Man’s Inhumanity to Man

I occasionally look at David Virtue’s site and found an article on his visit to Prague and his reflections about missionary work in eastern Europe in the Communist era and the evaporation of Christianity in our time. He also visited Auschwitz in neighbouring Poland, and his reflection was the following:

I was given a conducted tour of Auschwitz and saw man’s inhumanity to man, confirming in me, forever, the Doctrine of Original Sin and man’s total depravity. Many of my Polish friends could not finish the tour as it was too painful for them.

I have visited Oradour sur Glâne here in France, and Dachau concentration camp during a visit to Munich, east Bavaria and Austria. I have to admit I had the same reaction. Why don’t we have an earth-splitting meteorite or an Ebola pandemic? Why not an all-out nuclear war? Why don’t we all commit suicide? This is often the reflection when we are faced with pure evil and when we go to places where massive atrocities happened. The atmosphere in these places is tense and anguishing. Those of us with an ounce of empathy feel the full horror of what once happened.

At the same time, man is flawed and has always been flawed. There is still the divine image within us all, the “spark”, which must be allowed to shine through our prayer, conversion to God, virtue and good works. Man is also capable of sublimity through the divine image within us. This is something we must not forget. There are just people, as there were during World War II. There were times when German soldiers risked their lives by helping Jewish people to escape the SS, and many people earned the title of Righteous Among the Nations (חסידי אומות העולם) during those dark days, and some sacrificed their lives.

There is evil in the world, but there is also good. Many things can restore our faith in the good part of human nature, and not only when people help others in distress and danger. We also have a great capacity for solidarity and friendship. This is something I find with people who are enthusiastic about boats as I am, perhaps more than with people going to car rallies or other gatherings of common hobbies. In the Church, there are the Saints who showed the way through the Light they had within them and Christ’s Transfiguration.

Would you hurl that cold black meteorite or “death star” at earth, seeing great beauty in nature and human imagination alongside the death and ugliness. Would you nuke a whole country rather than sort the good harvest from the weeds? This is the issue I have with capital punishment in the case of a single human being, even one who has committed a heinous crime. Who is to judge that this person is beyond redemption?

The attitudes of some religious people frighten me, and further illustrate some of the matters I discussed yesterday in my article on original sin.

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5 Responses to Man’s Inhumanity to Man

  1. Stephen K says:

    I don’t believe in “original sin”. It depends on accepting the Genesis story of Adam and Eve as a fact. Since I don’t believe in an Adam and Eve as depicted, it follows. Human nature appears to be capable of both good and evil. Our ‘nature’ does not need restoration. Our ‘actions’ for evil may need recompense, our actions for good do not. Where does God’s grace fit into this? I think grace is a mystery, and no-one knows for sure, although there are may theories. I see no reason for despair – not even though particular governments seem intent on policies designed to destroy the planet – or fail to alleviate the effects of anthropic climate change.

    • I was writing yesterday about the Genesis myths, that seem very similar to the images of Sophia, the Demiurge and the Archons of Gnosticism. These images serve to teach something about a metaphysical event in a dimension outside our experience. I have always been tempted to think that the “error” was the Creator’s, whether the Creator was God the Father or some emanation that is outside the scope of traditional Christian teaching. That is blasphemy to most Christians. If human nature needed to be restored by the Redemption and Christ’s sacrifice on the cross, it clearly wasn’t. What is the evidence of new creation or perfection, at least in this world. The fact of evil is the strongest argument against God.

      Our only way forward seems to be to consider that there are dimensions of reality that are beyond our experience, the multiverse theory of quantum physics, that seems to me like a radio that can tune into only one frequency at a time – with all frequencies on the air at any one time. We can tune the radio to any frequency, but not to more than one at a time. This universe must be just one of many.

      According to some things I read, there were high technological civilisations in the past. There were the ancient Egyptians, there were people with elongated skulls and different bone structures from humans, evidence of nuclear fission in the distant past, depictions of helicopters, planes and submarines in ancient hieroglyphics (unless they are a modern fake). There are reports of objects with straight edges on Mars. There is the myth of Atlantis and strange things in the Antarctic under miles of ice pack. There are huge gaps. Genesis relates a myth for the origins of the universe we know. Very little is known about pre-Flood man and ancient (now extinct) species like the dinosaurs and what appear to be the ancestors of modern birds. There are the stories of the Nephilim, which are figurative and non-literal. Who were the fallen angels alleged to have produced offspring through female humans? There’s a lot of sensationalism and irrationality, like with the subject of UFO’s, but where there’s smoke there’s fire. How were the pyramids of Egypt and South America built? What happened to their technology?

      There was a lot more in history than has been related in the holy writings of all the world’s religions, even the rich texts of Hinduism. The truth of the Bible is mostly allegorical, and it relates only a tiny part of what has been forgotten.

      If such fundamental questions are asked, what is the point of Christ? There is a point, but situated at a deeper level than most of us would want to try to understand.

  2. Timothy Graham says:

    With regards to the death penalty, those who argue that it should not have been abolished normally say that it doesn’t put the person beyond redemption. Some point to the notion of punishment as “vindictive” – stay a moment, this doesn’t mean an enjoyment of the punishment – in the specific sense of vindicating to the criminal themselves the dreadful nature of their crime, as being the most human form of punishment. Never to punish appropriately is to connive at the moral indifference of those of us who are morally weak and debased – and that is neither kind nor just.

    Re: the comment above, I think it is interesting that a confrontation with the phenomena of human deeds breeds a belief in Original Sin; while the scholarly application of the rather questionable modern criteria of scientific truth when applied to the Holy Scripture leads to its rejection… Experience vs. the lens of modernity?

    • If you are concerned that I don’t believe in an appropriate punishment for heinous crimes like murdering and/or raping children, etc., I think life in a penal colony in the style of the old French Guyana could be quite adequate. Have you seen the film Papillon? Of course, they used the guillotine for crimes committed in the penal colony – or solitary confinement where a man would be brought very little short of insanity and death. Perhaps a modern penal colony – inescapable in some remote part of the world – could be more human than Devil’s Island.

      The purpose of a legal sentence is to protect society from dangerous human beings and to offer a chance of amendment for the criminal. That is no different from chopping the man’s head off, which achieves the same purpose, and leaves the possibility of redemption intact, beyond this world. What I have found most convincing were the reflections of Albert Pierrepoint (England’s last hangman) and the last Frenchman to operate the guillotine. Capital punishment is not a deterrent against heinous crime, and did not reduce the rate of crime. No good ever came out of it.

      Experience vs. modern rationalism? I prefer not to oppose the two (fides et ratio). We have to see the two or more points of view of everything. There is good as well as evil in the world. I tend to be pessimistic in the Augustinian way, but I look for beauty in nature and the “higher” persons of humanity. When I say “higher” I mean something like Berdyaev’s “aristocracy of the spirit”.

      I find considerable sympathy with the Gnostics with their three categories – the “pneumatics” or spirituals, the “psychics” and the “hylics” (materialists). However, I believe in the transformation of the lower to the higher, and that this is possible for all.

  3. I, too, was numbed by my day at Auschwitz a few years ago on a cold day without the hoards of visitors who sometimes converge on the area. I could linger and brood. I could also pray at St Maximilian Kolbe’s cell in Block 11 which is a kind of Christian shrine in the depths of that dark place.

    Patricia Treece, in A Man For Others quotes one of the prisoners who witnessed Maximilian offer himself in Franciszek Gajowniczek’s place:

    “It was an enormous shock to the whole camp. We became aware someone among us in this spiritual dark night of the soul was raising the standard of love on high. Someone unknown, like everyone else, tortured and bereft of name and social standing, went to a horrible death for the sake of someone not even related to him. Therefore it is not true, we cried, that humanity is cast down and trampled in the mud, overcome by oppressors, and overwhelmed by hopelessness. Thousands of prisoners were convinced the true world continued to exist and that our torturers would not be able to destroy it. More than one individual began to look within himself for this real world, found it, and shared it with his camp companions, strengthening both in this encounter with evil. To say that Father Koble died for one of us or for that person’s family is too great a simplification. His death was the salvation of thousands. And on this, I would say, rests the greatness of that death. That’s how we felt about it. And as long as we live, we who were at Auschwitz will bow our heads in memory of it as at that time we bowed our heads before the bunker of death by starvation. That was a shock of optimism, regenerating and giving strength; we were stunned by this act, which became for us a mighty explosion of light in the dark camp night . . .”

    Would to God that our presence be enough to provide that godly “shock of optimism” in the Lord to those around us.

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