Becoming what we hate

An often used sermon illustration tells a story of famed interviewer Mike Wallace, one of the original correspondents for 60 Minutes.   Wallace was asked to interview Yehiel Dinur, a principal witness at the Nuremberg war crime trials.  Upon entering the courtroom and facing Adolph Eichmann, Dinur began to tremble, wept uncontrollably, and collapsed. When Mike Wallace asked Dinur why he had collapsed, was it reliving the memories, the nightmares, and the grief?   The man answered:  "No I collapsed because I was afraid about myself.  I saw that I am exactly like him, capable of this."

It is said that after pausing for a while Wallace turned to the camera and said, "That poses a question.  Was Eichmann a monster, a mad man, or something even more terrifying?  Was he normal?”

One of the ironies of life is the ability to become the very thing we oppose.   As a society we want to stop murder so we execute murders and become murders ourselves.  I remember a time when I became so frustrated when by boys beat on each other that I hit them and told them to stop.

“The ultimate weakness of violence,” observed Martin Luther King, Jr., “is that it is a descending spiral, begetting the very thing it seeks to destroy.”

Why do we so easily fall into the trap of thinking that the cure for violence is more violence?  In his book Engaging the Powers, Walter Wink states: “We want desperately to believe that our forcible retaliation to evil is like a projectile fired from a gun that will drop evil in its tracks.  In fact, it is more like a ball thrown by a pitcher that will, as likely as not, come back at us, or over the fence.”

As a country we have been engaged in the War on Terror for more than a decade now.  It is difficult to argue that confronting violence with violence has been successful.  I cannot help but wonder what would have happened if instead of declaring a war on terror, we had pursued a path towards reconciliation and understanding of our enemy.  Would it have been easy?  Probably not.  Would it have meant fewer casualties on both sides?  Probably.


In Jesus’ day being labeled a sinner also meant that you were an outcast.  Luke 19 tells the story of Jesus’ encounter with a tax-collector, read sinner, named Zacchaeus.  The “proper” folks were somewhat disturbed that Jesus would choose to associate with someone so evil.  For them Zacchaeus was beyond the reach of God. I find it fascinating how we still use labels as a tool for demonizing those we don’t like.  Labels allow us to put justifiable space between “us” and the “other.”  They still allow us to put the other beyond the reach of God.

In times of war the other becomes the “enemy”- a step below human.   Here in the USA we are getting ready for election season.  Between now and the election, labeling will be elevated to an art form.  Those who don’t agree with a certain political perspective risk being eviscerated by the other side.

In a culture where we have worked so hard to eliminate racial and sexist slurs it seems that we have replaced racism and sexism with new more toxic ways of destroying those we don’t agree with.  It isn’t OK to talk about a leader’s skin color, but it is OK to compare that leader to Hitler – really?  Is this progress?  There have to be better ways to disagree.  When did destroying the opponent become morally right?

There is this biblical vision of the lion and lamb lying down together - enemies becoming friends.  One of the first statements in the Lord’s Prayer is, “your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”  My guess is that all of us have a picture of what heaven is like.  I suspect that each vision is somewhat unique, but I am sure that none of those visions include labeling others.

What does it look like for God’s will to be done on earth as it is in heaven?  Could it include actively finding ways to turn sinners, political opponents, enemies and rivals into friends?  Choosing to live this way will require things like compromise, humility and a willingness to change my opinion.

Imagine a world where labels don’t exist.  Heaven on earth?