saw the man on the road to Jericho (Luke 10:33) and of the prodigal father who ran to receive back his son (Luke 15:20). The Gospel writers use the word to describe what Jesus felt when he saw the sick, the spiritually poor or the hungry (here is the complete list). If we are going to be like Jesus, we should have compassion as he did, for the least and the lowest of society, for the dehumanized foreigner (such were Samaritans) and the sinner.
I believe this compassion, mercy, or sympathy, ‘feeling with’ somebody, is an effective antidote to the tendency to dehumanize our opponents. When we realize that a person is like us, with feelings, needs, and struggles, we will be less likely to reduce them to a category, like vermin or monster. We will be more likely to mourn the evil they commit and grieve for the brokenness and delusion which leads them to commit it. I’m not saying we don’t stand up to the evil itself, but we do try to keep thinking of the evildoers as humans – as fathers, sons, daughters, brothers.
I recently read Mission at Nuremburg, the story of Henry Gerecke, a Lutheran minister and American Army Chaplain who was given the difficult assignment of providing spiritual care to the Nazi leaders on trial at Nuremburg, and to their families. He sought people like Goering, Ribbentrop, and Keitel, and offered them the simple Good News about Jesus. As Hans Friitzsche, on trial as Hitler’s radio propaganda chief wrote later:
Pastor Gerecke’s view was that in his domain God alone was Judge, and the question of earthly guilt therefore had no significance so far as he was concerned. His only duty was the care of souls. In a personal prayer which he once made aloud in our queer little congregation he asked God to preserve him from all pride, and from any prejudice against those whose spiritual care had been committed to his charge. It was in this spirit of humility that he approached his task; a battle for the souls of men standing beneath the shadow of the gallows.
To see ‘a battle for the souls of men’ when confronted with the greatest evildoers of an age is to truly have the compassion of Jesus, who looked down from the cross and said “Father, forgive them, for they don’t know what they are doing.”
In one sense, of course, they did know what they were doing. “May his blood be on us and on our children.” (Matthew 27:25) The perpetrators of the Nazi Holocaust did know what they were doing. The terrorists and executioners of ISIS do know what they are doing. But they are not monsters or beasts or insects or vermin. They are something worse and more tragic. They are human beings, created in the image of God, deeply broken, marred and deluded, doing the enemy’s work with satisfaction, yet retaining the capability of love, and even of remorse. Our enemies are not to be dehumanzied. We need to be strengthened by the grace that is in the Lord Jesus Christ so that we can have His compassion.