According to the latest FBI report on hate crimes, such crimes have reached the highest level since the government began tracking them in the early 1990s.
This is the insidious effect of dehumanization. It propagates the notion that certain groups are dangerous, justifying harassment, oppression, and violence against them.
Although most people exposed to dehumanizing narratives about a particular group do not directly participate in violence, they often remain passive and turn a blind eye to the atrocities unfolding. When the oppressed group needs support and advocacy, these passive bystanders conveniently find excuses to evade their responsibility.
Martin Niemöller, a German Lutheran Pastor, initially supported Hitler but later opposed him. He came to realize that the Nazi party gained power by dehumanizing people. Reflecting on his moral failure to resist Nazism, he penned this powerful poem:
First, they came for the Communists And I did not speak out Because I was not a Communist
Then they came for the Socialists And I did not speak out Because I was not a Socialist
Then they came for the trade unionists And I did not speak out Because I was not a trade unionist
Then they came for the Jews And I did not speak out Because I was not a Jew
Then they came for me And there was no one left To speak out for meMartin Niemöller
The impact of dehumanization affects everyone in the end, eroding human community and breaking the bond of “We the people.”
The list of dehumanized groups today is unfortunately long, but the consequences remain the same. Various communities are labeled as threats, devalued, and considered justifiable targets for violence. Among these groups are Muslims, Jews, Asian Americans, and especially those within the LGBTQ community, particularly transgender individuals.
This year alone, fourteen transgender people have lost their lives to violence.
On Saturday, July 22, I attended the PRIDE event in Arlington WA. This gathering faced threats from White Nationalist groups, and the City Council initially hesitated to provide the necessary protections. However, they were eventually convinced of their responsibility to safeguard the rights of every group, even those they might not fully comprehend or agree with. I want to acknowledge and appreciate Rabbi Rachel Kort of Temple Beth Om in Everett for her leadership during this time.
During the event, I had vigorous conversation with several individuals who attempted to bully and harass others in the name of Jesus. Engaging with them was distressing, but what was even more disheartening was the absence of many clergy members.
While it’s true that none of us can be present everywhere, I believe that if each of us committed to attending one event every quarter, we could have had thirty clergy members at each gathering, voicing our collective support.
Personally, I had to undertake emotional and spiritual preparation before attending. I heard about the hate groups threatening the event and saw flyers being circulated around Arlington. Additionally, I came across some alarming “we have to stop this once and for all” posts on Facebook. However, love casts out fear.
The alternative to showing up and speaking out is a society fractured by dehumanization, partly because those who are called to mend the tears choose to remain inactive. We do not need to agree with or fully understand a dehumanized group to stand with them.
We don’t have to believe the same things to believe we are all human.
Niemöller’s poem and the introspection it brought about are deeply appreciated. However, we must not forget that he learned these lessons too late to save six million Jews, thousands of Roma, LGBTQ individuals, and those with disabilities.
But it’s not too late for us here and now.
The question that confronts us, especially clergy and other leaders, is this: Will we rise to the occasion, show up, and speak out to reverse the tide of dehumanization?
Will we mend the tears, or write sad poems after the fact?