Are You A “Good Person?” and the Question of Moral Depravity

Are You A “Good Person?” and the Question of Moral Depravity

Auschwitz, holocaust, atrocities, injustice, the good news

I am chilled by the above picture recently shared by the Canadian Museum for Human rights. It is a great candid shot of a bunch of normal “twenty-sum-things” enjoying some time off.

Look at their faces! They are smiling, having a grand time. You can see the three young men eating up the attention of this cadre of attractive young women. It is a regular summer day and these young folks seem to be doing what any their age would be doing, having a bunch of innocent flirtatious fun.

The only caveat to this group is that if you look close, you will see the insignia of both the Third Reich and the Nazi SS emblazoned on the men’s collars and their shoulders. This cadre of young people are actually officers and support staff of the infamous Auschwitz death camp where hundreds of thousands of people lost their lives to the Nazi Regime.

Conservatively Jean-Claude Pressac estimated between 631,000 and 711,000 died at Auschwitz, of whom 470,000 to 550,000 were gassed. Gerald Reitlinger‘s The Final Solution (1953) estimated the death toll between 800,000 and 900,000. And  The Destruction of the European Jews by Raul Hilberg estimated as much as 1,000,000 Jewish victims. Any way you cut it, we are talking about staggering loss of human life.

We look at this picture and wonder how such evil could lurk behind such doe-like eyes and charming smiles? When we come to grips with it, we cannot help but ask ourselves how could those people be so sick?

Hungarian Jews of the Holocaust arriving at Auschwitz May/June 1944
Hungarian Jews arriving at Auschwitz II Poland My or June 1944; one can see what seems to be smoke of the crematoriums in the background.

A More Important Question

While the question “how could those people be so sick?” is certainly just, there is a more poignant question that must be asked. That question is this? Are these people unique? They look like normal fun-loving young adults. How could they be so bad? How could they participate in such atrocities? If we placed a picture of any fun-loving young adults in their place, are they radically different? What is it that caused these common, every-day German young people to participate in such evil?

I want to suggest three reasons for their participation. These are: (1) the challenge of their life circumstances; (2) the lack of a strong principled guide for moral conduct, and above all (3) their “fallen” human nature. I want to make one major point and one application. The big point is this: All of our moral decisions are the product of these three things—our circumstances, our moral code or lack thereof, and our human nature as “fallen” and sinful creatures.

1. The Challenge of Life Circumstances

Our life circumstances will always challenge us; that is where our moral fabric is tested. How we make decisions is not so simple. It is dominated by our human need for acceptance, sustenance, reward, and punishment. Each of the young people in this picture were not simple automatons floating in the universe. They were part of a system of relationships that was being propelled by a very powerful narrative. That narrative was a better Germany, one that saw many social and ethnic groups as standing in the way.

Inseparable from this narrative were their social relationships. Serving “the Fatherland” was not just a civic duty, but a duty toward neighbor and family back home. The pressure to not “let them down” must have been overpowering. To this we can also add military punishment, loss of income, and public shame to go against the system. Theologians like Karl Barth and Dietrich Bonhoeffer suffered such public shame, and Bonhoeffer was executed via hanging with a piano string.

We cannot underestimate the social pressure upon us in such circumstances. If we do not have a deeply ingrained standard of ethics in place, by and large, most of us might have done the same.

Holocaust, Auschwitz, Gas Chambers,
This picture just wrecks me. It has caused me to break into tears multiple times in the process of writing this post. Here a Hungarian Jewish mother and her little ones are marched to the gas chambers at Auschwitz

2. The Lack of a Well-defined Moral Code of Conduct

A strong moral code of conduct to reference is absolutely necessary when we are faced with major moral challenges. The problem is having one that is strong enough to challenge overpowering social narratives like Hitler’s Agenda.

The US liberated Hitler’s prisoners in the 40’s and was shuttering under the civil rights movement less than 20 years later

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We think we are nothing like them. Lets not kid ourselves. There is nothing morally less evolved about the German people than any other group. The US liberated Hitler’s prisoners in the 40’s and was shuttering under the civil rights movement less than 20 years later as if we had never seen what happened in Germany.

We cannot under-estimate “the power of the pack” to pull our morality and social mores in conformity with a coercive but perverse agenda. We need a clear moral code to help us smash through false narratives.

Also we need to also understand that often a people’s own suffering provides a common but powerful justification for wrong actions. Hitler played heavily on the economic suffering of Germany after WWI in his political vision. Once a people-group are devalued or demonized, it is easy to justify any “punishment” the human heart can conceive.

Christianity as a faith has always put God’s commandments to love neighbor as self at the forefront. Unfortunately that has not always been consistently applied. Those commandments like that found in the Ten Commandments and the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5–7) played a big role and changing Rome from a brutally unjust culture to significant moral changes in the centuries that followed. When moral standards of Jesus are set aside, even the Church becomes easy prey to be co-opted by atheist regimes like the Third Reich and Stalin’s Russia.


Auschwitz-Birkenau, Holocaust survivors, liberation,
Children saved by the Red Army’s liberation of Auschwitz January 1945

3. Our “Fallen” Human Nature

There are many tough theological questions that arise in the face of such horrors. “where was God?” “Does he care?” “Is he powerful enough to stop such things?” “Is he not good enough to stop such things?” All these questions are legitimate and welcome. I do believe that the Bible does have some answers, but nothing we can cover here now.

But here is one thing I would like to leave with you: If there is one thing that grounds the claims of Christianity and the Bible in reality it is human depravity. The Bible defines man as both a sinner and an eminently valuable being who was made for communion with God. Yet in sinning we fell from grace and became morally corrupt, or what some have called “morally depraved.”

What is depravity? Well it does not mean that all people sink as low as they can go all the time; it does mean all of us are capable of sinking low as the young people in the picture above. There are lots of stop gaps that prevent us. There are things like family, government, courts, consequences, shame, and acceptance that all play positive roles in limiting human misbehavior. We can look at many of our social moorings as fences that morally corral us. They limit us from doing many things we otherwise might be subtly tempted to do but the consequences prevent us. Of course when society at large accepts a narrative like the Nazi agenda, then the fences give way.

The Mind

Perhaps most important is the role the mind has in this. Our decisions are made by the will. And as said above, narratives leverage over how we make decisions. This means we can easily be overpowered. And that is especially the case with how the Apostle Paul says that “although they [humans] knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened. Claiming to be wise, they became fools, and exchanged the glory of the immortal  God for images  resembling mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things.” (Romans 1:21–23)

Paul’s point is not than man’s intellect suffered, but rather that his moral compass went askew. The Third Reich is perhaps a model example! Anyone who was involved in the European theater will tell you they were the most technologically advanced force on the field. Yet the moral lows to which they sunk were record-breaking.

The Good News Narrative

The difference is the narrative or “world-view” through which someone lives their life. Admittedly, Christianity in the last few centuries has gotten a bit lost. It has lost its way because it lost a Gospel world view. What is that?

The Gospel is the good news of God’s cosmic remedy for all the injustices in the world. It is the narrative of hope and salvation for fallen mankind. In the Gospel, God sent his Son to address the greatest injustices that mankind could perpetrate, like that of the Nazi’s, segregation, racism, the atrocities of communism, genocide, and so on. The Gospel says God will leave not evil unpunished, no wrong un-righted.

But the Gospel does not just deal with the macro injustices of the world. It also deals with the micro injustices we commit against each other every day. God sees through the cute glib smiles of youthful beauty to see the darkness within. But he has provided mercy too, for the worst of us.

It is then wise for us to ponder that there was nothing unique about these young people. They were probably no different from any young person the same age today, or really any person in general. And that should not be construed in any way minimizing what they did. All that’s necessary for injustice to prosper is indifference to other people’s sufferings while swimming among one’s own creature comforts. It is then sobering to honestly ask ourselves if most of us would have done differently in the same circumstances?

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