There is a clear and consistent answer to why atrocities against human lives continue to occur.
Despite the loud cries of “Never again!” throughout the centuries, and in more recent days, they happen again and again.
The taproot out which this continuing evil grows is a process of dehumanization. And it is indeed a process.
It begins by speaking ill of a certain group of people — based on their ethnicity, nationality, gender, sexual orientation/identity or some other factor.
These persons are then tagged as something other than persons. This occurs by describing them as evil, trash, dogs, illegals or some other less-than-human labeling.
Demeaning then leads to devaluing. Once that occurs, then exclusion, abuse and even elimination are rationalized.
Using false or exaggerated claims, the identity of those persons is reduced to the perception that they are a threat to one’s own power or existence.
Therefore, removing such a threat becomes a well-excused effort that completely ignores someone’s humanity.
Adding tragedy to tragedy is the reality that many through the centuries who identify as “Christian” (and more recently as “pro-life”) are among those who seem most eager to demean certain groups of people and disregard the value of human lives.
This was done in the past toward Jewish people and other minorities by Nazi Germany. Indigenous people and African slaves and their descendants have experienced it on American soil.
Today, gay and lesbian teens are told by church leaders that they are an abomination in the eyes of God. Suicide rates reflect the results of such messaging in which a person is labeled as something other than one who is created in God’s loving image.
Desperate migrants — seeking asylum as has been done throughout history — are deemed expendable political pawns. Much of their labeling — and the cheering on of their dehumanization — comes from white evangelicals.
During a visit to Nuevo Laredo, Mexico, last year, I watched Pastor Lorenzo Ortiz speak to migrants in one of the three shelters he manages. He told them the truth: that many Americans ignore their plights and label them as criminals or worse.
Sadness, however, lifted somewhat from their faces when he added compassionately: “But we know who you are.”
Note: It is possible to hold a conservative position on immigration policies without demeaning people.
One consistency in this process is that violence gets excused, if not encouraged, toward vulnerable people who’ve been stripped of their humanity.
Philosophy professor David Livingstone Smith, in his book, Less Than Human (2011, St. Martin’s Griffin), writes: “Doing violence to people doesn’t make them subhuman, but conceiving of people as subhuman often makes them objects of violence and victims of degradation.”
He notes how dehumanization “is aroused, exacerbated and exploited by propaganda.”
And propaganda — untruths with an intended goal — is the steady diet offered by many radio and TV personalities that is consumed by many Americanized Christians living in fear of losing their cultural dominance.
The process of dehumanization is necessary to act in a way that is inconsistent with what one claims to be.
“It occurs in situations where we want to harm a group of people but are restrained by inhibitions against harming them,” Smith explains. “Dehumanization is a way of subverting those inhibitions.”
All of this flies, of course, in the face of God as revealed in Jesus Christ. The most basic biblical concept is that all humanity is formed in the equal and valued image of God.
Preaching recently from a portion of the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:21-37), my pastor Jeremy Shoulta noted the uncomfortableness of Jesus’ warning words about name-calling, lust and other misbehaviors.
He observed that the “connective tissue” — the “thread that runs through this passage” — is objectifying, dehumanizing and excluding someone by treating them as less than human.
Jeremy quoted author Margot Starbuck who said: “Identifying an individual who has been created in the image of Jesus’ father as anything less than worthy and beloved is to disagree with God’s announcement that God’s creation is good.”
Decades ago, I heard an evangelist proclaim: “The ground at the foot of the cross is exceedingly level.”
I believed that then and believe it more now.
Yet, there are always those who want to hang onto the Christian branding while seeking divine claims of their special privilege over others who are different from them.
This desire often leads to a willingness to strip those targeted persons of their humanity — even scrabbling up some Bible verses for justification in order to treat them in demeaning and damaging ways.
“To deal effectively with dehumanization, we need to understand its mechanics,” writes Smith in his conclusion. Indeed, we must identify the process in order to stop it.
And, as people of faith, we need to acknowledge how the process is wholly inconsistent with the profession of Jesus as Lord.
It is simply impossible to conjure up anything more diametrically opposed to the words and ways of Jesus than to participate in the demeaning, dehumanizing and exclusion of people based on our own designations.
Executive editor / publisher at Good Faith Media.