To do violence on a grand scale, one must first dehumanize the future victims and consecrate the future aggressors as noble warriors on a sacred mission that pits “us” against “them.”
The downward spiral of dehumanization requires the creation of a mythology of a lost greatness and glory that can only be restored when the human scum and enemies of the people are purged from among “us;” offered up upon the altars of sacrifice to a grand and sacred cause sanctioned by the god of our Nationalist confession.
To achieve mass delusions sufficient to move from the fringes to a place of power requires propaganda and ideology that exploits feelings of humiliation, alienation, ambition, victimhood, and bloodlust amongst the base, enlivening them to fervor and action. For the propaganda to be effective requires the destruction of truth, the re-writing of history, the polarization of “us” and “them,” and a demagogic ringleader who claims only he alone can lead the real and true “elect ones” into a future greatness. Consequently, all pursuits of truth and facts are castigated as fake and biased. Alternative facts replace actual facts. Truth-tellers, whistle-blowers, and systems of accountability are the first victims in the descent into sacred violence.
The masses are desensitized through language, lies, metaphor, and celebrations of retaliation against those blamed for “our great demise.” Anyone who is not among “us:” the real believers; the real patriots; the real good and decent people; must be crushed by any and all means necessary. “They” are dirty, lazy, criminals, drug-dealers, godless, human scum, and enemies of the people.
In their fascinating study of the “virtuous violence theory,” Alan Page Fiske and Tage Shakti Rai observe, “Most violence is morally motivated. People do not simply justify or excuse their violent actions after the fact; at the moment they act, people intend to cause harm or death to someone they feel should suffer or die.” Fiske and Rai go on to explain how people are morally motived to do violence in order to create a new future, protect some point of pride or honor, and redress a grievance. Violence is described as actions in which the perpetrator regards inflicting suffering, pain, fear, distress, injury, maiming, disfigurement, or death as the intrinsic, necessary, or desirable means to accomplish a desired result. “Insults, taunting, and cursing often precede [physical] violence, and are motivated by the same relational intentions” (p. 15). Walter Wink refers to this type of violence as “The Myth of Redemptive Violence.” Wink describes the Myth of Redemptive Violence as “the story of the victory of order over chaos by means of violence.” Wink observes this myth of redemptive violence enshrines the belief that violence saves, that war brings peace, that might makes right. “This Myth of Redemptive Violence is the real myth of the modern world. It, and not Judaism or Christianity or Islam, is the dominant religion in our society today.”
It is a dark stain upon Christianity that we Christians have too often been advocates of virtuous, or redemptive, violence. Susannah Heschel records the shameful complicity of the German Christian Movement as a nationalist movement in full support of Adolf Hitler and Nazi ideology. Numerous German Protestant theologians during Hitler’s Third Reich redefined Jesus as an Aryan and Christianity as a religion at war with the Jews. In 1939, these world-acclaimed theologians established the Institute for the Study and Eradication of Jewish Influence on German Religious Life. The Institute sponsored propaganda conferences, published books defaming Jews and Judaism, including a dejudaized version of the New Testament and a catechism proclaiming Jesus as the savior of the Aryans. Somehow the light of the world betrayed the humble Jew from Galilee and the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, in favor of a Führer promising to restore the greatness of the Fatherland.
Unfortunately, this is hardly the only time large numbers of Christians have been on the wrong side of the Gospel and humanity. Christians advocating the “manifest destiny” of American greatness justified and advocated for the genocide of the Native American peoples. Religious wars in Europe lasted for generations, slaughtering thousands in the name of the Prince of Peace.
Today, throughout the globe, the rising tide of Nationalism is being joined by hordes of Christians who turn a deaf ear and a blind eye to the destruction of truth, the polarization of society, and the emergence of fascist totalitarianism while hiding behind some claim of upholding biblical values. The descent into sacred violence is always justified with moral arguments. Unfortunately, these moral arguments have been cut off from the Tree of Life and have become little more than a thin veneer covering up a lust for power. We have seen this movie before. Many times. It never ends well.
Take, for example, John Milton Chivington (January 27, 1821 — October 4, 1894). Chivington was an American Methodist minister, Mason, and mass murderer. How is it possible that Methodist minister, Mason, and mass murderer are all used to describe the same man? Being a mass murderer is hardly in line with the tenets of either Methodism or Freemasonry. Yet, John Chivington is responsible for the murder of somewhere between 200–400 Cheyenne, mostly women, and their children.
Consider, as well, how in April of 1994, the government of Rwanda called upon everyone in the Hutu majority to kill the Tutsi minority. Over the next three months, almost 1,000,000 Tutsis were murdered by their neighbors. Who cannot read Philip Gourevitch’s account of the massacre, “We wish to inform you that tomorrow we will be killed with our families” and not wonder what does it mean to be a human being today?
We could go on, recounting and repeating horror stories from the Nazis, the Balkan Wars, the Ottoman’s mass killings of the Armenians, Stalin’s forced starvation of millions of Ukrainians, as well as the nightmares that visited Cambodia, or the tribal wars from every inhabited continent. History is littered with humans seeking the total destruction of other humans.
And we always ask, “How could these people commit such atrocities against other human beings?” The answer is two-fold. First, in the eyes of the aggressors, these were not atrocities, these were acts of virtuous violence. Secondly, the atrocities were not atrocities because the victims were not seen as fully “human.”
In tandem with the descent into sacred violence, the aggressors must engage in a campaign to defame and dehumanize their victims. Rather than being human, these victims are dogs, rats, human filth, enemies of the people, and vermin. Native Americans were not humans created equal by God; they were savages. Africans were not created equal with all other humans and entitled to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. They were three-fifths human whose purpose was to serve their owners. Jews were not humans to the Nazis. They were rats, filth, and lice. The pattern is the same: Defame, Dehumanize, Destroy.
The logic goes like this: We are not destroying humans, we are ridding the earth of savages, sub-human vermin who carry filthy diseases, commit crimes, defile our women, our children, our culture, our race, and our way of life. The only sensible response is to put them down like a rabid dog or put them in their place beneath us as our inferiors.
These acts of violence may be extreme. Most likely, no one reading these words has directly participated in genocidal mass murder. However, what about that more tamed and domesticated breed of the same worldview that differs only by degree but not in kind?
Is there a fundamental difference between hatred that erupts into murder and the hatred that spews out sexist insults, racial slurs, demeaning and dehumanizing comments all intended for the single purpose of destroying something in the other and placing them beneath you? Jesus doesn’t seem to think there was much of a difference (Matthew 5:21–26).
In Moral Man and Immoral Society, Reinhold Niebuhr makes painfully clear how upright citizens with strict personal moral codes will simultaneously comply with and cooperate with oppressive systems and leaders who undermine basic decency and perpetuate real harm and evil, especially toward ethnic minorities, the powerless, and the disenfranchised. Niebuhr explains, “As individuals, men believe that they ought to love and serve each other and establish justice between each other. As racial, economic, and national groups they take for themselves, whatever their power can command” (Reinhold Niebuhr, Major Works on Religion and Politics, p. 156).
The desire to exalt ourselves and our group and the desire to dominate and subjugate “them” infects our political, social, and religious worlds. Sadly, even our own homes are no safeguard against the dehumanizing effects of our broken humanity. As evil as racism is, it is only one of many manifestations of this urge for self-exaltation and the destruction of the other.
In Christ, God overthrew and destroyed the body of Sin (Romans 6:6) and created one new humanity (Ephesians 2:15) called the body of Christ. The Gospel overthrows our clamoring for self-exaltation and the subjugation of the other. To participate in self-exaltation and the subjugation of others is not only inconsistent with the Gospel; it is a denial of the Gospel.