On June 7, 1961, author and Holocaust survivor Yehiel De-Nur stood face to face in court with one of the men who orchestrated the events of the Holocaust: Adolf Eichmann.
After giving a brief statement, De-Nur collapsed at the trial.
Many people gave explanations as to why he would have fainted before the man: anger, sadness, fear, brought on by painful memories of years spent in concentration camps.
But it is De-Nur’s own explanation for his collapse that has been on my mind these past few days.
Twenty years after the trial, in a “60-Minutes” interview, De-Nur said he did not faint from overwhelming hatred, fear, or painful memories when he saw that man. Though those emotions were most likely there, he said that when he saw this Nazi, this co-conspirator in “The Final Solution to the Jewish Question,” was an ordinary man.
“I was afraid of myself,” De-Nur said. “I saw that I am capable to do this. I am … exactly like he.”
Exactly like he.
Fyodor Dostoevsky once wrote that “nothing is easier than denouncing the evildoer; nothing more difficult than understanding him.”
I think that difficulty in understanding evil men lies in what De-Nur realized when he saw Eichmann: that evil man was still just a man – the same as he was.
I find it’s easy to denounce the sin I see in another, but difficult to admit the same sin within. It’s easy for me to think abstractly, painting with a broad brush all those who don’t think like me. It’s easy to quickly condemn the actions of those who burned cities and businesses over the summer, and those who stormed the Capitol last week. Rightly, we should condemn those actions. But I find it a weakness in myself that my righteousness tends to become self-righteousness.
I looked at the signs and slogans of the masses in the protests over the summer and this January. People held crosses, and signs that said “Jesus Saves” and “Jesus 2020,” while destroying lives and livelihoods and I thought, how wicked. Who could do such a thing? I would never do that. I would never be like them.
Then I saw their faces. Past the shouting and the masks and the anger were faces of humans – men and women just like me.
When have I not been angry with my brother unjustly? When have I not felt the urge to break something? When have I not reacted rashly, without thought of consequence? In other words, when have I ever not been a human being, and a sinner?
I think a temptation for all humans is to label those with whom we disagree on important topics as “other.” By using this type of language, one can easily dehumanize the other side, which opens the door for many atrocities we have seen committed by one human toward another throughout history.
We no longer watch the news today, we ingest it through talking heads of those on the political Right or Left, who are paid not to inform but entertain. No “Just the facts, Ma’am.” Joe Friday has no place in today’s network news. And one of those tried and true ways to entertain is to dehumanize the other side. It is a form of tribalism that halts all reasonable debate and leads to the burning cities and stormed Capitol we witnessed over the past year.
No matter what side of an issue we are on, that tendency to treat the other side as a general “other” instead of individual human beings is common to all humans. But just because it is natural does not make it right. No matter how magnanimous the man or flamboyant the personality, underneath they are still human – which means they are not so very different than you or me.
As I wrote a few weeks ago, human beings deserve respect – all of them – not because of their inherent worth as humans, but because all of us are created in the image of God. That image deserves respect. “Honor all men,” Peter exhorts.
Honor requires humility. It requires patience. It requires searching questions and earnest discussion, and oftentimes lively debate. It requires taking the time to understand another person, where he or she is coming from, in order to rightly respond. Slogans and witty one-liners may make for entertaining television, but they don’t help one understand why another person would think, act, speak, or vote a different way.
When 16th century English Reformer John Bradford saw a train of criminals being led to their execution, he cried out, “There, but by the Grace of God, goes John Bradford.”
Bradford knew a truth about the human condition: at our core, no human being is that much different than another. All of us are capable of doing that which we most deplore. Paul himself called it a war within our members in Romans 7.
In our zeal for righteousness, let’s not succumb to self-righteousness, quickly condemning those while forgetting to look inward at our own sin and sinful tendencies. We are to first realize our own sins and weaknesses, then we can respond to other people’s sin and weaknesses after having removed the beam in our eyes.
So to be sure, those riots over the summer and the storming of the Capitol last week were wrong. Note also that I am not lumping in with them that they began as protests. The right to protest is built into the Constitution. The right to riot, plunder, and destroy property – government and private – however, is not.
When one sees images and videos of those burning businesses and cities, and those more recent ones of the storming of the Capitol, it is good to remind oneself, especially with our tendency to treat people as “other” instead of human beings, that “there, but by the Grace of God, go I.”
Joseph Hamrick is a semi-professional writer and sometimes thinker. He lives in Commerce and serves as a deacon at Commerce Community Church (C3).
He can be reached at email@example.com