July 20, 2024 A Religious and Political Commentary

Willing Accomplices

“No man can struggle with advantage against the spirit of his age and country, and however powerful a man may be, it is hard for him to make his contemporaries share feelings and ideas which run counter to the general run of their hopes and desires.” ~ Alexis DeToqueville (Democracy in America)

In 1944, the Allies began liberating Nazi Death Camps across Europe and the horrors of the “Final Solution” began to emerge from the fog of whispered rumors. The horrific reality now confronted the world: How was it possible that an entire nation could willingly participate in – or look the other way from – the murder of 6 million Jews?

Holocaust scholars have asked this question for decades and offer several theories. One: External compulsion. Otherwise ordinary Germans had no choice but to follow orders under threat of punishment for disobedience.

Two: Following orders. Whether mesmerized by Hitler’s charisma or a German propensity for obeying authority, the masses’ moral sensibilities were dulled and they obeyed what they were told.

Three: Social pressure. The Germans, as a whole, were under tremendous social, institutional, and economic pressure to conform and go along. Resisting was extremely difficult and costly.

Four: Self-interest. As technocrats and bureaucrats, each perpetrator – from government administrators to train conductors – had careers to make. Disobeying orders would end those careers. Speaking out would mean trouble for shopkeepers and barbers.

Five: Fragmentation. The Nazis created a fragmented system in which one small piece of the machine did not seem-altogether significant in a Holocaust assembly line. Report a person. Check a box. They’re not dropping the Zyklon B pellets themselves. Blame could be shifted.

Each of these conventional explanations has merit and perhaps all played a measured role in the German-on-the-Street’s response to the Final Solution. But Daniel Goldhagen argues that there must be more. The problem, he asserts, is that these answers make assumptions. The theories assume that ordinary Germans disagreed with Nazi, anti-Semitic ideology and therefore went along begrudgingly. In his book “Hitler’s Willing Executioners: Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust,” Goldhagen says this assumption is false. Many factors came into play, but when each perpetrator of violence consulted his own convictions and morality, he ultimately agreed with the Final Solution (if not in methods, then in goal).

It’s a hard read, and a difficult thesis to accept…or want to accept; that a modern nation could get so far off the rails as Nazi Germany. But it forces you to think.

Fast forward to 2019. Much has been said and written recently about the media and their immediate embrace of false claims: False accusations in the Kavanaugh hearings; quick judgments on the Covington Catholic kids; and a rush to accept Jussie Smollet’s sad tale. Before these we saw just how gullible Americans are to Russian click-bait-fake-news posted to social media.

So whether we’re discussing left-leaning media narratives or right-leaning fake news on social media, none of it takes root without an audience that agrees. We’re still (for the time being) capitalists. Things don’t sell without a market. It won’t play in Peoria if the folks in Peoria don’t want it.

We’re left with this sad reality: Ultimately the problem’s neither the media nor the Russians, it’s us – the American willing accomplices. What is it that makes us enthusiastic consumers of falsehood?

The headwaters of sin is described by James in the New Testament: “…but each one is tempted when, by his own evil desire, he is dragged away and enticed. Then, after desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and sin, when it is full-grown, gives birth to death (James 1:14-15).”

In our sin, there are always extenuating circumstances: external pressure, orders from superiors, social pressure, self-interest, or the idea that our particular sin isn’t a big deal (note the list above).

Nevertheless, James says our own sin is our own responsibility. Thought leads to action which leads to consequence. But before the action and consequence, we have a choice.

We can choose to fulfill our selfish desires or choose to pursue God’s righteousness. God always gives us a choice or it wouldn’t be called temptation. It’s like the email link the Nigerian Prince sent you…you don’t have to click on it.

James uses two word pictures to describe what happens when we give in to temptation. We’re dragged away, literally “lured” (and every lure has a barbed hook!). We’re enticed – in the Greek, “baited” (like a trapper and his snare).

Not a pretty picture, is it? If we follow through with temptation, we’re like a fish going after that shiny spinner bait or a rabbit caught in a snare. But whether a fish or a rabbit, the result’s the same – you wind up skinned in a stew! If you sniff around temptation and get too close to sin – it’ll get you.

Twentieth Century Germany learned the hard way that “after desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and sin, when it is full-grown, gives birth to death (James 1:15).”

Maybe Goldhagen is right and the reason average Germans didn’t fight the Final Solution is because they supported it. That scares me. Because if that’s true, then maybe the reason Americans have aborted 50 million children is because we agree that not all life has value.

Is James right? Is it our “own evil desire” that leads us to accept propaganda from the left or the right? What is in our hearts?

Happily, German history is replete with stories of brave men and women who did not subscribe to anti-Semitism and refused to give in to external/social pressure. Many paid a high price.

But a higher spiritual price was paid by those who followed the Nazi pogrom. This is the nature of temptation: It promises something it never intends to deliver! The selfish ends do not justify the means. Temptation reels us in and snaps tight on us. If we choose our way over God’s way, if our desires are left unchecked, the consequences that come with our sin can be deadly.

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