Last week I had the incredible privilege to accompany a group of secondary school pupils to Auschwitz in Poland and film their experiences for a series of short teaching aids. As a way of processing some of my thoughts, I’ve decided to blog about it.
I’ve heard stories about what happened at the concentration camps. I’ve seen films depicting events there. But when you physically stand in a gas chamber where hundreds of thousands of people spend their last few minutes on earth screaming; it hits home.
As you walk through the different buildings and see the clothes, shoes, glasses and hair of the hundreds of thousands of people who lived and died there; it hits home.
As you walk through the registration building and see where thousands were stripped, shaved, hosed down and left to die; it hits home.
This really happened. These were real people. Death flourished here.
How do you process something like this?
As a youth worker I try to operate from the view that no one is born evil. I try to believe that it is through a whole series of situations, events and decisions that someone is led to make decisions that would be classified as evil. But when I see what happened there. When I hear the stories and first hand accounts of the atrocities that were committed there, my worldview comes crashing down.
How could human beings do this to other human beings?
I understand that we all have the capacity for acts of great good and great evil but this event seemed to cross a line. And what’s worse is that it still goes on today.
So how do people cross that line? What is it that happens to allow someone to treat another human as ‘less than’ human?
It comes down to labels.
If we choose to label someone, then we no longer have to see them as human.
An overt illustration of this is when all of the prisoners who were taken to the concentration tramps were stripped of their names and given a number. They were no longer to call each other by their names, only by the number that was tattooed on to their arm. Richard Beck writes an interesting post on this looking at the problem of interacting with people through bureaucratic systems and I think there is much truth in what he is saying.
When we see someone as a number or as an ‘other’ whether it be by religion, sexuality, nationality, we dehumanize them. They stop being a real person with a real life, feelings, dreams and become simply a number. If this is pushed far enough, then the consequences are obvious. If we see people as less than human then there is no problem beating them, ridiculing them or torturing them because they are not like us. They are an other. They do not matter.
This is an important lesson for everyone, not just young people, to understand. Until we stop labeling people, then these kinds of atrocities can and do still happen. At the beginning of Paul’s argument in Romans 1 he talks about people who have taken their eyes off of God and because they have done so, have exchanged natural ways of living for unnatural ways. They have become dehumanized and they are dehumanizing other people. They see other people as objects for their own gratification. They abuse one another for their own pleasure.
This is part of what happened in Nazi Germany but also what continues to happen to day in a number of subtle and not so subtle ways.
Are there people we label? That we think of as less than human? Are there people who because of their religion, background, sexuality, political views, we have shut ourselves off from? Are we teaching our young people that no one can be separated from the love of God? That God came to save us all? Do we use inclusive language or do we by our very words or actions, label people to the detriment of them and ourselves?
Let’s make sure we never allow these things to happen again.