Inhumanity In Human Relations

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Chalice lighting

We come together today from many places and many ways of life
Amid our many differences, we join as one
We know that there is strength in our connection
We know that there is comfort in our togetherness
We know that there is hope in our diverse unity
May the flame we kindle today enable us to see beyond disagreement and strife
Beyond anger and fear
Beyond different belief and understandings
May we learn to see the beauty in each and every person
And free our love to work in the world

Reading - First They Came, by Pastor Martin Niemoller

First they came for the Communists
And I did not speak out
Because I was not a Communist
Then they came for the Socialists
And I did not speak out
Because I was not a Socialist
Then they came for the trade unionists
And I did not speak out
Because I was not a trade unionist
Then they came for the Jews
And I did not speak out
Because I was not a Jew
Then they came for me
And there was no one left
To speak out for me

Message part 1 - by Rev. Andy Pakula

Today is Holocaust Memorial Day.

It is a commemoration that takes place on the 27th of January each year - the anniversary of the day that the Auschwitz concentration camp was overrun by the Red Army.

At Auschwitz, the liberating soldiers found the evidence of industrialised mass murder on a scale never seen before. This was not the horrible but understandable wounding or killing of soldiers in battle - or even unintended collateral damage that warfare inevitably involves.  

This was different. This was the systematic, industrialised torture and killing of human beings. 11 million people were put to death in the Holocaust by the Nazi regime. The Nazis murdered 6 million Jews, 200,000 Roma, 250,000 disabled people, and 9,000 homosexual men.

The Holocaust shocked the world through its cruelty and its massive scale. But it was even more astounding to many because of its cold-bloodedness. There seemed to be no shred of compassion or humanity among the perpetrators who killed and tortured and persecuted in an industrialised way. Detailed records were kept. Efficiency was emphasised as it would be in any modern corporation making widgets, mining ore, or producing software.

But the efficiency was applied to transporting victims to death camps, to getting the maximum work out of starving prisoners, and to the deployment of efficient means of killing men, women, and children and disposing of their bodies.

The Holocaust was not the first time humankind had been inhuman to other humans. It was not the first genocide. Mass-killing has been with us for a long time – but in the Holocaust, we saw that an industrialised, European country that had produced so much of the west’s great culture could also turn to heartless brutality. We learned to our horror that the advancement of civilisation is no guarantee of human decency.

We have days like Holocaust Memorial Day to remember and honour the victims, but - more importantly - we set aside times like this so we will not forget the dangers of human cruelty. We stop to remember and study so we can understand better what happened and how we can learn from it. By doing so, we hope that we can prevent such nightmares from taking place again.

In response to this shocking mass murder, the phrase “never again” was coined as a vow and a promise that such inhumanity should never happen again. Never again must any group of human beings undertake to slaughter and eradicate another group. But “never again” has rung hollow as - since the Holocaust - we have seen horrible examples of human extermination in places like Cambodia, Rwanda, Bosnia and Darfur. The Atlantic slave trade amounted to one of the largest killings of innocents in world history. Today, systematic destruction of whole peoples continues in our world.

In our horror, we ask how people could ever come to treat others as objects to be eliminated. How could they behave in such an appalling way? How could they lose sight of our common humanity?

We might want to place the blame on a few truly evil people. Adolf Hitler somehow hypnotised an entire nation to turn them into cold-blooded killers. We consider a people in shock and humiliated from the outcome of the First World War and the economic chaos that followed. We want to believe that the Holocaust was an isolated incident that says nothing about human nature – that says nothing about us.

We imagine ourselves in the situation of German citizens during the Nazi regime or in any of the other situations where people like us were committing genocide on people like “them” and we are all but certain that we would not allow it to happen. Not only would we refuse to participate, we would fight against the persecution and the violence. We would take whatever action we could because we could never tolerate treating any other group as “other” or as less than human. We are certain that we would not allow the step by step persecution that Martin Niemoller described to take place as he begins with “First they came for the Communists, And I did not speak out, Because I was not a Communist” – and then proceeds through socialists, trade unionists, and Jews.

We think that we would behave differently if the seeds of genocide appear here, but we might be wrong in our estimation of how we would behave. We might be ignoring some very difficult truths about human nature – truths that connect to how we categorise people as other and dehumanise them. These are painful realities about the power of othering to influence our views of others and of ourselves.

How could it be possible? How could it happen there and how could it happen in places like Cambodia, in the Belgian Congo, in Rwanda, to the Armenians and more? Can can such things happen when we are human and recognise one another as kindred souls?

In each case, the victims had to first be seen has less than human – they had to be dehumanised. Only then could they be treated like objects, or like the vermin to which they were compared in so many instances.

The process begins with “othering” - with coming to understand that “they are not like us.” “They are different” in some unalterable essential way. They don’t feel and ache and love and have compassion and goodness like we do.

The other - “them” - can next be depicted as less than human. Think Jews, African slaves, and just about any national enemy in warfare. Think of the propaganda pictures you’ve seen that depict human beings as monsters, as animals, as vermin. Think of Donald Trump’s depiction of Muslims as terrorists. Think of his depiction of all Mexicans as rapists, murderers, and drug traffickers – his description of impoverished asylum seeker families as an invasion of the United States – as a crisis. Think of the Brexit campaign’s depiction of immigrants as a sea of brown people massing to overrun the good white British people.

Once we take these steps, it becomes easier to see these others as less than human and less worthy of treatment with decency than we are. We can even begin to accept the characterisation of human beings as vermin to be exterminated. At that point, anything is possible.

What about us? What about decent compassionate left-leaning people like us – people who have compassion for immigrants and especially for refugees. We are not anti-semitic, Islamaphobic, racist, xenophobic, homophobic – or at least we hope and tell ourselves we’re not.

What about the people we are inclined to call monsters – inhuman? What about the right-wing and racist movements in our own country or the US or those in France and elsewhere in Europe? Are we not quick to dehumanise them as well?

The mechanism that leads to dehumanisation lies within us as well.


Reading – If You Know, by Guy Finley (adapted)

If you know the content of your own heart...
If you can be consciously aware of this condition...
Then you not only know the secret contents
Of the heart of everyone else you meet,
But you also know that there is no difference
Between you and all of these "others"
In the realisation of this undivided life
You are given the [gift] of knowing
That [all life] is one ... And that each one of us
Is a secret measure of [that united] life.

Message part 2 - by Rev. Andy Pakula

We think of ourselves as enlightened and decent people. The pre-war German people thought of themselves in much the same way.

Eventually, most Germans abandoned their Jewish neighbours and friends. The same pattern has played out in other genocides. Labels and propaganda lead to seeing other groups as different, as not as good, and eventually – not even quite human – not worthy of dignity or worth – not worthy of freedom or safety.

If our world is ever to make “never again” more than an empty vow, we need to understand and accept and acknowledge the flaws in our nature. The reality is that we are wired to embrace and idealise our own group and to reject and dehumanise others.

In our long process of evolution, we became a tribal species. Our environment was harsh – there was no NHS, no supermarkets, no clothing stores, and no police. If we were going to make it, we needed to be with people who would cooperate with us to get food, people who would care for us when we were ill, people who would join with us to defend our territory against invasion by other tribes.

We had to be able to cooperate within the tribe and to care for them. We also had to be ready to fight and kill outsiders over access to scarce resources.

As a consequence, the humans who survived to pass along their genes to us were the ones ready to love those within the circle of us and recognise as outsider anyone who wasn’t us. We had to be capable of being able to hate, fight, and kill them – the outsider, the stranger.

We are susceptible to simple tools that take advantage of our inherent tendencies, tools like labels and propaganda. And so, if we are to prevent such great horrors and the smaller everyday divisions, we need recognise the tools of dehumanisation for what they are and raise the alarm early and loudly.

The great risks are not as far away as we would like. In the United States, there is a president who resists condemning Nazis, who labels and spreads propaganda about Muslims. The danger there and in parts of the world we expected to be free of such othering and dehumanisation is very real indeed.

Beyond vigilance, we need, also, to work on ourselves. It is part of our nature to label and see those we label as other as less deserving of worth and dignity than ourselves. It takes work and a willingness to endure discomfort to work beyond the labels, to challenge them and to question them, to see the shared humanity behind them. Labeling and othering our enemies will never bring about new understanding and harmony.

In these times, this terrible potential should be much on our minds. Sadly, we continue to see the same terrible patterns play out around the world: between Shiite and Sunni, between Muslims and Jews and Christians and Hindus, based on skin colour, sexual orientation, tribal affiliation, and more.

We know that othering begins simply and almost reflexively as our minds shift into the insider vs outsider thinking that has been part of us for thousands of years.

The poem we heard by Guy Finley reminds us that no matter how different we may appear, we are tremendously similar in our inner lives.

This realisation, practiced again and again, opens us to compassion. And truly, when the window of compassion opens, we begin to see one another in a new way. We start to notice that, beneath our differences, we are united by our common longings. Every one of us has desires and fears and sorrows. And every one of us craves acceptance and love.

Our compassion, our power to understand the feelings and needs of others, is the key to unlocking the barriers that divide us. When we recognise the feelings of others, we begin to recognise our kinship.

It is up to each of us to recognise our tendency to divide the human family and to heal the divisions that we all create. It is up to us to learn the lessons of the past and to create a future where connection and compassion flow freely amongst all members of our human family.

May it be so.

Closing words

The future begins in each and every moment
The future begins in this moment
We can choose to allow the future to slide ever further toward separation and division
Or we can resolve to turn toward compassion and cultivate understanding
Whether we choose to see difference as a sign of otherness or as an opportunity for enlarged perspectives determines the lives we will lead
Whether we choose to look beyond barriers, decides what kind of communities we will create
Whether we treat our diversity as a problem or as a blessing, will shape the world that we and our children will inhabit
Let us turn toward one another and see - not strangers - but siblings.
Let us turn toward compassion.
Let us turn toward love.