At first, the grainy, sped-up, black-and white footage of men, women, and children being lined up and shot, their bodies kicked into open graves, looks like something from a silent film. But these are images from a real event. Later, as I walk through the cool, narrow corridors of Yad Vashem, the Holocaust museum in Jerusalem, listening to the narrator walk me through history, looking at the brutal instruments of death, and running my hands along the artifacts collected from the dead, everything feels somehow strange and otherworldly. The horrors depicted and described in this place did not happen inside a movie, but happened to real people, some of whom are in my family tree.
My mother is Jewish. My great-grandparents fled Poland and Russia at the turn of the 19th century in search of a better life. But if they hadn’t—and their emigration was perilous and uncertain—perhaps I would never have stood viewing footage of human atrocities. After all, it could have been my grandparents falling into those open graves.
I wept as I saw piles of shoes, glasses, children’s toys. People with hopes and dreams, ruthlessly hunted, captured, and killed. In a large, round room that looked like a planetarium, stars on the ceiling represented children; 1.5 million of them. In each star, I imagined the face of one of my children, vulnerable and innocent, marked for death.
Hindsight allows us to review history and be outraged from a distance. But the pathway to genocide was paved by a slow and steady marginalization of the Jewish people. First, they were the wealthy bankers of high society scapegoated for Germany’s loss of national character. Populist outrage, in a time of economic distress, worked to justify the slow erosion of liberty for German Jews. Eventually they were placed under severe economic and social restrictions, curbs that were not unpopular in the country. They were depicted in cartoons and pop culture as animals with disfigured faces. Then they were ghettoized, rounded up and sent to labor camps, used in scientific experiments, and sent in cattle cars to places like Auschwitz, Dachau, and Treblinka as part of the “Final Solution.”
The question most often asked in the narrowing corridors of Yad Vashem is “How could the world let this happen?” Because we doubt our own ability to either perpetrate or tolerate such evil, we are convinced that such a thing would be impossible today.
But the Nazi regime didn’t come to power in a third-world country under the spell of pagan ideologies. Hitler rose to power in the 20th century, in a civilized and predominately Christian country.
The truth is, great evil is possible in our day. Those of us who make up civilized societies are capable of engineering it. Holocausts happen because humans, corrupted by sin, turn on one another. Since Eden, we’ve found ways to supplant God rather than represent him in this world. We are never above assaulting the unique dignity with which he endowed every human being. It took one generation for Cain to see Abel no longer as a fellow human, created in God’s image, but as an obstacle to power. So it is with assaults on human dignity today.
But there is hope, even in the darkest of places. As visitors leave Yad Vashem, the narrow and dark corridors open up to bright sunlight over a beautiful green space called The Garden of the Righteous Among the Nations. It is dedicated to Gentiles who risked everything to protect and save Jews. The names are part of an ongoing roster of those who saw the inhumanity of the Holocaust and fought back.
But the size of the list broke my heart. It should be longer. Those who chose to oppose injustice in their generation were the exception rather than the rule. It has always been so.
My trip to Jerusalem came while Americans were in the midst of complicated debates about similarly vulnerable populations. While political leaders consider how to balance compassion and security in setting refugee policy, especially for Christians and Muslims fleeing the Islamic State (ISIS), the perennial discussion about abortion continues to escalate.
These are complicated, emotionally charged issues, but if we are not careful, we will end up participating in the dehumanizing of peoples we might consider a threat to our way of life.
Sometimes evil persists because evil men perpetrate it upon the world. Most of the time evil persists because good people avert their eyes from the vulnerable.
We are able to close our eyes to injustice and passively acquiesce to terror because we employ easy euphemisms that deny humanity to the vulnerable. In the 1940s, world leaders described the Holocaust as the “Jewish problem.” Today, we use other terms: We use terms like “so-called refugees” and “fetuses” Clinical terms like “abortion” and “deportation force” keep the horrors well out of our backyards.
Something happens when we don’t see the human faces of the vulnerable. This is how we easily label certain populations as “those people.” It is how we accept or even push our leaders to champion policies that are cruel to the powerless. If we don’t see dignity in the other, it justifies an indifference to injustice that could cause future generations, in hindsight, to recoil in horror.
As I try to comprehend the evil on display at Yad Vashem and the evil I see in headlines, I’m not comforted by my grief or my ability to resist silent acquiescence. I tearfully bring my own sinful and murderous heart to the place where justice and mercy meet: the cross of Jesus. The only kind of perfect justice against Holocaust-level wickedness is the kind God displays in his wrath against Jesus or in the reality of an eternal, fiery hell. Only Jesus can defeat the corruption that worms its way into human hearts and causes people to turn against each other. Only Jesus can offer forgiveness, both for the reprehensible evil in human history and the silent passive evil in my own heart.
It is the story of Easter—the bloody assault of the Cross and the rapturous renewal of the Resurrection—that fuels our fight against evil today. We work against injustice by leaning not on our own inadequate resources, but on the Spirit-empowered vision of Christ. If a new kingdom has dawned in Jesus, our work to find justice for the oppressed announces to the world that his coming is indeed good news for the poor and needy. When we make this our mission, we are not simply acting as activists; we are showing the world a glimpse of the kingdom of God, if only in small doses.
Easter is why we must fight evil in our generation. This evil shows up in ways subtle and severe. Some participate, by words or actions, in the dehumanizing of what God has declared human. Scroll through your Facebook feed and you will often read dismissive, spiteful language about vulnerable people groups who have no power. This assaults their dignity by labeling them as disposable. Other people, like the priest and the Levite on the Jericho road, do not let themselves see what God sees: the dignity of the other. (See Luke 10:25–37.) Most recently, we are tempted to look away from the atrocities committed against women and children in Syria’s bloody civil war.
Every single innocent drop of blood shed is an assault on the dignity with which God endowed humans. It’s an attack not simply on the person who is killed, but upon God himself. Satan, Jesus says, was a murderer from the beginning (John 8:42–45). The enemy is fueled by human blood, because humans are God’s image-bearers.
When we speak up for the unborn, when elevate the voice of the immigrant, the refugee, the minority, we show the world a vision of the kingdom of God. When we demand dignity for the oppressed, we push back on Satan’s dehumanizing lies that reduce humans to nothing more than animals. We tell the trafficked girl, the unborn child, the silenced minority, “You have dignity. You matter—to us and to God.”
If we are not careful, if we do not live out the ethics of the kingdom of God, we’ll find ourselves adopting the language of the oppressor, convincing ourselves that the flourishing of the other is a threat to our existence. Every generation is faced with this temptation.
Easter is more than a saccharine, pastel-colored American holiday. It’s an announcement to the world that there is another story, something more than the cycle of violence, inhumanity, and hatred that corrupts every corner of the cosmos. Christianity assigns worth based not on utility or beauty, but on every human’s unique status as an image-bearer of the Almighty. Christ defeated the enemy, and that unleashes a Spirit-led army, in every generation, to be healing agents for the world.
Often, this work seems futile, as if those who fight evil are vastly outnumbered by those who perpetrate it. But we must remember that this Christian movement didn’t begin in a king’s palace, but in a stable trough, and it ricocheted into the world with 12 ordinary men. Our work seems insubstantial, like pinpricks of light in a dark void, but the apostle John reminds us that Light has entered the world and is not overcome by darkness (John 1:5).
I lingered in the garden outside Yad Vashem, gathering my emotions in silence. I read the names of those once considered small and powerless, Gentiles who risked prosperity, platform, and prestige to rescue Jews. Their names, the open air, and the sunlight reminded me that evil will not endure forever and that God has people in every generation willing to do what is right.
This is what it means to be a Christian—on Easter Sunday and every day. God’s people are called to risk their lives for those whose voices have been stifled. One day this will be memorialized, not in a garden, but in a city whose builder and maker is God.
Daniel Darling is the vice president for communications for the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention (ERLC). Previously, he served as senior pastor of Gages Lake Bible Church in the northwest suburbs of Chicago.
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