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A lesson from 1939: Holocausts begin when nations lose their humanity

No snowflake in an avalanche ever feels responsible.

History is a good teacher. If we pay attention to her, she reminds us that populations don’t become monstrous overnight, that nations don’t abandon humanity in a single moment, that generational human rights atrocities don’t form in an instant or in a vacuum.

Corporate sickness is never sudden. There is always a slow, deliberate, almost imperceptible pattern:

The metamorphosis of a people, begins with an opportunistic leader who understands the power of weaponized fear, who feeds them a steady diet of the things that terrify them: misinformation, fake emergencies, and abject lies all designed to create an urgency in them and to make them feel hopelessly assailed.

He or she creates for these emotionally-vulnerable people a necessary enemy; an encroaching threat to tangibly embody the nightmares they have made in their heads—someone to go to war against, to take back their country from—someone he or she can save them from.

The manipulator begins to dehumanize and vilify this group with “otherizing” language, with ever more caricatured stereotypes, with phony statistics and manufactured stories and edited news; painting the picture of human beings they begin to see as less than human.

Finally, on top of the terror and the untruths and the ghost stories, they wield the greatest weapon people have in the arsenal of systemic discrimination: religion. They wield faith. so as to actually make those they manipulate believe that their mission is not just important or right, but holy—that they are being obedient to God while eradicating human beings.

In that state of frantic, perpetually terrorized self-righteousness, they begin to allow everything. They begin to justify all manners of cruelty, all denials of care, all acts of violence—because they are purifying and protection their divinely-curated country.

Once this happens; once ordinary, rational, decent, even compassionate people begin to lose their ability to see the humanity in front of them—it’s too late to help them see clearly.

This is how holocausts happen. This is where historic national malignancies grow. These are the first steps down a road that at the beginning seems unthinkable. America needs to listen to History. She is warning us that we on the precipice of the free fall. We can’t afford to go to sleep now. We need to wake ourselves up.

No one is saying America is anywhere near where Germany was at the peak of Hitler’s power—but Germany wasn’t always there either, and that is the point. That hideous transformation (like so many before) required targeted propaganda, fake news streams, dehumanizing rhetoric from leadership, an uninformed electorate, religious justification—and a marginalized population to serve as the focal point for the holy war.

It would be completely irresponsible and reckless to suggest that Alabama in 2019 is Berlin in 1941—but it could very well be Berlin in 1930. We have every historic ingredient in place to abandon the best of ourselves and to become something monstrous, something History records as yet another shocking failure of the center.

No one is saying America could give birth to something as tragic and sickening as we have seen, but we’re stupid if we don’t believe ourselves capable, or that we aren’t already seeing the warning signs of bigotry and prejudice taking root. We already have polarized politics, a complicit Church, a stream of fake news stories, and leadership that will gladly fans the flames of hatred in order to hold power.

The question is, whether or not we have enough good people who are willing to push back and to move together across lines of politics and religion and race and nation of origin and orientation—and to declare our interdependence.

Do we have the desire and the energy and the diligence and the courage to join our disparate voices into one singular choir that refuses to stop loudly singing songs of freedom for everyone? Will we refuse to tolerate injustice in the name of national greatness or divine will; to clearly reject and oppose denials of people’s worth and humanity, even when it comes from our party or our church or our families.

And perhaps most of all, do we have the humility not to imagine that we are too intelligent or spiritual or informed not to become as hateful as we have seen other people become? May we be our best selves in this moment, so that History one day tells our story as one where decency and liberty and compassion and equality and humanity twisted the plot.

John Pavlovitz

Gage Skidmore

The original version of this Op Ed was published on johnpavlovitz.com

John Pavlovitz launched an online ministry to help connect people who want community, encouragement, and to grow spiritually. Individuals who want to support his work can sponsor his mission on Patreon, and help the very real pastoral missionary expand its impact in the world.

About The Author

John Pavlovitz

John Pavlovitz is a 20-year ministry veteran trying to figure out how to love people well and to live-out the red letters of Jesus, both online in this global community.

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