I’ve always been fascinated by how we humans behave, both individually and in groups. I just reread a book published twenty years ago entitled Hitler’s Willing Executioners: Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust by Daniel Goldhagen. In his book, Goldhagen documents how many people knowingly participated in the Hitler-directed genocide of the Jewish people. His book sought to counter what had been commonly accepted about the Holocaust: it was perpetrated by the Nazi Party, but “ordinary” citizens played no real part in it. Goldhagen showed how hundreds of thousands of Germans were directly involved in the Holocaust and even more knew of the genocide taking place. To Christianity’s shame, most of the German Church went along with the genocide. Few were willing to risk their lives to resist the Holocaust.
Many reacted negatively to Goldhagen’s claims. They didn’t want to believe that reality about ordinary citizens. That reaction provides an insight into how we humans deal with hard truths about ourselves or the world. We want to think that evil is perpetrated only by bad people and not by good people like us. But I wonder: What were ordinary Germans thinking when they smelled the odor from the crematoria smokestacks? Were they too afraid to act? Did they convince themselves it wasn’t happening? Did they hope someone else would stop it all? Hannah Arendt’s term, “the Banality of Evil,” comes to mind. Everyone was just doing their job, keeping their noses clean, and trying not to reflect too much on what was happening. They, of course, were lying to themselves.
Our inability to see the truth about ourselves and what’s happening around us is due to our fallen, sinful natures. Sin being what sin is, we’d rather not face reality. We prefer the story we tell ourselves. But when we do that, we stay locked in the grip of sin. There’s no Good News in the false stories we tell ourselves, for God isn’t found in them. On the Cross of Jesus, God meets us in the reality of the world and not as we fantasize it to be. And that’s Good News to us who are exhausted with the lies we tell ourselves and the lies others tell us that we simply accept as true. George Orwell contended that when lies are told often and repeatedly, particularly by those in power, then fighting the lie becomes more exhausting than just acquiescing to it. So, we go along with the lie. Orwell also proposed that falsifying reality is a way those in power try to control others. But that attempt is ultimately a dead end. Truth and reality always have a way of asserting themselves, eventually.
And that’s where the Good News of Jesus meets us. Owning up to reality is liberating for us because God is always in the reality, and not in the lie. There’s no “down side” to embracing the truth about ourselves or what’s happening around us. Our faith in Jesus and his Cross tells us that he’s paid the price for our lies and the lies marketed to us as truth. We’re free to be real, to name things as they are and for what they truly are.
So, be bold in naming the reality you see in yourself and the world around you. There’s no need to acquiesce to the lies, the ones inside us or the ones outside us, for God is always mercifully in the reality of the world. We are more free than we realize!