Who is human?

Part I – descent

At the very core of the Unitarian way of being religious is a conviction that there is worth, dignity, and goodness in every human being. Unitarians are not easily identified by appearances. If there is a way of living that characterizes a good Unitarian, it is not in when we eat or don’t eat, what we say or don’t say, what we wear or don’t wear. It is not in our pilgrimages, our practices or the writings we value. 

It is in our commitment to seeking the good in each person, cultivating that good in all of us, and ensuring that all people are treated with the respect, justice, and compassion to which their inherent worth entitles them. 

There are certain discussions we all have from time to time about the limits of our willingness and the limits in our ability to hold this deep confidence in human nature. When we want an extreme example to test this or other beliefs about the goodness of human nature, the conversation almost inevitably turns to one of the darkest and most heinous evils of human history – the Holocaust. 

How can our faith comprehend the systematic, deliberate murder of millions of innocent civilians? 

Part of our commitment to the good in people comes from the Universalist tradition, which was explicitly included into our tradition in America, but which has also pervaded Unitarianism here. In the face of a stern Calvinism that called human nature innately evil and guaranteed eternal damnation for most of humanity - Universalism brought a new open-hearted faith proclaiming that everyone would be saved. Universalists believed in love and redemption and goodness. 

At an American Unitarian event a few years ago, the title of a workshop on Universalism was a memorable one. “Is Hitler in Heaven?” Whether or not we believe in heaven, the question tests our faith in human goodness, worth, and dignity. How do we contend with humanity’s inhumanity? 

Today is Holocaust Remembrance Day. Yom HaShoah in Hebrew – 'the day of the catastrophe.'

The Holocaust was not the first time that humanity has become inhuman. It was not the last time. Because of the specifics though, it might be the most unimaginable. 

Germany before the 2nd world war was a cultured, urbane, and civilized place. It had developed a culture where gay and lesbian people were becoming accepted. Berlin had numerous gay nightclubs and cabarets. It had an active gay and lesbian rights movement. 

The Jews in Germany were among the most assimilated anywhere n the world. They had deliberately chosen to become part of German culture and many thought of themselves as German first and Jewish second. Of all the ethnic groups in Germany, more Jews fought in the 1st World War than any other. Nearly 20% of all German Jews fought in ‘the war to end all wars.’ 

And so it was unbelievable to German Jews when the Nazi threat emerged. Many who could have fled did not, having faith that that their gentile neighbours and friends would not – could not – ever turn on them. The worst they imagined would not and could not happen. This will pass, they believed. 

But the worst they imagined did not approach the eventual reality as an industrialized and technological society turned its ingenuity and industrial know-how toward evil - the extermination of a entire people - and pursued that inhuman aim with ruthless efficiency. 

The Holocaust was not the first and last… we have seen again and again the rise of inhumanity among individuals and in larger groups. When inhumanity seizes an entire people, it defies all understanding: the Armenian Genocide, Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge, Rwanda, Darfur, Bosnia… If only the list ended there. 

What happened to human goodness? 

In Nazi Germany, there was ultimately little resistance among the gentile population to the slaughter of their Jewish and other fellow countrymen. The key to turning gentile Germans against their Jewish friends and neighbours was a deliberate and systematic programme of dehumanization. Jews, they were taught, are not like us. Jews are less than human. In posters from that period, Jews were depicted as hideous insects crawling over the world. Nazi Germany was no alone in creating dehumanizing propaganda. It has happened in all too many places. In the US, the Japanese were characterized in similar posters as rats, paving the way for the Japanese minority to be stripped of rights and possessions and put in internment camps. In Rwanda, the Hutu-controlled media systematically depicted Tutsis as less than human. 

As human beings, each of us has within us the capacity for great love and terrible hatred. Both are in each of us. The same thing that drove otherwise compassionate people in Nazi German, in Cambodia, in Rwanda and elsewhere to become inhuman is found in all of us. 

Blame Satan if you like. Or blame evolution which saw to it that we would be ready at all times to divide the world into friend and foe, us and them, black and white. This is our nature. Dehumanization of any person or groups throws the switch, allowing us to do almost anything. 

Dehumanization happens often and in many places. It happens around us every day as we begin to see human beings as something very different from the complicated, thinking, loving, hurting, joyful, sad, hopeful and despairing beings that we know ourselves to be. When we fail to recognise a person as a person like us, dehumanization has begun. They become objects rather than people – ‘them’ rather than ‘us’ – and terrible things become possible. 

Examples of dehumanization have probably come to your mind already. I would like for us all to share those thoughts. How have you seen humankind turn individuals or groups into something less than human? Whether in the past or the present, where and when does this happen? Please – one by one - speak from where you are. Rise as you are able and say very briefly a name, a place, a people, or a situation... 

We will follow this time of sharing with a few minutes of silence as we think of those who have suffered and those who suffer still at the hands of people who have come to see them as less than human. 

A time of participation and sharing

Part II – ascent 

Let’s turn to an older story now. Homer’s Iliad takes place in the tenth year of the Trojan War. In the midst of tales of slaughter and bravery, the tale turns to a battlefield encounter between two great enemies. Glaucus is an ally of Troy. Diomedes is a hero of Greece. The reputation of Diomedes as a fearsome warrior was so great that enemies fled at the site of him. But Glaucus stood his ground. 

Diomedes was so surprised that he asked Diomedes who he was. What could possible have allowed such unusual courage. Glaucus asked Diomedes to share his story. 

Glaucus replied: 

“Great hearted Diomedes, I know who you are, but why bother to ask about me? Don't you know that men are like leaves? The wind blows the leaves down to the ground. Withered, they scatter and disappear…The generations of men are just the same: one dies; another is born.” 

But Glaucus began to tell his story at the insistence of Diomedes. He tells of his family – his grandfather and his father. 

When Glaucus finished, Diomedes raised his mighty spear and drove it - not into the heart of Glaucus - but into the ground at their feet. He could not kill him and said: “From knowing each others' stories, we have become kin. We cannot fight each other!” 

They exchanged armour to and swore their friendship to one another. 

“From knowing each others' stories, we have become kin.” 

Midway between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem in Israel, there is a village with two names: Neve Shalom and Wāħat as-Salām. In both Hebrew and in Arabic, it means Oasis of Peace. The village was founded by Jews and Arabs together in 1969. It serves as a place where Jews and Arabs – mortal enemies in most other places – have come to see one another again as human beings – as friends – as ‘us’ rather than as ‘them.’ 

Neve Shalom and places like it do the work of rehumanization. 

This is the great work of peace – the work that helps all people to recognize the humanity in all of us. 

Once again, I would like your participation. Take a moment to think of the places where you have seen or experienced rehumanization. They may be distant or near, momentous or nearly unnoticed. They are all important. Please, if you have an example to share, come forward to light a candle for hope and identify in a very few words, the place, person, or situation you wish to raise up. 

Sharing hope and lighting candles 

If the holocaust teaches us anything, it is that we must be vigilant against the dangers of dehumanization. Every one of us feels pain and seeks happiness. Every one of us knows the crushing sorrow of loss. Every one of us dreams. Every one of us experiences the overwhelming power of love. And every one of us knows the fear and mistrust that leads to hatred. 

Rehumanization happens in small ways – one relationship at a time. It happens when we reach out to someone we don’t trust. It happens when we risk giving of ourselves to the stranger. 

It happens almost unnoticeably – even in the way we make the effort to look at someone we once saw as ‘them’ and consider how like us they might really be. Every time we recognise the humanity in one another, we are helping to heal the world. We are building the invisible connections that tie us all together – the luminous connections that can hold us and bring us from darkness into light. 

May it be so.