As a Christian therapist, one of my most preciously held values is that every human being is formed in the image of God, often referenced by its Latin imago dei. Today I wanted to shine some light on the house of horrors our world becomes when we humans forget we are created in the image of God. The worst atrocities of history and today happen when imago dei humans allow a blindfold to be tied over our eyes, fail to see the spark of God reflected in our neighbor’s eyes, and begin to treat our neighbor not as a he or she, but as an it.
As you will see in the following paragraphs, the use of language is a key tool of deception. Systematically calling human beings by a name which blurs out their humanity dulls consciences and empathy. “You’re an idiot, a jerk, an a-hole. I don’t owe you respect.” Another sneaky tactic is that dehumanization identifies people not as individuals but by the groups they are a part of. People are thus seen more by one defining characteristic rather than the fullness of their humanity.
The dreadful buffet of dehumanization examples spreads its stench across history. Welcome to the house of horrors.
Völkisch and the Nazis
The Nazis are almost too obvious. The blatant racism of the National Social German Workers Party actually had its roots in a movement called Völkisch, “volk” meaning “folk” and drawing its energy from a nostalgic longing for pre-Christian Germany in which people called upon pagan deities to make their lives go as they wanted. This Völkisch and nationalistic German-ness became increasingly anti-Semitic as time went on, displaying an exaltation of the Arian and a contempt for Jews and others deemed subhuman.
The reason I mention Völkisch is because I kind of get it – in a creepy way, I recognize and relate to the human side of it. Human nature is drawn to the familiar, to nostalgia, to celebrating what makes us different from everybody else, to being proud of where we came from. Some of the concepts of Völkisch are appealing, like its anti-consumerism and return to a simple lifestyle dependent on the land. I like many of those things. Sheesh, there are definitely moments in which I’d like to go run a mini-farm, grow my own organic food and celebrate the unique culture of my local California community. After all, aren’t we special here in Southern California? Aren’t we just a little cooler than everybody else? And I can see how those values could become bigger, idolatrous, a source of prideful superiority, and eventually, dehumanizing to outsiders.
While some of the horrors of Auschwitz and the other death camps are well known, did you know how much medical experimentation German doctors performed on their Jewish subjects? A Nazi medical study that haunts me and makes me shudder is the Sea Water Experiments. In Dachau, a group of human subjects were deprived of food and fresh water, and given only the filtered sea water to drink. These poor people became so dehydrated that in their desperation, they got down on hands and knees, stuck out their tongues, and licked up mopped floors, hoping for a bit of rehydration. Such cruelty turns our stomachs, but can you see the roots of dehumanizing philosophies in our own culture?
Cockroaches: The Rwandan Genocide
Another case study in which we face the horror of ignoring sanctity of human life is the Rwandan genocide. In the middle of the Rwandan Civil War, in a Hutu-run Rwanda, the media conjured fear of the Tutsi ethnic group. (Do you have any experience with the media conjuring up fear? Because I do.) The Hutu called the Tutsi “cockroaches: an effective labeling technique turned the Tutsi from fellow man to something vile and subversive. As dirty, disease-spreading bugs, the Tutsi must be squashed, stepped on, exterminated. Their humanity was lost in the eyes of the Hutu.
Perhaps in some ways, the Tutsi posed a real threat. In other ways, a perceived threat was created through propaganda and mass panic. (And this, my friends, is very similar to our day and age.) I wasn’t there, but I imagine selective use of language, images, and carefully-spun reporting of events, casting a frightening light on the “other”: the Tutsi. In April of 1994, the president, a Hutu, was murdered. This event unleashed a wildfire of anti-Tutsi hatred, as Hutus in power incited their civilian countrymen to take up arms and batter, disfigure, and slaughter their Tutsi neighbors, appropriating their property. Furthermore, rape was utilized as a political power play, thereby elevating the HIV infection rate and eroding family structure through the loss of parents. This just makes me shudder – I can’t imagine what it would have been like to live in such a violent moment in history.
How are we to understand this horror? Well, ask yourself, who do you fear? Because, I know there are people and groups out there that scare the crap out of me. What group of people feels threatening to your way of life? That group, or so it would appear if we let history be our teacher, is the group we are most likely to dehumanize. That’s right, Jenna, that group of people whose sins you count, who you feel just a little bit justified in rolling your eyes at, they are who you are most likely to dehumanize. Do you ever find yourself justifying hateful speech or violence against this group of people? Does it seem like they deserve it because of their political learnings, ideology, etc.?
Just as the Hutu labeled the Tutsi “cockroaches”, nowadays we use pregnancy-related medical language that dehumanizes the child growing in its mother’s stomach. “Embryo” and “fetus” are particularly sterilized, medical, animalistic-sounding words that remove a sense of nascent humanity. In recent years, I’ve been hearing a trend of naming your unborn offspring the type of fruit whose size it matches. This undeniably cute and educational renaming of your child with “grape”, “lime”, or “mango”, while certainly not used by most to intentionally dehumanize, still at times removes a certain dignity from the little person growing in mom’s stomach. It’s not necessarily bad or wrong, but it is something to be conscious of.
3/5 of a Person: American Slavery
In a heart-breakingly American display of dehumanization, from the 1600’s through much of the 1800’s, African American slaves in the U.S. – easily distinguishable by their skin color and features – were seen as property. In 1787, the “Three-Fifths Compromise” stated that for purposes of taxation and representation, 3 out of every 5 slaves represented a human being. This chilling political determination put one more government stamp of approval on removal of an individual’s soul and use of that individual as property.
I think in our bones we know each other has worth. As seen above, tactics like language or group identity numb our sensitivities. We quickly get confused and blinded – it only takes a generation or two, if that. My hope for each of us is that we stay alert, because when other humans (Jews/Tutsis/the unborn/African Americans) lose their worth, we too are right around the corner from losing our worth in someone’s eyes.
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